Gregg's Revolt Unmasks Obama's Highly Politicized White House

February 17, 2009

Senator Judd Gregg's announcement late Thursday afternoon, revoking his agreement to serve as Secretary of Commerce, badly damages President Barack Obama's aura of bipartisanship. Gregg clearly concluded that his future effectiveness at Commerce was rapidly deteriorating. Furthermore, he must have been furious at having been politically humiliated by the White House last Thursday when it announced it would wrest control of the Census Bureau from the Commerce Department. Unfortunately, this debacle reflects the true nature and inherent weakness of the highly politicized White House now being created by President Obama.

It may not seem that important, but the Census Bureau plays a critical role in the political life of our country. Obama's decision is all about playing with the numbers -- that is, the 10-year population data that informs the apportionment of seats in the House of Representatives, distribution of state legislative districts, and the allocation of government spending based on population.

According to Carrie Dann in the February 6 issue of Congress Daily, the organizational change came about "after the Congressional Black Caucus, National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and other groups expressed displeasure" with Obama's nomination of Gregg to be Secretary of Commerce. According to the groups, Gregg essentially had condoned the undercounting of minorities in the 2000 Census when he voted against emergency funding that year. It was a grossly unfair accusation. Nevertheless, the decision to shift control of the Census Bureau's budget and public affairs functions to the Office of Management and Budget was intended to placate these groups.

Try to imagine the Democrats' response if the Bush White House had put Karl Rove in charge of Census. They would have gone nuts and that reaction would have been justified merely for the appearances created by such a ham-fisted stunt. The problem here is that the Democrats do want to move the census from an actual head count, as required by the Constitution, to a count that incorporates manipulable statistical sampling. Since Rahm Emanuel doesn't have a Ph.D. in applied statistics, this organizational shift doesn't seem on the up-and-up.

Gregg's "resignation" and his public reference to the disagreement over the Census Bureau tell us much about President Obama. First, keeping Gregg in the cabinet and avoiding the unavoidable destruction of political capital was not as important to him as catering to Democratic Party interest groups. Second, it also indicates that messing with the Census is a priority of his administration. If it weren't, Obama would have made peace with Gregg who most probably could have swallowed the appalling stimulus bill if it were the only unwholesome meal on his menu. However, Gregg could not have allowed himself to become the administration's GOP political gelding - always available to be trotted around the Ellipse as evidence of Obama's "new politics" bona fides.

The White House politicization is most obvious in this fight over the Census, but there are other signs. A recent White House staffing decision has also alarmed knowledgeable observers. On February 9 Jon Ward of The Washington Times wrote about opposition researcher "Shauna Daly, a 29-year-old Democratic operative," who "was named last month to the new job of White House counsel research director." That is, she is now the top researcher inside the White House legal office. She is not an attorney and "doesn't list any legal training on her resume."

An "opposition researcher" is someone who helps dig up dirt on political rivals, and this appears to be the sum and substance of her working career. There may be a place and time for such things, but not in that office. The Times notes that "even some Democrats said there is reason to be cautious about the presence of a political-opposition researcher inside a White House legal office that is supposed to be free of partisan influence." In this economy, there are certainly plenty of fine, unemployed lawyers who would love to work in the White House counsel's office for almost any salary. For its part, the White House assures us that she will be doing legal work.

Finally, we have some highly placed abortion activists on the White House staff. Ellen Moran, of Emily's List, the major political fund-raiser for pro-abortion candidates, will be Communications Director. Melody Barnes, head of the White House Domestic Policy Council, was a board member for Planned Parenthood and Emily's List. This is not a complete list, and, of course, political activists have long gotten jobs for which they were ill-suited in many administrations. That being said, the Gregg rupture has set off a five-alarm call to examine whether this White House is taking us in a new direction. It may be doing exactly that, but not on the road the country wanted to travel.