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{NEWS ANALYSIS} {Obama moves to regain ground after {lsquo}self-induced injury' }

In five TV interviews, the new president admits errors and aims to take back control of the debate on an economic stimulus plan.

February 04, 2009|Peter Wallsten

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

On Tuesday, 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 naming 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 the economic stimulus debate. Republicans have found traction on the issue 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."

"Right now what I should be spending time talking to you about is how we're going to put 3 to 4 million people back to work," he said.

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

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

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

For the new president, winning passage of a stimulus plan has become only more difficult in recent weeks. A surprisingly unified GOP has taken control of the debate -- and embarrassed 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 to the new president within days, if not hours, of his taking office Jan. 20.

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

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

Two of the tax-plagued appointees, including would-be Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Daschle, a key Obama advisor, withdrew their names Tuesday, 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 yet clear.

The tax problems were damaging Obama's arguments in the stimulus debate -- and were potentially damaging to his ability to push for other difficult legislation, including the healthcare 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 latitude to change how politics are conducted -- a claim that he may no longer clearly hold.

White House spokesman Robert Gibbs conceded during his regular briefing Tuesday that "people have lost sight of what the legislation does."

A Gallup survey released Tuesday showed the challenge facing Obama, and suggested that GOP attacks have had an effect. Whereas three-quarters of Americans surveyed said they supported passage of some version of the Obama-backed stimulus plan, only 38% said they thought Congress should pass it "basically as Barack Obama has proposed it." About the same share, 37%, said it should be passed but only with "major changes."

The same poll showed that Obama continued to enjoy approval ratings in the high 60s, and Tuesday's events showed that he did not intend to squander that political capital.

It was evident Tuesday that the White House had concluded it was time to regain the upper hand. The stimulus debate was beginning in the Senate, where Democrats will need support from at least a few Republicans to avoid a filibuster.

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