Page last updated at 09:01 GMT, Friday, 13 February 2009

Obama cabinet: Unlucky or naive?

By Jonathan Beale
BBC News, Washington

Barack Obama
The US president appears to be struggling to build up his Cabinet

Picking a Cabinet? Easier said than done. Just ask Barack Obama.

The president came to power with a powerful promise of change and a pledge to end the old politics while ushering in a new era of political integrity.

There was to be political and racial diversity too, but it has not quite worked out as planned.

Nominees have already fallen like flies. Out has gone his first choice of commerce secretary, the New Mexico governor Bill Richardson, who is facing an investigation into his links with big business. The president's pick for health secretary, Tom Daschle, has had to pull out too after failing to keep up with his taxes.

The same problem befell Nancy Killefer, earmarked for the job of chief government performance officer. The president wanted Tim Geithner for treasury secretary, and did get his man despite having found another who has been embarrassed by tax issues.


But now there's the case of Judd Gregg, whose sudden departure is rather different from the rest. To misquote Oscar Wilde: to lose one may seem unfortunate but to lose four looks more like carelessness.

Mr Gregg is the first to withdraw his nomination because of "irresolvable conflicts" over policy, and the blame does not all belong to Mr Obama. Only 10 days ago the Republican was happy to accept his nomination as commerce secretary, praising the president's decision to reach across the aisle.

It just became clear to me that it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this cabinet or any other cabinet
Senator Judd Gregg

But in hindsight Senator Gregg says it was all a mistake. "I'm a fiscal conservative, as everybody knows a fairly strong one," the Senator said at a hastily-convened news conference.

He added: "It just became clear to me that it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this cabinet or any other cabinet."

It's just a shame for the Obama team that he had not thought through all that before.

No doubt fellow Republicans have been leaning on the senator to help him with his decision. But why did the words "fiscal conservative" fail to ring alarm bells in the White House - just as they were trying to get Congress to approve the $800bn dollar stimulus bill.

Hard to swallow

While Mr Gregg was making his announcement, Mr Obama was at a factory in Illinois trying to sell the very same stimulus bill that the Republican senator had found hard to swallow.

The president made no reference to his latest problem, but a rather annoyed White House then issued a terse statement saying it was Mr Gregg who had asked to do the job, and that he had made it clear to them he would "support, embrace and move forward with the President's agenda".

Judd Gregg
Judd Gregg is the fourth Cabinet choice to have fallen by the wayside
The statement rather curtly concluded: "We regret that he had a change of heart."

That's all very well, but were the president and his advisers not being rather naive in assuming that they could appoint a fiscal conservative to the job of commerce secretary? They were, after all, preparing to spend hundreds of billions of dollars of taxpayers' money to revive the ailing US economy.

It's like asking a teetotaller to serve behind the bar. Given the other setbacks it certainly raises questions about the White House vetting process.

The president's promise of bipartisanship is certainly not going according to plan. First there was the Republican revolt over the stimulus bill, now there's one fewer Republican serving in his cabinet. But Mr Obama is not giving up hope yet of creating his "team of rivals" in the mould of one of his political heroes, Abraham Lincoln.

He told reporters travelling with him that he was an optimist and that he would continue to reach out to the other side. His tone was far more conciliatory than the earlier Whitehouse statement. And he even had some nice words for Senator Gregg.

Barack Obama has not lost his faith in his own formidable powers of persuasion. Nor is he the first president to suffer setbacks of this kind. But while his supporters may feel he has just been unlucky, his opponents will accuse him of being naive.

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