POLITICS

Obama, Somber And Serious, Goes On Media Blitz

Serious and occasionally somber, Barack Obama launched a massive media blitz Tuesday evening to address a variety of topics that have consumed his administration just two weeks into office.

The president sat down with anchors from all five news networks in what was designed to be a direct appeal for his stimulus package. But owing to unfortunate circumstances, he was briefly overwhelmed by the day's other political dramatics.

The withdrawal of Tom Daschle's nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services was the first topic discussed by anchors on ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN and FOX News, setting a somewhat disheartening tone as Obama apologized for this specific failure.

"Did I screw up in this situation?" he said to NBC's Brian Williams. "Absolutely and I'm willing to take my lumps, you know that's part of the job here."

The message was one of modesty and perspective. The president understood that Daschle's miscues were not to be swept under the rug. But the implications of the withdrawn nomination, he argued, were greater than the nominee himself.

"This is the problem when you make these self inflicted wounds, you end up being distracted really from the people's business," he told CBS News' Katie Couric.

"We can't send a message to the American people that we have two sets of rules- one for prominent people and one for ordinary people," he told Fox News' Chris Wallace. "Ultimately I have to take responsibility for a process that resulted in us not having an HHS Secretary at a time when people need relief on their healthcare costs."

Certainly, the Daschle drama had taken the White House by a surprise. Democrats on the Hill were convinced that revelations of failed tax payments would not be enough to derail the nomination. A source with direct knowledge of Monday night's Finance Committee meeting said that both Republicans and Democrats seemed willing to give Daschle a pass -- albeit with minor slaps on the wrist. But the storm didn't clear. And on Tuesday morning the former Senate Majority Leader informed the president of his intention to withdraw. It was Daschle's decision alone, Obama said.

The cumulative impact of the news was difficult enough. That it distracted the White House from selling the stimulus package -- an objective that officials inside and out of the administration believe is becoming more of an imperative -- was all the more damaging. And yet, after the first round of questions, the president was granted time during his sit downs to make the case.

Obama defended the proposal as both stimulative and forward-thinking. He told CNN that there were certain components that were non-negotiable, including money for unemployment insurance and health care, infrastructure investments, and to a lesser extent it seemed, provisions to weatherized homes. But he also acknowledged that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell was "right" to insist that "we should have some tax cuts in this package." There are, he added, "already $300 billion worth of tax cuts," in the bill.

That Obama felt compelled to launch a major media push for the package seemed newsworthy in and of itself. Did he sense that Democrats were being outflanked on the stimulus?

"No, no," he told CNN. "I don't think we've lost the message. That's why I'm here with you. Everybody is going to be watching me talk to you today."

Maybe so. But the message has, it seems, been overtaken by political flare-ups beyond just Daschle. Over the past week, the Obama White House has received a barrage of criticism from good government groups and Republican critics over the waiver provision to its ethics policy. "It's 3 out of hundreds of appointments we have made," the president told Chris Wallace, underscoring just how far he has pushed the standards he sets for himself and his staff.

The administration also has watched the GOP raise hay out of controversial spending provisions in the stimulus that - in the grand scheme of things - are relatively minor. "If you tally up all of the programs that have been criticized on AC 360 or anywhere else, that amounts to less than 1 percent of the total package," Obama told CNN.

On the foreign policy front, meanwhile, questions have bubbled over what the White House's official policy will be towards Afghanistan. The issue crested into mainstream concern when Newsweek ran a cover picture of the country with the title: "Obama's Vietnam." I saw the cover, Obama told NBC. "And it's something we're very mindful of. It's not something we need a warning about. Afghanistan is a hard situation."

Taken together it would seem that the weight of the presidency had firmly sunk in just two weeks into office. It had, Obama admitted. But that was not a surprise nor was it disheartening. It was, he concluded, something he had anticipated and welcomed.

"Well, first of all, I never thought it was easy," he told CBS. "You know, if you recall-- my campaign for president, we had a lot of fits and starts. I wasn't the best candidate. And you know, we made a lot of mistakes in the beginning. And over time, we stayed focused on being true to our central message, which was that the American people deserve a better government. That passion has not changed. And I'm confident that if we just stay on the course, if we stay focused on what's good for the American people that ultimately, we're gonna be able to deliver. And as long as we're doing that, I think we'll have a good outcome."