WASHINGTON — These first days aren't going the way that President Barack Obama hoped when he promised to change the way Washington operates.
He remains popular, with broad support from the American people, but the taint of politics as usual is challenging the aura of something new.
Three of his top nominees have been caught with tax problems, two them departing abruptly Tuesday. Two more were former lobbyists named to high positions despite Obama's ban on lobbyists in his administration. Yet another, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, had to withdraw weeks earlier because of an investigation into alleged "pay-to-play" politics at home.
"This tax issue was starting to reach critical mass," pollster John Zogby said. "One is a mistake. Two is a problem. When you start getting a third, it possibly becomes a question of judgment. How do you ask Americans to sacrifice while Cabinet members don't sacrifice until they get caught?"
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First came reports that Timothy Geithner, a former official of the Federal Reserve, belatedly paid $34,000 in back income taxes, and $8,000 in interest. He was eventually confirmed as treasury secretary.
Then came Tuesday morning's departure of Nancy Killefer, who'd been nominated to a top budget post and who'd failed to pay unemployment compensation taxes for domestic help and had a lien placed on her Washington home as a result. She asked Obama to withdraw her nomination.
Finally on Tuesday, Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination to be secretary of health and human services. Daschle, a former member of the tax-writing Senate Finance Committee, last month paid more than $140,000 in back taxes and interest, most of it owed for his chauffeured luxury car, which he enjoyed as a loan from a private-equity firm he advised. He also reported that he'd earned $5 million in two years, largely from industry groups.
Suddenly, too many of Obama's picks struck many people as business as usual rather than "change you can believe in."
When it was reported that Daschle had worked for a lobbying firm, for example, the Obama White House said that Daschle himself wasn't a registered lobbyist and thus was exempt from Obama's much-ballyhooed ban on lobbyists.
"I don't know how you get paid $2 million by a lobbying firm and not call yourself a lobbyist," Sen. John Ensign, R-Nev., said Tuesday. "That just seems disingenuous to me and I don't think passes the smell test."
Obama exempted another high-profile pick from the lobbyist ban, naming William Lynn as the number two man at the Pentagon. Lynn was a lobbyist for defense contractor Raytheon.
The president also named William Corr, a former anti-tobacco lobbyist, as the deputy secretary of health and human services. Corr said he wouldn't deal with tobacco issues.
"Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions," White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said recently at the White House.
When the reports of high-level appointees not paying their taxes piled up, Obama and his party invited ridicule as out-of-touch elitists at a time when Americans are suffering.
"Only the little people pay taxes," said a Rex Babin cartoon, showing Daschle and Geithner climbing into a limousine, in The Sacramento Bee, a McClatchy newspaper.
"There's a huge scientific breakthrough today. Researchers say they're very close to finding someone from Obama's Cabinet who's actually paid their taxes," Jay Leno said on NBC's "Tonight Show."
Obama conceded in a series of television interviews Tuesday that his appointments suggested a double standard in which the rich and powerful get away with not paying taxes.
"I campaigned on changing Washington and bottom-up politics. And I don't want to send a message to the American people that there are two sets of standards," Obama said on CNN, one of five networks to whom he gave interviews Tuesday.
"This was a mistake. I screwed up."
At the same time, the man who wanted to lead the way to a new, less partisan politics finds himself caught in a partisan donnybrook between congressional Democrats and Republicans over a landmark proposal to stimulate the economy. The partisan fight is feeding dissent over the proposal and eroding public support.
Obama got the proposal through the House of Representatives without a single Republican vote. A new Gallup Poll on Tuesday found that just 38 percent of those polled want the proposal passed as written, while 37 percent want "major changes" and another 17 percent want it defeated.
Some of the opposition in Congress is ideological; conservatives oppose added federal spending. Some is economic; many economists think it won't work. Some is political, fed by criticisms of proposals to add pet projects to the bill such as $50 million for the National Endowment for the Arts.
"They are, in some ways, political cheap shots," said Bruce Buchanan, a scholar of the presidency at the University of Texas.
However, Obama left the door open for opponents to define the proposal, Buchanan said, by not making his own detailed plan and then following it up with a strong pitch. Instead the president backed a plan drafted largely by Democrats in Congress. In doing that, Obama surrendered some of his ability to "deflect" stories about the small controversial parts of the bill that dominate talk shows and Web sites, Buchanan said.
"Obama made the decision not to put his own detailed plan on the table. He decided to let the Democrats in Congress do it, then signaled his willingness to deal. His own story peg would have deflected some of the things they think are nitpicking. They have a bit of a communication problem there."
White House spokesman Gibbs said Tuesday that Obama remained confident that he'd set a high standard for his young administration — and that it was being met.
"We've put (in) a standard of ethics and accountability that's unseen and unmatched by any previous administration in our country's history," Gibbs said.
He added, however, that Obama never thought he could change the culture of Washington — ethically or politically — in his first weeks.
"The president understands that changing the way Washington works is not a one-, a two- or even a 15-day project," Gibbs said, "that it's something that encompasses work that he does and has to do each and every day."
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