Obama taps another ex-rival: Richardson for commerce

McClatchy NewspapersDecember 3, 2008 

WASHINGTON — President-elect Barack Obama on Wednesday named a third former Democratic presidential rival to his administration with his formal announcement of New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson as his nominee for commerce secretary.

Richardson long has been a strong proponent of free trade agreements. It was unclear how his stance would square with Obama's campaign promises to press to reopen trade agreements to add protections for American labor and the environment, or even how much of a role Richardson would play in those debates.

Obama took just three questions during a news conference with Richardson in Chicago, none on that subject, and did not invite any give-and-take between Richardson and the press.

Richardson, in prepared remarks, spoke of his commitment to creating technology jobs that can't be outsourced, promoting sustainable development and revitalizing U.S. manufacturing.

He downplayed the idea that Obama is surrounding himself with a "team of rivals" that includes his selections of former challengers: Hillary Clinton to be secretary of state and Joe Biden to be vice president.

"I've never seen it that way," said the second-term governor and one of the nation's most prominent Latino politicians. Richardson also is a former congressman and was Energy secretary and U.N. ambassador under President Clinton.

"Past competitors, yes, but 'rivals' implies something harder-edged and less forgiving. In the worlds of diplomacy and commerce, you open markets and minds not with rivalry, but instead with partnership and innovation and hard work."

Speaking in Spanish, Richardson thanked Latino voters for backing Obama, said that "we must continue fighting for our rights at the same time that we pursue the American dream for all." He called on residents of Latin America and the Caribbean to "strengthen our ties and remember the importance of a united hemisphere."

Obama bristled when asked by a reporter to respond to criticism from the Latino community that Richardson's post was a "consolation prize" for not getting to be secretary of state.

"Well, commerce secretary is a pretty good job, you know," Obama said, emphasizing that Richardson would be a key member of his economic team in the midst of an economic crisis. "I think the notion that somehow the commerce secretary is not going to be central to everything we do is fundamentally mistaken."

Obama also predicted that by the time he names his full Cabinet, "I think people are going to say this is one of the most diverse Cabinets and White House staffs of all time. But more importantly they're going to say these are all people of outstanding qualifications and excellence."

Carlos M. Gutierrez, President George W. Bush's commerce secretary, issued a statement applauding Richardson's nomination and said he has "the credibility and expertise to negotiate with our foreign partners and ensure that American businesses and workers have open markets and a fair playing field on which to compete."

However, Kevin Kearns, president of the United States Business and Industry Council, a trade group for small American manufacturers hurt by globalization, said the selection of Richardson was "a missed opportunity" for Obama.

"He could have put someone there that sent a signal to the world, 'Holy cow, this guy's serious about revamping trade policy.' I'd take a major domestic manufacturer, someone who's actually run a major manufacturing business." Instead, Kearns said, Richardson represents a "back-to-the-future" mentality.

Republican National Committee spokeswoman Amber Wilkerson said Richardson was "another consummate Washington insider and former Clinton Cabinet member" and that "'change' in an Obama administration certainly looks like 'more of the same.'"

Democrats praised the nomination.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Richardson would bring economic, environmental and diplomatic experience as well as "values that will benefit all Americans."

At the Obama news conference, one reporter tried to ask the freshly-shaven Richardson, "What happened to the beard, sir?" but Obama interjected playfully: "I'm going to answer this question about the beard. I think it was a mistake for him to get rid of it. I thought that whole Western, rugged look was really working for him. For some reason, maybe because it was scratchy when he kissed his wife, he was forced to get rid of it. But we're deeply disappointed with the loss of the beard."

(Kevin G. Hall contributed to this article.)

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