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Gregg Withdrawal Deals New Setback to Obama Cabinet

February 12, 2009 at 6:00 PM EDT
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Commerce Secretary-designate Judd Gregg became the latest Cabinet nominee to withdraw from consideration, citing key differences with President Barack Obama on economic issues and the forthcoming Census. Washington Post reporter Chris Cillizza discusses the development.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Our lead story. President Obama suffered another major loss in his cabinet lineup today. Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire withdrew as the nominee for commerce secretary. He cited critical differences with the president on economic and other issues.

SEN. JUDD GREGG (R), New Hampshire: You know, I’ve been my own person for 30 years. I’ve been a governor, and I’ve been a congressman, and I’ve been a senator, made my own decisions, stood for what I believe in. You know I’m a fiscal conservative, as everybody knows, fairly strong one.

And it just became clear to me that it would be very difficult, day in and day out, to serve in this cabinet or any cabinet, for that matter, and be part of a team and not be able to be 100 percent with the team, 110 percent with the team. You know, you can’t have a blocking back who only pulls out for every second or third play.

And the president has been incredibly gracious. And none of this decision is related at all and in any way to his willingness to include diversity of thought and initiative within his cabinet. Just the opposite. He has been a person who has reached out and aggressively reached out across the aisle, and I immensely respect that, and I immensely respect him. And I know he’s going to be a strong and effective and good president.

I made a mistake. I should have focused sooner and more effectively on the implications of being in the cabinet versus myself as an individual doing my job. That’s something I’ll struggle with for a while as to why I wasn’t more focused sooner.

I think this — obviously, what happened was, as we moved forward over the week, I did focus.

My genuine belief that this administration — and specifically this president — is going to be a good presidency is what caused me to say yes without really thinking through the implications to me as — as an individual and the way I approach issues, and the fact that I’ve always been independent and had a fair amount of opinion and principle that would be hard for me to adjust or trim my sails on.

Some Republicans were 'vexed'

Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post
You can see very easily why Barack Obama would want him. Judd Gregg was a leading voice in the Senate on entitlement reform. It helped symbolically make the case that Barack Obama is reaching across party lines.

JUDY WOODRUFF: White House officials responded to Gregg's decision with a brief statement. It said, in part, "We regret that he has had a change of heart."

Gregg had been nominated after New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson stepped aside over a grand jury investigation of state contracts.

For more on the Gregg departure, I'm joined by Chris Cillizza of WashingtonPost.com.

Chris, hello. It was just a week ago that Judd Gregg was introduced by the president. What happened?

CHRIS CILLIZZA, The Washington Post: Well, you know, Judy, we take politicians at their word here, and it appears as though Judd Gregg did not give serious enough consideration at the start to what it would mean to be a, as he put it, a relatively conservative Republican in a Democratic cabinet.

You can see very easily why Barack Obama would want him. Judd Gregg was a leading voice in the Senate on entitlement reform. It helped symbolically make the case that Barack Obama is reaching across party lines.

But even when he was picked and agreed to it, I talked to some Republicans who were vexed at why he, Judd Gregg, would take it, that it didn't seem like the right fit. And that's obviously been borne out today.

Trouble with cabinet nominees

Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post
I do not think they are happy. I think they had some sense that it was coming, but -- at the highest levels, but not as much lead time as they would like.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it's interesting, because the White House statement made a point of saying that Senator Gregg reached out to the president and offered his name for secretary of commerce. So he initiated all this?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: You know, Judy, I think this is someone who, to be honest, has spent a long time in public life, his father a former governor of New Hampshire. This is a family that's spent a long time in public life. And I think Judd Gregg is probably looking at what the next steps are for him.

In that press conference, he was asked whether he would be running for re-election now that he was coming back to the Senate in 2010. His response, "Probably not."

So my guess is that he was trying to think of, what were the things out there that he could do, if he did, indeed, leave elected office? And this was something that appealed to him. But when the reality of working day in and day out with folks who, on many issues, he disagrees with hit him, I think we saw this, saw what happened this evening.

JUDY WOODRUFF: How is the White House reacting to this on the inside?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, Robert Gibbs' statement that you just read, Judy, is telling. It is not a, "We reluctantly accept Judd Gregg's decision to withdraw." It is, "He told us he wanted to do this, he reached out to us, and now he's not doing it anymore."

So I do not think they are happy. I think they had some sense that it was coming, but -- at the highest levels, but not as much lead time as they would like.

And, remember, this week, Judy, I think the Obama campaign -- excuse me, Obama presidency really believed that they had put the pieces in place to move forward momentum-wise on this economic stimulus, likely to pass the Congress tomorrow, and they had put the Tom Daschle resignation at HHS, the Bill Richardson withdrawal that you mentioned, the previous commerce secretary nominee, Nancy Killefer from chief performance officer, these struggles that they had had with some of these cabinet and cabinet-level positions behind them and they were moving on, marching on with President Obama's agenda.

The problem now becomes they are going to have, at least for 24 hours, probably 48, 72 hours, to answer questions about, why do they keep having trouble filling these cabinet positions?

Obama 'surprised' by withdrawal

Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post
But they clearly want to symbolically put into place a cabinet that is seen as very skilled, very qualified, and, importantly, in terms of Judd Gregg, very bipartisan. This is not going to look good.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, by the way, I should just say, Chris, I've just been told the president was quoted, I guess within the last hour or a few minutes, as saying that the Gregg -- Judd Gregg's announcement or decision came as something of a surprise to him.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Right.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Chris, what does this say about the speed that the White House is trying to move here?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Well, you know, Judy, one thing that they touted, that the Obama transition team touted, once he won the election, was that they were putting into place a cabinet, as well as a sub-cabinet, faster than any presidency in history because of the huge problems that were facing the country.

It appears as though, at least -- certainly with Tom Daschle, maybe with Nancy Killefer, you don't want to get into too much speculation with Judd Gregg, but it appears as though some of that quickness made them skate over some judgment, in terms of vetting issues, certainly with the previous two. I don't think Judd Gregg is a vetting issue; we take him at his word.

But they clearly want to symbolically put into place a cabinet that is seen as very skilled, very qualified, and, importantly, in terms of Judd Gregg, very bipartisan. This is not going to look good.

It certainly would have been a big fish to land had Judd Gregg wound up in the cabinet, as we all expected until about three hours ago. But now it looks like a tough thing to overcome, at least in the short term. I don't think this derails Barack Obama's early days of his presidency, but it's a bump in the road that they'd prefer not to have to go over.

Gregg mentioned census changes

Chris Cillizza
The Washington Post
There's not going to be a lot of love lost for Judd Gregg. While I'm sure the president appreciates the kind words that the senator had for him, I think he'd rather have him as a commerce secretary as opposed to withdrawing.

JUDY WOODRUFF: On the other hand, Senator Gregg went out of his way to compliment the president, say the president did reach out to him. He said he will be a strong, effective and good president. Down the road, does Judd Gregg just go back to the Senate and sometimes support this president?

CHRIS CILLIZZA: You know, Judy, I guess he does, although my guess is, from the Obama White House, there's not going to be a lot of love lost for Judd Gregg. While I'm sure the president appreciates the kind words that the senator had for him, I think he'd rather have him as a commerce secretary as opposed to withdrawing.

In Judd Gregg's public statement, he was a little bit more guarded than he was in the written statement, which we all got before he came out and did that press conference.

In the written statement, he made reference to the census, which the Obama administration is going to put the director of the census under senior White House officials, a position that has really stoked the ire of some House Republicans, as well as the stimulus bill as two pieces that made him realize he might not fit ideologically with this administration. He really downplayed that in his press conference.

But those are the kind of things, I think, Republicans and Democrats are going to pick up on as the partisan fight over the economic stimulus bill continues.

JUDY WOODRUFF: All right, Chris Cillizza, another day of a lot of news in Washington. Thank you very much.

CHRIS CILLIZZA: Amazing. Thank you, Judy.