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With Daschle's withdrawal, can Obama repair image as ‘change’ agent?

The nominee for secretary of Health and Human Services bowed out Tuesday over tax missteps, as did another Obama pick.

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“We are saddened,” says Joel Miller, a senior vice president of the National Coalition on Health Care, a Washington-based advocacy organization. “Daschle was a real advocate for urgent action on healthcare reform and understood that things could get incredibly worse if we don’t take action this year to address the uninsured problem and rising healthcare costs.”

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Mr. Miller and other advocates had hoped that Daschle could continue as head of the White House Office for Health Reform. During his press conference, Gibbs said Daschle had withdrawn from that appointment as well. But Daschle’s decision will not “slow down” the White House’s effort to reform the healthcare system, Gibbs insisted.

“The job of ensuring healthcare reform will outlast any person nominated for the secretary of HHS and likely anybody that serves in this administration,” says Gibbs. “There are many people in this administration that are working on this issue right now. We are looking for a new nominee…. The work toward a solution to make healthcare more affordable won’t stop or pause while we look for that nominee.”

But Daschle’s decision will at least cause a “bump in the road,” says Robert Blendon, director of the Harvard Program on Public Opinion and Health and Social Policy in Cambridge, Mass. However, he adds, it may help Obama with his larger agenda in the long run.

“The controversy had reached a level where it would have made it more difficult for Senator Daschle to really play the critical point person both of them had hoped he could,” says Dr. Blendon. “In an economic downturn where people are threatened about losing their jobs and homes,… there’s a real sensitivity to wanting people in public life who don’t in any way have advantages that we wouldn’t have.”

The challenge for Obama now is to move quickly to appoint a new secretary of Health and Human Services who has “the unquestioned commitment to healthcare reform that he does,” says Ron Pollack, the president of Families USA, one of the nation’s largest healthcare reform organizations. Several names have come up, including former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean (D), a physician who managed to get more than 95 percent of Vermont’s children covered by healthcare during his six terms in office. There has, however, been tension between the Obama and Dean circles.

Another, less well-known contender is Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius (D). Before becoming governor, she was the president of the National Association of Insurance Commissioners. She was also appointed by President Bill Clinton to the task force that developed the Patient’s Bill of Rights.

“There’s no governor in the country who knows more about healthcare and healthcare reform than she does and she’s very close to the president,” says Mr. Pollack. “So it’s not like there will be a void for a significant period of time.”