The news that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was withdrawing his name from consideration as Obama administration Commerce Secretary represents a painful political toe-stubbing by President Elect and his team, which had earned a reputation for almost superhuman precision during the primary and election campaigns.
Imagery matters in politics, and no matter who is blamed for the big “NEVER MIND!” from the New Mexico Governor — a centrist Democrat who seems perpetually cursed with being the guy with a great resume and great potential who never quite seems to live up to it — the fact is Barack Obama will come out smelling like something less than a rose. Between Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich’s raising the Obama team’s name in the Senate Seat For Sale Scandal (“pay to play), slivers of alleged and unproven Chicago skeletons being repeated by partisan-foe talk show hosts (the evergreen topic: Tony Rezko) and now Richardson, Obama’s toe must be beet red. You can certainly now see some facial political blemishes.
One key sign: coverage by mainstream media and some of the mainstream media’s up-and-coming Internet blogs underscore how this is a big political story — one coming as Congress gets back in session and Obama will need his clout to get his version of a stimulus package passed amid indications that GOPers in Congress intend to try and slow it (and him) down.
For instance, ABC’s Jake Trapper’s report suggests the Obama team felt that Richardson didn’t completely level with him. There’s a sense of deja vu about this, as if you’re reading the 1972 George McGovern campaign talking about that year’s presidential nominee’s doomed Vice Presidential candidate Thomas Eagelton:
Sources tell ABC News that officials on the Obama Transition Team feel that before he was formally offered the job of commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was not forthcoming with them about the federal investigation that is looking into whether the governor steered a state contract towards a major financial contributor.
Once the investigation became more widely known through national media reports last month, sources tell ABC News, the Obama Transition Team realized the FBI would not be able to give Richardson a clean political bill of health before the new administration is ready to send his nomination up to the Senate for confirmation.
The Richardson camp says the governor was forthcoming, with sources close to the governor noting that there had been reports about the controversy in local media such as the Albuquerque Journal as far back as August 2008. The governor discussed the investigation with the Obama team, they say, and believes that he and his administration have done nothing wrong.
So an official blame-game is now underway. Richardson denies any wrongdoing — and perhaps he can surface later in some other political higher-office incarnation if the allegations prove unwarranted, since he’s pulling himself out in a way to minimize collateral political damage. The Washington Post notes that there are lessons in this episode:
The governor apparently withdrew his name because “a grand jury in New Mexico is currently looking into charges of ‘pay-to-play’ in the awarding of a state contract to a company that contributed to Richardson,” reports The Post’s Michael D. Shear. Any cabinet nomination requires the support of key lawmakers and special interest groups and it’s evident that Richardson and Obama aides must have realized that “pay-to-play” allegations similar to those affecting Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D-Ill.) would hamper his ability get confirmed.
……Second, Richardson’s decision to withdraw his name may delay the Obama transition team’s ability to pick appointees for other mid-level and managerial positions. There are at least five such jobs at Commerce that need to be filled quickly, according to the Council for Excellence in Government’s “Prune Book”…
….Finally, Richardson now joins a list of cabinet “Coulda Woulda Shouldas” — including Zoe Baird, John Tower and Linda Chavez — all qualified individuals who had to withdraw their nominations for personal reasons. It’s an unfortunate list to join, but does not mean Richardson’s government career is finished. His gubernatorial term runs until 2010 and should the “pay-to-play” allegations amount to nothing, it’s possible that the Obama administration would name the former congressman, cabinet secretary, U.N. ambassador and presidential candidate to another government position.
The L.A. Time’s blogger Andrew Malcolm, writing at the paper’s lively Top of the Ticket blog, says this:
Richardson said the investigation would show his innocence but was likely to drag on for weeks or months, affecting the confirmation process and his ability to work in Washington. Not to mention distract the public and media from the desired message of change to believe in. The Blagojevich fight, not so easy for the new administration or Reid to end, is also likely to drag on for weeks or months.
And as Obama traveled to Washington today, a day after his family, for pre-inaugural talks about change with Democratic and Republican legislative leaders, the last thing he needs is another ongoing public display of corruption probing. As LittleGreenFootballs put it so succinctly: “Richardson throws himself under the bus.”
The abrupt end of a Cabinet nominee’s career is not unprecedented. As the new White House chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, knows well, the early days of the Bill Clinton administration in 1993 were marred with nomination missteps that had to be withdrawn after presenting a brief image of incompetence.
Also, during the shortened run-up to the first inaugural of then Gov. George W. Bush in 2001, Linda Chavez withdrew from being secretary of Labor-designate after revelations that she’d helped an illegal immigrant as her nanny and written some controversial things. That too was described publicly as “voluntary,” but behind the scenes it was made clear to her what was expected.
The question now becomes: what’s a President Elect to do?
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson’s decision to withdraw as President-elect Barack Obama’s nominee to head the commerce department leaves Obama with a hole in his cabinet line-up.
Possible candidates for the job include Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sibelius — who was suggested for a number of senior Obama administration posts but has yet to be nominated for any — and Scott Harris, managing partner of the Washington DC law firm Harris, Wiltshire and Grannis who is an expert in trade issues.
Also mentioned is Leo Hindery, a former chief executive officer of The Yes Network, the nation’s largest regional sports network and a senior economic policy adviser to former Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
That would be the first time a President had an ADMITTED “yes-man” in his cabinet..
Another Obama backer whose name had surfaced was Oracle President Charles Phillips.
Actual oracles can divine the future…but you don’t have to be an oracle to conclude that: the week has begun badly for Team Obama. And they have nowhere to go but up.
So, it’s on to the Senate where Ronald Burris has suggested he might go to court to fight for the seat Illinois’ disgraced Governor has named him to fill (Obama’s old Senate seat).
Joe Gandelman is a former fulltime journalist who freelanced in India, Spain, Bangladesh and Cypress writing for publications such as the Christian Science Monitor and Newsweek. He also did radio reports from Madrid for NPR’s All Things Considered. He has worked on two U.S. newspapers and quit the news biz in 1990 to go into entertainment. He also has written for The Week and several online publications, did a column for Cagle Cartoons Syndicate and has appeared on CNN.