'I screwed up,' Obama admits

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON - In only his second week in office, Barack Obama is punching the restart button on his presidency.

Yesterday, Day 14 of a tenure that began with high hopes and soaring promises of bringing a new competence to Washington, Obama essentially admitted that he had lost ground in confronting his biggest challenge, fixing the country's crippled economy, due to the "self-inflicted injury" of selecting appointees who had failed to pay their taxes.

He shed two of those appointees and then took to the airwaves - conducting not one but five Oval Office network television interviews in which he sought to seize control over an economic stimulus debate in which Republicans have found traction by painting themselves as defenders of taxpayers and homeowners, while portraying Democrats as frivolous big spenders.

"I'm frustrated with myself, with our team," Obama told NBC's Brian Williams in a comment that was typical for his afternoon of televised mea culpas, "but ultimately my job is to get this thing back on track, because what we need to focus on is a deteriorating economy and getting people back to work."

He told ABC's Charles Gibson that he "can't afford glitches because, right now, what I should be spending time talking to you about is how we're going to put 3 [million] to 4 million people back to work."

"This is a self-induced injury that I'm angry about," he said, "and we're going to make sure we get it fixed."

To the network anchors he repeated: "I screwed up."

Obama's language was striking in part because the man he replaced in the White House, George W. Bush, so famously refused to admit error, at least until his final days in office.

For the new president, winning passage of stimulus legislation has become only more difficult in recent weeks.

A surprisingly unified Republican Party has taken control of the debate - and embarassed Democrats - by highlighting controversial expenditures in the $819 billion bill passed last week by the Democratic-led House, such as funding for contraceptives and for new sod for the National Mall.

Those items were stripped from the bill, but their presence in the debate put the White House on the defensive in pushing legislation that, not long ago, many Democrats had thought could be delivered, sealed and signed by the new president within days, if not hours, of his taking office Jan. 20.

At the same time, the condition of U.S. banks has deteriorated further, raising the prospect that Obama will have to press not only for the stimulus but also for a second, unpopular bank bailout.

Amid it all came the disclosures that three of Obama's highest-profile appointees had failed to pay taxes and that at least two senior officials were being granted exemptions from the administration's new, strict ethics policy that bans lobbyists from getting jobs.

Two of the tax-troubled appointees, including would-be Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle, a key Obama adviser, withdrew their names from contention yesterday, hoping to end what the president called a "distraction."

The third, Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner, remains in office. Whether Geithner's problems will fade over time or remain a focus of public attention is not clear.

The tax problems were proving damaging to Obama's arguments in the stimulus debate - and were potentially damaging to his ability later to push for other politically difficult legislation, including the health care reforms that Daschle was to shepherd through Congress.

The White House was left open to attacks such as the one from a top GOP leader, Rep. Eric Cantor of Virginia, who said over the weekend that it was no wonder Democrats push for higher taxes "because, you know what - they don't pay them."

The events are not a defeat for Obama and his legislative priorities, but they do mark a significant reversal of fortune. Obama started building support for the stimulus weeks before he took office, and he came to the White House with a claim that he deserved wide lattitude to turn the page in how politics is conducted - a claim that he may no longer clearly hold.

Even White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, in an offhand remark during his regular briefing yesterday, conceded that "people have lost sight of what the legislation does."

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