Badly placed teleprompters made matters worse; as Geithner spoke, he moved his head back and forth like an oscillating fan, speaking of high concepts but providing little of the substance Wall Street wanted. Reporters began pecking out dispatches on their BlackBerrys, using words like "disaster." The Dow tumbled 382 points.
After Geithner, Daschle and others were tripped up by tax problems, the White House forced appointees to undergo a more vigorous scrubbing; it was almost obsessive, some complained, practically forcing appointees to account for the spare change in their pockets. Some stepped aside rather than face a trial by nitpicking.
The day of Geithner's appearance, his chief speechwriter was still awaiting FBI clearance. The woman assigned to wrangle reporters didn't know her way around the building; it was her first day on the job.
Overnight, Geithner became a butt of jokes: home alone at Treasury. A deer in the headlights. The laughter turned to fury weeks later when news broke of the $165-million executive payout at American International Group, or AIG, which received a massive federal bailout. The bonuses were contractually obligated but, fairly or not, Geithner got much of the blame.
Obama once more set out to tidy the mess, launching a weeklong media blitz that seemed to target sports fans, news junkies, insomniacs and others. There he was on ESPN, making his picks in the men's college basketball tournament; on "60 Minutes," saying, yes, he too was outraged by AIG; on Jay Leno's couch, where he lauded Geithner as "a calm and steady guy."
This time, however, even friends of the White House started asking whether Obama was becoming overexposed. He laughed on "60 Minutes" during a discussion of the failing auto industry. Was he punch-drunk? He apologized after cracking wise about the Special Olympics on Leno's show. Was he diminishing the presidency by appearing on a late-night talk show?
Administration insiders, fingers firmly on the pulse of opinion polls, were convinced that the nation's trauma and Obama's inordinate skill offered an exception to the usual rules of political engagement.
"If these were ordinary times, I'd be more concerned than I am during what is, for most people, a crisis," said Jim Margolis, a campaign advisor who remains close to the White House. "At this moment, Americans need to be able to connect to their president, to see that he understands what they are going through and that he is moving us toward a solution."
From the start, warp speed was the resting heart rate at the White House, grinding people down. Just about everyone had at least one head cold the first month. A fatigued national security aide dozed off during an afternoon briefing.
Each day seemed like a week; each week seemed like a month. Take Week Six: Obama hosted the conga-dancing governors on Sunday night, then Monday morning served muffins and a lecture on his stimulus bill. On Tuesday, he delivered his first address to a joint session of Congress, calling for expensive energy, education and healthcare programs that would produce an ocean of red ink. On Wednesday, news leaked that the first family was closing in on a puppy. On Thursday, Obama rolled out his $3.5-trillion budget. On Friday, surrounded by troops at Camp Lejeune, N.C., he announced his plan to wind down the war in Iraq.
Halfway to the 100-day mark, Obama had already signed into law seven major pieces of legislation, including the biggest spending bill in American history.
"Never allow a good crisis to go to waste," Emanuel said. "It's an opportunity to do what the political system and the inertia of the system have prevented."
Many, including more than a few congressional Democrats, suggested that Obama was too ambitious and that the understaffed administration was proceeding too quickly. "It is hard to do everything that needs to be done," said Kent Conrad of North Dakota, chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. "You do have to prioritize."
Privately, Obama lamented the crush of events that required moving "from one thing to the other in a way that doesn't give him the kind of collected and thoughtful ability to respond that he'd like," said a friend who did not want to be identified discussing their private conversation. "It's really an array of challenges, any one of which you could spend all your time on."
Still, Obama pushed ahead. Not because "I feel like it, or because I'm a glutton for punishment," he told a group of business leaders. The economic crisis, he said, left no choice.
One cold January afternoon, Obama posed for pictures in House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's elegant office, the two seated in matching yellow wing chairs by the fireplace, smiling. In a few days he would take the oath of office on a stage that work crews were constructing beneath her balcony window. A handful of aides sat across the room, idling as the shutters snapped. When it came time for business, Obama picked up his chair, hoisted it over his head and plunked it down amid the circle of staffers.
Presidents -- and those about to become president -- don't move furniture. But clearly Obama had not yet grasped the starchy protocols of a job that comes with two men assigned to hold his coat, dial his phone and carry his lip balm. That was evident again a short time later, when the president-elect casually strolled onto the balcony, only to be yanked back inside by Secret Service agents.
Assuming leadership of the free world obviously requires some adjustments. But if Obama was bemused by all the pampering, he had no problem seizing power. His White House quickly assumed the persona of its chief tenant: on point, no-nonsense, without a lot of wasted time or effort.