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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 7, 2009

COMMENTARY
Obama still on track for smooth transition

By Jules Witcover

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson speaks at a news confernce Monday about his withdrawal as the U.S. Commerce Department secretary nominee. The shift should not dramatically affect what has been a smooth Obama administration transition thus far.

CRAIG FRITZ | Associated Press

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The sudden departure of Bill Richardson from President-elect Barack Obama's Cabinet is the first conspicuous chink in the smooth transition of power to his supposedly calm, cool and collected regime.

Until the New Mexico governor withdrew his nomination to be secretary of commerce, Obama's transition team had appeared to be functioning so flawlessly as to give the impression that the prospective administration was already up and running.

Even as Obama was making a point of repeating his one-president-at-a-time mantra and keeping his hands off the latest Arab-Israeli crisis, he had already jumped with both feet into the economic crisis. On the opening day of the 111th Congress, he conferred with its leaders of both parties on the stimulus package he plans pursue soon after Inauguration Day.

But Richardson's withdrawal first of all raised questions about the supposedly super-efficient vetting process of the new administration. It had been spewing out nominees en masse with unprecedented speed, reinforcing the image of a presidency hitting the ground running.

Almost immediately, critics pointed out that the federal grand jury investigation into campaign contributions to Richardson political action committees by a recipient of state contracts had been well-publicized in his home state.

Perhaps because he was already so prominent a public figure, as a former Clinton Cabinet member and U.N. ambassador before becoming a governor and a presidential candidate, the assumption within the Obama transition team may have been that he had already been adequately vetted.

Richardson, insisting he was involved in nothing that would have prevented his further service in another Democratic administration, said he was stepping aside to avoid any impeding of Obama's fast start in the Oval Office. But his precipitous departure inevitably has raised doubts about that vetting process.

In the scheme of things, the loss of Richardson to the Obama Cabinet and its urgent efforts to tackle the economic crisis should turn out to be a minor distraction. The fact that the appointment came after Obama had announced the other major members of the crisis-management team tended to cast Richardson as a lesser player in that game.

One also had to wonder whether the man himself may have had second thoughts about having accepted the appointment in the first place. It was no secret that in light of his impressive experience in international diplomacy, both personal and as a ranking bureaucrat, he had entertained hopes of being named Obama's secretary of state.

In the wake of the latest Middle East flareup, he might have better served Obama, for example, as a personal envoy on the Israeli-Palestinian question, not requiring Senate confirmation. But the grand jury investigation would not have vanished, and would have remained a cloud over his administration service. Such a move might not have sat well, however, with the presumptive Obama secretary of state, Hillary Clinton. Richardson, a former Bill Clinton Cabinet member, after all had endorsed Obama's candidacy at a critical point in his 2008 Democratic primary campaign fight with her.

When Richardson was selected for the Obama Cabinet, his Hispanic heritage was widely considered a major consideration. But the president-elect has picked two other Latinos to serve Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado as secretary of labor and Rep. Hilda Solis of California as head of the Labor Department.

As for the seamless appearance of the Obama transition until now, much will depend on whether the glitch is an isolated one. Bill Clinton got off to a bad start in 1993 when he suffered withdrawals from key Cabinet and agency positions after appointees supposedly were inadequately vetted.

A great strength of the Obama presidential candidacy was its ability to establish and sustain a public image of low-key efficiency and self-confidence. It was embodied not only in the candidate himself but also in the political operation that steered him with few missteps into the White House.

Incoming White House press secretary Robert Gibbs has emphasized the transition team's efficient performance in assembling the large Obama Cabinet with such notable dispatch. Sure-footedness has been an element in the public approval the president-elect has won so far, and can help sustain him in the new administration's critical first days ahead.

Reach Jules Witcover at juleswitcover@earthlink.net.