Judd Gregg's withdrawal for nomination for the post of Commerce Secretary is raising anew questions over the process by which the Obama administration vetted its cabinet members.
Democratic sources close to the White House suggest that President Obama's vetting team was not fully aware of Gregg's position on the census prior to his being nominated to the Commerce post. And when members of the Congressional Black Caucus began airing complaints about a Commerce Secretary who voted to withhold emergency funds for the census, the administration had to reverse course. The decision was made, at first, to strip Gregg of this responsibility, even though it traditionally falls under the Commerce Secretary's purview. But that, in turn, sparked frictions between the Obama team and its second Commerce nominee.
"The census thing was one of those things that, it is a disqualifier," said one source. "And the way that the White House dealt with it, I don't think they caught it ... This was like a couple that had a couple of good dates. They liked each other and once they talked about moving in, they said, I don't know if this is a good idea."
Calls and emails to the White House for information and comment went unreturned. But, in other publications and in past statements, administration officials have insisted that the census was a priority for the president "from the first days of the transition," and that the president always intended to "reevaluate" the process.
In a statement issued shortly after the news broke, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs put the onus of the mishap squarely on Gregg's shoulders, saying the New Hampshire Republican was the one who had "a change of heart."
"Senator Gregg reached out to the President and offered his name for Secretary of Commerce," the statement read. "He was very clear throughout the interviewing process that despite past disagreements about policies, he would support, embrace, and move forward with the President's agenda. Once it became clear after his nomination that Senator Gregg was not going to be supporting some of President Obama's key economic priorities, it became necessary for Senator Gregg and the Obama administration to part ways."
In a subsequent press conference, Gregg affirmed that policy disagreements were at the heart of his decision to withdraw. But the notion that Gregg backpedaled on his pledge to support Obama's agenda obscures the question as to why he was ever asked to push Obama's agenda in the first place.
"It was my mistake to say yes," Gregg said at the press conference, "because it wasn't my personality... The census was only a slight catalyzing issue, not a major one."
Publicly, at the very least, both Gregg and Obama's team have painted the failed nomination as the product of irreconcilable differences, not political surprises. But on a broader level, it is difficult to see how Gregg's withdrawal from consideration doesn't spark a new round of questioning as to whether or not the administration's transition process was done with too little deliberation. Certainly, past White Houses have had their vetting and nomination problems, but not, it seems, in such rapid succession.
"There is going to be a massive recrimination going on around this idea of speed," said a former transition official. "I think the vetting process has struggled from the beginning."