With two weeks still left in President-elect Barack Obama’s transition and because of the alleged corrupt conduct of several people in his proximity and his own passivity and public silence (and the inherent drama of current events), his has become the most dramatic presidential transition in memory.
The phrase "No Drama Obama" was born March 12, 2008, when retired Air Force Gen. Merrill McPeak, who was campaigning for Obama, labeled him "No Shock Barack, No Drama Obama." It is fair to say that this useful and rhyming campaign slogan finally and formally was laid to rest last Sunday, when — after weeks of Illinois transition opera bouffe and colorful Caroline Kennedy Senate-snatching efforts — Obama’s designated commerce secretary, Bill Richardson, withdrew his name one step ahead of a New Mexico grand jury.
Team Obama lost no time Sunday afternoon turning that embarrassing incident into a classless finger-pointing exercise, as they backgrounded Richardson’s treachery. According to ABC News, "Officials on the Obama Transition Team feel that before he was formally offered the job of commerce secretary, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson was not forthcoming with them about the federal investigation that is looking into whether the governor steered a state contract towards a major financial contributor." Of course, no one has suggested that Obama knew either of Richardson’s alleged conduct or what his transition team was saying to ABC News.
Also on Sunday, the normally Obama-friendly New York Times went after Obama’s designated secretary of state, with the following headline and lead: "A Donor’s Gift Soon Followed Clinton’s Help." "An upstate New York developer donated $100,000 to former President Bill Clinton’s foundation in November 2004, around the same time that Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton helped secure millions of dollars in federal assistance for the businessman’s mall project." Of course, no one is suggesting that Obama had any personal knowledge of these Clinton transactions at the time he nominated her.
It is too soon to tell whether The New York Times‘ innuendo will threaten her confirmation. Presumably, Obama’s Democratic Senate allies will not want to embarrass him with two withdrawn nominations. But it is undeniable that Obama’s selection for secretary of state (and her husband) will provide foreign intelligence services with endless embarrassing information to be leaked worldwide during the pendency of her service as secretary of state. Presumably, Obama considered this risk and judged that it was outweighed by the value to him of her vast experience and worldwide reputation as the former first lady and one-term senator.
It is rare and inauspicious, though not unprecedented, for a newly elected president to have to withdraw a Cabinet nominee. (Bill Clinton famously had to try three times before finding an attorney general nominee who had not appeared to violate the immigration and tax codes. George H.W. Bush lost his secretary of defense nominee, John Tower, to rumors of drinking and whoring.) But the Rod Blagojevich, Kennedy, Richardson and Clinton messes are merely unfortunate.
What history may judge more harshly is Obama’s silence (as I write this column) on the Israeli/Hamas war. Even if he speaks by the time this column is published, he has badly mismanaged his "Muslim outreach" initiative, which he described during the campaign as important. Obama famously asserted that he wanted to "reboot" America’s relations with the 1.4 billion Muslims. (The term "reboot" itself was an unfortunate choice, given Muslims’ disdain for shoes.)
He went to Israel during the campaign and said — referring to Hamas rockets hitting Israel — that if such a thing happened to his daughters, there is nothing he wouldn’t do to stop it. That statement clearly was seen as a green light for Israel to defend itself. Whether Obama intended it that way we will never know.
Then, when Israel took action two weeks ago, Obama remained silent. The result in the Middle East was well-described by The Guardian, a British newspaper, last weekend: "Obama is losing a battle he doesn’t know he’s in. The president-elect’s silence on the Gaza crisis is undermining his reputation in the Middle East. (His) chances of making a fresh start in US relations with the Muslim world, and the Middle East in particular, appear to diminish with each new wave of Israeli attacks on Palestinian targets in Gaza. That seems hardly fair, given the president-elect does not take office until January 20. But foreign wars don’t wait for Washington inaugurations."
Now, I — and many other conservatives — always thought Obama was being unforgivably naive in thinking he could talk us out of the clash of civilizations between radical Islam and the West.
But my views notwithstanding, given Obama’s intentions, his first gratuitous words (in Israel) followed now by his loud silence seem rather obviously destined to undercut his own intentions. If he intends to shrewdly lead the world, he should understand that images of him golfing in Hawaii while saying nothing as Palestinians are being bombed to death are going to be both seen and condemned in the Middle East, which he aspires to lead to better days.
Perhaps, like Jack Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco, this will be an early lesson for Obama in Being President 101.