A few bumps in the road have suddenly appeared for President-elect Barack Obama on his path toward the White House.
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, his nominee for commerce secretary, withdrew his name from consideration Sunday, citing a federal investigation into possible financial improprieties involving his state administration and a political donor. Richardson, in a prepared statement, argued that he did nothing wrong and expected vindication. But he added that the probe would be a distraction from the important work of the Commerce Department and would inevitably delay his confirmation by the Senate.
Richardson said a "pending investigation of a company that has done business with New Mexico state government promises to extend for several weeks or, perhaps, even months. Let me say unequivocally that I and my administration have acted properly in all matters and that this investigation will bear out that fact. But I have concluded that the ongoing investigation also would have forced an untenable delay in the confirmation process. Given the gravity of the economic situation the nation is facing, I could not in good conscience ask the president-elect and his administration to delay for one day the important work that needs to be done."
Obama accepted the withdrawal "with deep regret" and praised Richardson as an "outstanding public servant." Obama raised the prospect that he could name Richardson, one of the nation's leading Hispanic politicians and a former United Nations ambassador under President Bill Clinton, to another post in the future.
Richardson's withdrawal comes at an awkward time for the incoming administration. Not only does Obama face a long list of major problems, topped by the financial meltdown and the Israeli incursion into Gaza, but he is also dealing with an increasing number of political embarrassments created by fellow Democrats. The controversies could harm the party's credibility just as the new president prepares to take office on January 20.
When Democrats ran against the Republicans during the period when the GOP held a majority in Congress, they blasted the GOP for presiding over a "culture of corruption." Now, the problems of Richardson and other Democrats give Republicans an opening to tarnish their opponents with the same brush. Republican strategist Rich Galen, for example, jumped on the issue Sunday in his Web column. He asked, "What did Peso Bill tell Obama about the status of that investigation and what his connection might be? Are no-bid, no-contract million-dollar deals in return for campaign donations so pervasive among Obama's political cronies that he and Richardson had a good laugh about it and walked out onto the stage in Chicago to announce the nomination [of Richardson at commerce]?"
In addition to the Richardson investigation, there is an ongoing criminal prosecution of Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojovich for allegedly trying to offer Obama's vacant Senate seat in exchange for money or influence. Obama has not been implicated. But Blagojovich added a severe complication for his party leaders when he named Roland Burris, a respected African-American leader and former Illinois attorney general, as the new senator. This will force a showdown this week with Senate Democrats who have vowed not to seat anyone named by the governor while he is under prosecution.
There is also a messy situation in New York, where Gov. David Paterson is considering a successor to Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has been tapped to become Obama's secretary of state. The leading possibility apparently is Caroline Kennedy, a former official in the New York Department of Education and the daughter of former President John F. Kennedy. But her lack of experience in national or international politics has been a source of rising criticism.
Beyond all this, Obama's hopes for rapid passage of his Economic Recovery and Reinvestment Plan appear to be fading fast. He had been hoping for congressional approval by his inauguration on January 20, but Republicans and some Democrats are now saying they want a more methodical process complete with hearings. Some Obama allies say the package could approach $1 trillion—a vast expenditure that many legislators want to examine carefully.