Well, the new year has quickly shown us that President-elect Obama's transition is not perfect. Because of a nagging federal "pay-to-play" investigation, Commerce Secretary-designate Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico, had to ask last Sunday that he not be formally nominated. The next day found several leading Senate Democrats complaining about the selection of former Clinton White House Chief of Staff and Budget Director Leon Panetta to be director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
A Democratic loyalist could say with good reason that it is remarkable for a presidential transition to get this far without a serious misstep. And that view is not entirely wrong. About five times more problems would have to arise before Obama and his team could accurately be labeled accident-prone or sloppy. Obama has made quite a few substantial deposits in the bank of credibility. Now he must make a couple of withdrawals.
Given Richardson's impressive résumé, Hispanic roots, and diplomatic accomplishments, one could easily wonder why he wasn't selected running mate or secretary of State, his top choices. But even though I have known and liked Richardson for 30 years, and even though he is very bright, is incredibly experienced, and has some of the best people skills on the planet, I would have been astonished if Obama had picked him for either job. Richardson is the polar opposite of Obama. The president-elect is one of the most careful, cautious, and disciplined figures ever to enter politics. His every move is studied, weighed, then carried out after great deliberation.
With Richardson, well, not so much. He is a toucher, a feeler, someone who works entirely from instinct. Improvisation is the name of his game, not deliberation. That's what makes him fun and lovable, but also dangerous. In a "No-Drama Obama" administration, Richardson would have been the source of far too much suspense and excitement for the chief executive's tastes.
News reports indicate that when Obama raised the possibility of Richardson's heading Commerce, the federal grand jury probe in New Mexico had not been very active, and no one on the outside, including Richardson and Obama, appreciated that the inquiry was as serious as it now appears to be. Apparently, the pace of the probe accelerated in recent weeks, and FBI agents assigned to the Obama transition team to vet nominees discovered that the inquiry would not be going away before confirmation hearings began. When Richardson and the president-elect learned that the grand jury, whose term was to expire on December 31, would be replaced by a new one, it became clear that the governor's nomination would have to be jettisoned. Obama takes a hit on this, but a relatively minor one.
On the Panetta pick, the real question is whether the selection itself was a mistake or whether Obama's transition team simply erred by not consulting the Senate Select Intelligence Committee's incoming chairwoman, Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., or past chairman, Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va. My hunch is that it's the latter. Senate egos and territoriality dictate consultation -- or at least advance notice couched as consultation. And the senators' remarks suggest that they felt dissed.
The fact that Obama chose to go with Panetta and to tap retired four-star Adm. Dennis Blair as director of national intelligence suggests frustration or mistrust of the intelligence agencies and a desire to bring outsiders -- albeit very experienced ones -- in to oversee intelligence operations. This is hardly the first time a president has picked someone outside the intelligence community to head the CIA. Indeed, it has happened quite often. (Does the name George H.W. Bush mean anything?) And now, with a director of national intelligence above the CIA director, going outside seems even less like a mortal sin. This was more a misstep in congressional relations than a personnel mistake. But good relations with Congress are hugely important, and it will be instructive to see whether the Obama team learns from this goof.
No question, the USS Obama has taken a pair of hits in recent days, but it's too early to say whether this carefully crafted ship has taken on any water.
This article appears in the Jan. 10, 2009, edition of National Journal.