TOPICS > Politics

Obama Taps Former Rival Richardson for Commerce

December 3, 2008 at 6:20 PM EDT
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President-elect Barack Obama picked Gov. Bill Richardson, D-N.M., as his commerce secretary nominee Tuesday. Amy Walter of The Hotline looks at how Mr. Obama's Cabinet is shaping up and recent developments in outstanding Senate races.

MARGARET WARNER: The selection of Bill Richardson as commerce secretary makes him the third former Democratic presidential hopeful to join Obama’s team, after Vice President-elect Joseph Biden and Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton.

Richardson commented on that at the announcement event in Chicago today.

GOV. BILL RICHARDSON (D), New Mexico: There are some who speak of a team of rivals, but I’ve never seen it that way. Past competitors, yes, but rivals implies something harder-edged and less forgiving. And in the worlds of diplomacy and commerce, you open markets and minds not with rivalry, but instead with partnership and innovation and hard work.

MARGARET WARNER: President-elect Obama was asked if Richardson’s appointment was a “consolation prize” for Hispanics who had been hoping Richardson would be chosen as secretary of state.

PRESIDENT-ELECT BARACK OBAMA: Commerce secretary is a pretty good job, you know? It’s a member of my key economic team that is going to be dealing with the most significant issue that America faces right now, and that is, how do we put people back to work and rejuvenate the economy?

Bill Richardson has been selected because he is the best person for that job and is going to be outstanding in helping me strategize on how do we rebuild America, how do we get businesses moving, how do we export effectively, how do we open up new markets for American products and services.

His mixture of diplomatic experience, hands-on experience as a governor, experience in the cabinet, experience in Congress means that he is going to be a key strategist on all the issues that we work on.

MARGARET WARNER: Richardson, like all of President-elect Obama’s Cabinet picks, will have to be confirmed by the Senate. And with yesterday’s Republican win in Georgia, the Senate will have at least 58 Democrats, but not the 60 super-majority they’d hoped.

Richardson's commerce appointment

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the latest developments affecting the new cabinet and Senate, I'm joined by Amy Walter, editor-in-chief of the Hotline, National Journal's political daily.

So, Amy, what's the inside story here? How did Bill Richardson end up at commerce?

AMY WALTER, Editor-in-Chief, The Hotline: I don't know if we'll ever know the true inside story as we are trying to put the pieces together of this transition in general, but I think it is significant that -- if you remember Bill Richardson, not only was he a rival, but he was a key endorser for Barack Obama and really sort of put his relationship with the Clintons on the line. Obviously, he had served in the Clinton administration, so that was significant.

The other piece of this, too, is Bill Richardson, when he ran for president, you remember he did those quirky ads where there were job interviews. During the primaries, he did these quirky ads and he talked a lot about the work he'd done as governor in the state and bringing jobs to the state fast and high-tech jobs.

And so he'd sort of taken that as a point of pride and a reason why people should elect a governor president, right, as an executive. So in many ways, it does make sense, and I do think that President-elect Obama's statement, too, about, "Look, I put him on the economy team, right? The economy is going to be pretty important," also significant.

MARGARET WARNER: So then the question is, why wasn't he announced as part of the economic team, the sort of first tier?

AMY WALTER: That's right. And, again, lots of different theories here that we can expand upon.

I think the first thing, of course, is that, when you think about the different people who were introduced with the economic team, many of them, they were literally economists, and we were talking a lot about finance. Here, the focus was jobs, global trade, those sorts of things.

The other thing is, quite frankly, we don't have a lot else to talk about, right? We're not talking about policies. We don't have specific proposals to talk about. So now it's, well, who spoke at this introduction? Who didn't?

It was noted, of course, that all the foreign and security policy folks were able to speak at the press conference, but the economic team wasn't, so we'll probably go back and forth for a while on this.

MARGARET WARNER: As if we don't have enough to cover.

AMY WALTER: That's right.

Obama's diverse Cabinet

MARGARET WARNER: Now, referring to the question that that reporter asked, is there real unhappiness in Hispanic political circles that, up until today, there was not an Hispanic yet in the Cabinet?

AMY WALTER: I don't know if it's unhappiness as much as it is wariness. And when you are President-elect Obama and you ran a campaign focused on change and hope and diversity, there are a lot of expectations out there that the cabinet will reflect that and his appointments will reflect that.

And so I think what you're seeing, then, is a sense that, we hope -- we don't want you, Mr. Obama, to stop with Bill Richardson. There are more qualified individuals.

We're seeing this, too, interestingly enough -- there will be two open seats in the Senate to fill, right? Barack Obama's seat has to be filled. Hillary Clinton's seat, if she's confirmed, will have to be filled. And there's pressure on both of those governors not to appoint a white man.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, Bill Richardson does have a little bit of baggage, certainly from his time as energy secretary. There were bad security breaches at Los Alamos, to name one.

Have -- are the reports true that most of these Cabinet picks have already been pre-vetted on the Hill just to make sure that they really won't have any confirmation problems?

AMY WALTER: This is not a team -- if we've learned anything about the Obama operation, it's that these guys don't like surprises very much and that they do their homework in the background.

Now, that's not to say that there aren't issues that are going to be raised. But I think the other thing that they're counting on is the fact that the public in general has felt very -- is very supportive, not just of the president in general -- his approval ratings are high -- but Gallup put out a poll today that showed almost 80 percent of Americans say they thought his transition was going well, they approved of what he's doing, they approved of picks like Hillary Clinton.

So this idea that, if Congress wants to get in and sort of rough these nominees up, I think there could be a backlash among voters.

Georgia's Senate results

MARGARET WARNER: Well, let's talk about the Senate now. Saxby Chambliss, Republican senator from Georgia, won re-election in the special election yesterday by 14 points as opposed to the 3-point margin he'd had back on Election Day. What happened?

AMY WALTER: It's a great question, and I think we're going to hear a lot about this in the coming days. You know, the first is -- the question was, was it an effective argument that Saxby Chambliss made that said -- his basic theme was, "Don't give Obama a blank check in Washington. Don't let the Democrats get 60 seats."

Now, this is the same argument that John McCain, of course, made unsuccessfully nationally. But, remember, John McCain did win Georgia, so, obviously, that argument would have more sway in Georgia than, say, a North Carolina or Virginia that McCain lost.

You know, the other issue, too, here was turnout. And we know what happens in a special election or a runoff election. It's all about getting your voters to the polls.

So the talk was -- and the talk we're going to hear a lot about for these next couple of years, actually, is will Obama's coattails be a factor in every special election and in 2010? And that...

MARGARET WARNER: And does he have to be on the ballot?

AMY WALTER: And does he have to be on the ballot? And, you know, the argument being, when he's not on the ballot -- yes, when he was on the ballot, it was three points. When he's off the ballot, it's 14 points.

And I think it's also important to remember, as I said, one, he didn't win the state. Two, that it was -- Chambliss, I think, deserves credit for getting his people out rather than it just being a factor about Martin not getting his team out.

Obama to 'reach across the aisle'

MARGARET WARNER: Now, so does the fact that now the 60 votes is out of reach, does that change at all the Obama incoming administration's calculus in dealing with the Hill?

AMY WALTER: I don't think so. And I think that they've never been thinking about this as 60 seats. You've never heard Obama talk about having a filibuster-proof Senate.

The other thing is, it's somewhat of a myth -- I know we've talked about this before -- that there can be a filibuster-proof anything, that these are individuals, 100 individuals. Getting 60 Democrats to agree on everything is going to be difficult, too, especially the ones who come from more conservative states. So I think that was always something of a pipe dream.

The other thing is that Obama talked a lot on the campaign trail about reaching across the aisle. Now, Saxby Chambliss isn't the kind of person he's going to be able to go and reach across to necessarily, but there are other Republicans who've been supportive of Democratic proposals and pieces of legislation or other things Obama has talked about. And it actually would probably look a lot better if you want a filibuster-proof to get some Republicans on board with you.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally, any prediction yet, briefly, on when the Minnesota race, Sen. Norm Coleman against Al Franken, former comedian Al Franken?

AMY WALTER: Maybe by the end of the year, I'm hoping. Remember, they're hand-counting three million ballots. Now, they're supposed to be done counting this week.

Then a canvassing board that has been appointed by the secretary of state will go through, look at challenged ballots. We may have an answer, except for those are 6,000 ballots they have to go through, so I'm hoping by the end of the year then we will have a full Senate.

MARGARET WARNER: Amy Walter of Hotline, thank you.

AMY WALTER: Thank you very much.