President Barack Obama lost the services of a good friend, trusted adviser and prospective health care reform leader yesterday when Tom Daschle wisely withdrew his nomination as secretary of health and human services. But the former senator's failure to pay back taxes when due - and the Obama administration's less than thorough vetting of him - had tarnished the new president's image and message of reform.
Much of the public's excitement about Mr. Obama's presidency has come from his repeated pledge to make "a clean break from business as usual." But there has been growing public concern about the president's willingness to make exceptions from his tough new ethical rules for appointees he considered really important.
There was Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, who was confirmed last week despite his failure to pay $34,000 in self-employment taxes. Yesterday morning, Nancy Killefer, a management consultant and former Treasury official, withdrew her nomination to serve in the White House as the country's chief performance officer because of her problems with taxes. By midday, Mr. Daschle was out too, a victim as much of his Washington consulting work that looked too much like lobbying as his tax lapses.
To maintain his credibility and accomplish what he wants to do in Washington and on Wall Street, Mr. Obama will need all the moral authority he can muster. Had he allowed another tax scofflaw, even a remorseful one, into his Cabinet, it would have invited rightful criticism of maintaining a double standard.
In an interview last night with CNN, Mr. Obama admitted that he had been wrong in allowing Mr. Daschle's nomination to go forward after his tax troubles became known. "I made a mistake," he said candidly.
And Mr. Daschle, a political mentor to Mr. Obama, recognized that he had become a distraction and would not be able to lead a reform of the nation's health care system "with the full faith of Congress and the American people."
With Mr. Daschle gone, the president has weathered one challenge but faces another - finding a leader with the deep health care knowledge, Washington experience and Capitol Hill relationships to take on the daunting task of achieving significant health reform.
Mr. Daschle had already put together a team at the Department of Health and Human Services with the goal of hitting the ground fast on health care reform. What's imperative now is for Mr. Obama to choose the right person to lead the way.