Judd Gregg's withdrawal as commerce secretary nominee

Friday, February 13, 2009

ON A DAY when President Obama hoped to bask in the glow of an agreement in Congress on the massive economic stimulus bill, he had to contend with yet another high-profile withdrawal from his Cabinet. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) withdrew his nomination yesterday to become commerce secretary. He cited the stimulus package, direction of the census and an inability to be "100 percent with the team" as driving his decision to drop out a week after his selection.

There was something appealingly human in Mr. Gregg's explanation of his change of heart. He said that he had been seduced by the euphoria of a new job in a new administration but came to realize that after 30 years of working independently and making decisions himself, he couldn't be a part of a team. "I said yes. That was my mistake," Mr. Gregg said at a late-afternoon news conference. "I did not handle this the way I usually handle issues, which is definitively and quickly." Better he did so now.

There will be plenty of questions about both sides of this collapsed merger. Mr. Obama has been clear on what he wanted in the stimulus package since the November election; nothing there could have come as a surprise to Mr. Gregg. On the other hand, Mr. Gregg's concern about potential changes at the Census Bureau, particularly news that the census director would report to the White House instead of the commerce secretary, are understandable: Either this administration trusts me or it does not, he might fairly have felt.

For the Obama administration, Mr. Gregg's withdrawal represents another bump at a particularly unhelpful time. Mr. Gregg said yesterday that he had told the White House several days ago of his decision. If so, you have to wonder why the administration did not take better control of the situation, instead of waiting for the news to detonate and then issuing a statement that looked peeved and churlish as it insisted that Mr. Gregg had come calling for the job, and not the reverse.

Still, the reversal should not discourage Mr. Obama from seeking bipartisan cooperation. Maybe he didn't sufficiently think through the merits of handing a key economic position to someone with a radically different philosophy. But he's right that some of the hard things he wants to accomplish can't be done without Republican help. On one such goal -- entitlement reform -- Mr. Gregg may be a better ally in the Senate than in the Cabinet. There could be redemption all around if the New Hampshire Republican, in what he says will probably be his last two years in the Senate, helps the president he says he admires put the nation on a sounder fiscal course.

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