The editorial board of the Washington Post expressed some puzzlement over the White House’s handling of Judd Gregg’s withdrawal as Commerce Secretary yesterday. After giving Gregg high marks for generously accepting the blame for the mismatch of his appointment, Robert Gibbs and Barack Obama appeared to go out of their way to be as ungracious as possible. Could they be afraid that Gregg’s withdrawal will expose an effort to politicize the Census?
There was something appealingly human in Mr. Gregg’s explanation of his change of heart. He said that he had been seduced by the euphoria of a new job in a new administration but came to realize that after 30 years of working independently and making decisions himself, he couldn’t be a part of a team. “I said yes. That was my mistake,” Mr. Gregg said at a late-afternoon news conference. “I did not handle this the way I usually handle issues, which is definitively and quickly.” Better he did so now.
There will be plenty of questions about both sides of this collapsed merger. Mr. Obama has been clear on what he wanted in the stimulus package since the November election; nothing there could have come as a surprise to Mr. Gregg. On the other hand, Mr. Gregg’s concern about potential changes at the Census Bureau, particularly news that the census director would report to the White House instead of the commerce secretary, are understandable: Either this administration trusts me or it does not, he might fairly have felt.
For the Obama administration, Mr. Gregg’s withdrawal represents another bump at a particularly unhelpful time. Mr. Gregg said yesterday that he had told the White House several days ago of his decision. If so, you have to wonder why the administration did not take better control of the situation, instead of waiting for the news to detonate and then issuing a statement that looked peeved and churlish as it insisted that Mr. Gregg had come calling for the job, and not the reverse.
Here’s Barack Obama being a little “peeved and churlish” while talking about Lincoln:
The Obama administration wants to portray Gregg as a Judas who betrayed the One, but that’s only going to sell to the true believers. Even if Gregg did come to them, one has to ask what it was that convinced Gregg that the effort was no longer worth it. Gregg had no particular reason to hearken to Senate Republicans, especially since he’s apparently decided that he will end his public career at the end of this Senate term. Why not stay at Commerce?
The reason is because it became increasingly apparent that Obama wanted him only as window dressing. The Democrats made no effort to work with Republicans in any substantive manner on the stimulus bill, which would become one of Gregg’s main responsibilities after passage. His own ideas had largely been ignored; even if the broad outlines were known before his acceptance of the position, which is certainly true, Gregg may have expected Obama and the Democrats to welcome more input into the final product. After all, if they didn’t want that, why have him on board at all?
From a couple of sources around Capitol Hill, I’ve gotten the sense that the effort by Rahm Emanuel to strip the Census from Gregg was just the final straw and not the prime motivator behind his decision. It rendered Gregg even more of a political eunuch than the lockout on the stimulus plan, and underscored the fact that even as a Cabinet member, he would not have inside status with the Obama administration. Gregg would get trotted out as the Bipartisan Pony when Obama needed a beard. Some of us predicted just that when he accepted the position, and Gregg found out the hard way that he never should have done so.
The Post’s editorial board correctly notes that the Obama White House looked very poor in this instance. Gregg told them in advance that he would leave, and yet they got caught flat-footed at the announcement. Instead of presenting a calm and rational reaction, they looked petty and unprepared, while Obama gave a Snarker-in-Chief performance at a non-political event. Bad form, and once again, the Obama adminstration got exposed as amateurish and out of their depth.