Obama is put on the defensive after Daschle withdraws.

Obama is put on the defensive after Daschle withdraws.

Obama is put on the defensive after Daschle withdraws.

A summary of what's in the major U.S. newspapers.
Feb. 4 2009 6:31 AM

Obama: "I Screwed Up"

The New York Timesleads with, the Wall Street Journalbanners, and everyone fronts, Tom Daschle withdrawing his nomination as secretary of health and human services after days of mounting controversy regarding his failure to pay more than $140,000 in taxes on time and his lucrative work in the private sector after he lost his Senate seat in 2004. Daschle's withdrawal came hours after President Obama's nominee to become the government's first chief performance officer, Nancy Killefer, also stepped aside because of a tax problem. The Los Angeles Timesleads with an analysis that says "Obama is punching the restart button on his presidency." After two weeks in office, Obama pretty much admitted that the tax controversies surrounding three of his nominees had taken attention away from his efforts to boost the ailing economy. "I screwed up," Obama said.

The Washington Postleads with Senate Democratic leaders admitting that they don't have enough votes to pass the massive stimulus package and will have to cut some of its provisions in order to gain more support. Moderate Republicans want to cut as much as $200 billion from a bill that has already passed the $900 billion mark. USA Todayleads with an inspector general's report that reveals military officials were well aware that the Humvee vehicle was a "deathtrap" almost 10 years before the Iraq invasion. Reports that were distributed throughout the Army and Marine Corps in the 1990s urged the military to develop new armored vehicles that would be able to better withstand roadside bombs and land mines. But the Pentagon waited until 2007 to significantly boost production of Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles. Even though the reports made it clear that Humvees fitted with extra armor were still inefficient, that is exactly the road that the Pentagon followed when the threat from roadside bombs escalated in Iraq.

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The NYT says Tuesday was "the rockiest day yet for the new White House," while USAT calls it "the biggest crisis of [Obama's] young presidency." The news of Daschle's withdrawal came as a shock to many key lawmakers because on Monday night the former Senate majority leader seemed to be on track to win confirmation. But by yesterday morning, "that estimate had changed," notes the LAT. While no one says Obama pushed Daschle to withdraw, it doesn't look like the White House tried to convince him to keep on fighting.

The two withdrawals were particularly ill-timed because Obama had already scheduled five Oval Office network-television interviews in which he planned to tout the economic stimulus package, "a decision that magnified the troubles at the White House by giving them increased prominence on the evening news," notes the NYT. Obama was quick to take responsibility for the controversy that suddenly engulfed the White House. "I've got to own up to my mistake, which is that ultimately it's important for this administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules," Obama said. "You know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks who have to pay their taxes."

Considering that the withdrawal came a day after the president said he "absolutely" stood by Daschle, it has the potential to "dent the reputation for steadiness and managerial prowess that the 47-year-old president had cultivated," says the WSJ. The WP highlights that the White House had sought to get the new Cabinet in place at a record pace, but now there are suggestions "that speed may have come at a cost."

Most of the papers focus their stories on Daschle's tax problems and give only a passing mention to his lucrative work with a lobbying firm. The WSJ gives the most prominence to the issue in its main Daschle story and points out that he was "increasingly being portrayed as a Washington insider who made a fortune by trading on his Beltway connections." In a separate front-page piece, the WP says that "some observing the debacle wondered if the capital's ways were changing." It's common for Washington insiders to parlay their government experience into lucrative work in the private sector, and the fact that it led to the undoing of a nominee who was regarded as a shoo-in for confirmation left many in shock. "It indicates that there are new lines," the president of advocacy group Democracy 21 said. "In some ways, this is a warning signal to the city that the rules are changing."

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Everybody wonders how much Daschle's withdrawal will affect Obama's efforts to revamp the U.S. health system. Obama had entrusted Daschle with that massive task and even created a new White House health czar position for him in order to emphasize its importance. Everyone was so sure he'd be confirmed that Daschle had already  started unofficially working, and yesterday the White House was left scrambling trying to figure out who can take his place. While the LAT says that the withdrawal "is unlikely to derail" the efforts to reform health care, the process "likely will be harder without Daschle," who was seen as uniquely qualified to bring together lawmakers from both sides of the aisle. The NYT says that Obama's health care initiatives could be slowed down, and Congress could "step into the vacuum during that delay."

The LAT points out that Obama's acknowledgment that he had made a mistake was surprising partly because his predecessor "famously refused to admit error, at least until his final days in the White House." But it is seen as a sign that Obama recognizes that getting the stimulus bill through Congress has proved harder than many expected. Republicans have been surprisingly unified and have forced Democrats to assume a defensive posture. And the controversy over the tax troubles of three of Obama's nominees didn't help things, since it allowed Republicans to open up a new argument against Democrats by saying that they "are cavalier about taxing other people because they do not abide by the tax laws themselves," as the NYT puts it.

While Republicans continue to criticize what they say is unnecessary and wasteful spending in the stimulus package, the WP points out that "unease also is stirring among moderate Democrats." The LAT cites a new poll that suggests Republican criticism of the measure has had an effect on the public. Even though most Americans continue to support a stimulus plan, only 38 percent said Congress should pass the plan "basically as Barack Obama has proposed it." Senate Democratic leaders emphasized they're willing to make some cuts to things that may not provide a quick boost to the economy, although it's unclear whether they'd be willing to sacrifice some of Obama's priorities. While senators voted down several amendments that would have increased the total cost of the package, they did approve others that pushed the cost of the legislation to more than $900 billion.

The NYT fronts a separate story on, and the rest of the papers mention, word that the White House will announce a $500,000 cap on salaries of top executives at companies that receive a significant amount of money from Uncle Sam. Executives would not be allowed to receive bonuses, except for normal stock dividends. According to the LAT, any additional income would have to come from restricted stocks that would only be paid out once taxpayers have been repaid. Most of the papers say it's still unclear whether the limits would apply to all companies that receive taxpayer money, but the WP states that "most firms that get federal aid would not face severe pay conditions."

The NYT fronts news that federal immigration officials have been rounding up more illegal immigrants without criminal records. Even though Congress was repeatedly assured that the focus would be on arresting criminals and terrorism suspects, an internal directive in 2006 raised arrest quotas and removed a requirement that 75 percent of those arrested had to be criminals. This led to a surge in arrests of illegal immigrants who were discovered by chance and didn't have a deportation order. Although the trend appears to be reversing a bit, the impact of the internal directives "shows the power of administrative memos to significantly alter immigration enforcement policy without any legislative change," notes the NYT.

The LAT and NYT front Iran's first successful satellite launch, which raised concerns in the United States about what this means for Iran's ability to fire long-range missiles. While experts were quick to point out that the act was mainly symbolic because the satellite was very small, it still placed Iran "among elite company," as the LAT puts it, since only nine other countries have launched satellites into orbit.

It looks like those hoping to get their hands on a Sweet Sasha or a Marvelous Malia doll will have to head to eBay. Although Ty Inc. had insisted that the dolls were not meant to depict Obama's daughters, they were "retired" soon after Michelle Obama complained about them.

Daniel Politi has been contributing to Slate since 2004 and wrote the Today’s Papers column from 2006 to 2009. Follow him on Twitter.