After Gregg Jilts Obama, Washington Counts Score

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Ron Edmonds / AP

President Obama listens to Senator Judd Gregg after announcing Gregg as his choice to become Commerce Secretary at the White House

Senator Judd Gregg ended his courtship with President Obama by resorting to one of the oldest lines in the book. "It's not about them," the New Hampshire fiscal conservative announced Thursday, describing the White House team. "It's about my own sense of who I am." All at once, politicos all over Washington had the same reaction: Yeah, right.

This town knows a thing or two about power-grabbing philanderers, the ones who wine and dine you, take you to bed, collect some campaign cash and then move on to the next hot catch — but not before offering a hug and the gentle admonition, "It's not you, babe. It's me." It doesn't so much matter that by all appearances Gregg is no gallant, that he seemed to actually be telling the truth when he said the reason he got cold feet at the altar was that he couldn't bring himself to fully support the President's agenda. What matters is that he dumped the President. He was picked to be the next Commerce Secretary, he accepted the appointment, and then he walked away — breaking the news, as it turned out, at the very moment Obama was appearing at an event in Peoria, Ill., to build support for his $789 billion stimulus plan being hammered out by Congress. In this town, the President, especially one with a 63% approval rating just three weeks into office, is not supposed to get dumped. (See who's who in Obama's White House.)

And so the partisans had to react. Reputations were at stake. Honor had to be defended. "Old ways die hard around here. I know our President won't give up on changing the unproductive partisan habits," Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri Twittered within minutes of the announcement. White House spokesman Robert Gibbs, who has logged a decade as a political knife fighter, issued sharp words through a press release, suggesting that it was the Senator himself who had thrown his hat into the ring in the first place. "Senator Gregg reached out to the President," Gibbs noted, and was "very clear" that he would "support, embrace and move forward with the President's agenda." Then Gibbs twisted the rhetorical blade. "We regret that he had a change of heart," the spokesman said. Republicans, meanwhile, celebrated the ability of one of their own to embarrass the President. "Senator Gregg made a principled decision," crowed House Republican leader John Boehner in a press release. "The Administration is taking another one on the eyelid here," said Michael Steele, the new chairman of the Republican National Committee, in an interview with Fox News. (Read "How Maine's GOP Senators Are Key to Obama's Agenda.")

This was the spin, the echo chamber. And this is all most Americans will know about Gregg's withdrawal: that the President was denied yet again in his attempt to reach across the partisan aisle. The real reasons for Gregg's last-minute decision were another matter. A former New Hampshire governor turned legislator, Gregg has long been his own boss. As a relative moderate, he could have held considerable sway in the tightly divided Senate. The job of Commerce Secretary, traditionally the most ceremonial and least influential Cabinet job, offered very limited potential to shape policy. And since his appointment was announced, Gregg had been criticized by some Republicans both in Washington and at home in New Hampshire for being a traitor to the party. (Read "How to Know When the Economy Is Turning Up.)

"I just realized, as these issues started to come at us," Gregg said, "that it really wasn't a good fit, and that I wouldn't be comfortable doing this, and that it wouldn't be fair to [Obama] to be part of a team and not be able to be 100% on the team." With those words, Gregg offered what may be the most blunt statement of the challenge Obama faces in moving beyond the partisan and ideological divisions that have long defined national politics. Gregg declined to specify the issues or events that made him reconsider or why he had only just now realized that it wasn't a good fit when his differences with the Administration's agenda were never a secret. He was equally vague about the theory that he hadn't been happy that the White House had moved to take away some of the Commerce Department's traditional control of the Census after Democratic activists voiced concerns about a Republican overseeing the politically charged process. "The Census was only a slight catalyzing issue. It was not a major issue," he said.

Gregg, who does not expect to seek re-election in 2010, first made his concerns clear to Obama earlier this week. They met Wednesday at the White House, just a day after Gregg had conspicuously chosen not to vote at all on the Senate's stimulus plan. The news was kept secret until Thursday. In a briefing to reporters at the White House, Obama's chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, said the news had come as a blow. "My first thought was, It's better we discovered it now than later," he said, according to the Wall Street Journal. "If I said it wasn't a disappointment, that would lack credibility."

The Gregg news continues a string of disappointments to have hit the Obama team, including the withdrawal of two other Cabinet nominees, Health and Human Services Secretary nominee Tom Daschle and the first Commerce Secretary choice, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. But those prior separations were different in kind. Both Daschle and Richardson volunteered to leave the nomination process once their appointments became political liabilities. Gregg was a political asset to the President, one Obama boasted of in his Monday press conference, until the withdrawal. As any teenager will tell you, it's far better when a breakup is mutual than to get dumped when you least expect it.

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