With the withdrawal of Bill Richardson from consideration as Commerce Secretary under a cloud of scandal (see here), one starts to wonder exactly how transparent and transcendent the new Obama administration will actually be. With a campaign message that focused on ethics and keeping lobbyists out of the White House (a message I find wholly appropriate given the current state of our politics), President-elect Obama seems to be bending if not altogether breaking his own rules in deference to paying political patronage. Once again, he may become the victim of his own image and branding, which has created seriously high expectations from both his supporters and his opponents.

Obama’s Elliot Ness-like “Untouchable” mystique was never altogether unassailable (the Tony Rezko dealings, his rapid rise through the notoriously corrupt Chicago political machine), but by playing on the disillusionment of Americans and making himself larger than life by careful image cultivation, he managed to not only survive the 2008 election season but emerge victorious. He raised the stakes in doing so, however, and promised Americans an Obama that he certainly cannot deliver, in large part because he invited voters to project their wants and beliefs onto him rather than be entirely honest about his own political views and goals. Even with the “honeymoon” he’s absolutely certain to enjoy with the media for the first 3 to 6 months of his presidency, he unfortunately faces too many perils to remain the romanticized Barack Obama of Americans’ imaginations.

But the first cracks appearing in the Obama veneer are in the realm of ethics; a very bad way to start. President-elect Obama outright broke his own promise to keep special interests out of his White House when he nominated Senator Clinton for the job of Secretary of State. Her conflicts of interest are well-documented (now that the
list of donors to the William J Clinton Foundation have been pried from their hands). Whether or not she allows herself to be influenced by these interests, the level of scrutiny that will result from her association with them will have a profound impact on how she conducts American foreign policy. In either case, she is a poor choice given Obama’s pledge to have a transparent government free of lobbyists. There were countless, more eminently qualified candidates out there with much less political baggage. But the Clinton machine has to be fed, so he threw them a sizeable bone.

And now he’s faced with the Richardson issue, something he was well aware of when he tapped the New Mexico Governor to serve as Commerce Secretary in his administration. The grand jury investigation of a California firm that donated to Governor Richardson’s campaign and was subsequently awarded a large contract by the New Mexico Finance Authority had been in the news since August, according to Richardson’s team, and was on the Obama team’s radar since a few weeks prior to Richardson’s nomination. The President-elect once again chose political expediency over adherence to principle. Richardson, who broke ties with his former patrons the Clintons to support Mr. Obama during the primary campaign, is almost certainly fuming now that his nomination has come to an abrupt end well after he disclosed the investigation.

If you feel I’m being too exacting, please don’t misunderstand. I know there are realities in politics, but the point is that President-elect Obama promised to transcend traditional politics. He promised to keep corruption out of his administration altogether. He’s compelling all applicants for jobs within his administration to undergo a rigorous background check that has been well-publicized in the media (not by accident). He has promised us a break with “old politics.” I wouldn’t have any problem with these promises whatsoever, if he was at all serious about keeping them. Indeed, I would be the first to applaud him. But sadly he’s demonstrated that he’s willing to break them where political capital is to be gained, the Clinton nomination being the prime example. And he hasn’t even been inaugurated yet.

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