From NBC's Athena Jones
CHICAGO -- Obama said today that New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, the only Latino so far who has been named to a cabinet post in the emerging Obama Administration, would be an "unyielding advocate" for American business and American jobs as Commerce secretary.
The president-elect said Richardson -- who was UN ambassador and Energy secretary during the Clinton Administration before being twice elected governor -- was uniquely suited to be a leading economic diplomat for America. In response to a question about whether Commerce secretary was a consolation prize for Latino supporters, Obama said the notion that the position was not going to be important in his administration was mistaken.
"Commerce secretary is a pretty good job," he said to some laughter from the assembled reporters. "It's a member of my key economic team that is going to be dealing with the most significant issue that America faces right now, and that is: How do we put people back to work and rejuvenate the economy?"
Obama said Richardson was the best person for that job, and noted that he had only appointed about half of his cabinet. "I think that when people look back and see the entire slate, what they will say is -- not only in terms of my cabinet, but in terms of ... my White House staff, I think people are going to say, this is one of the most diverse cabinets and White House staffs of all time," he said. "But more importantly, they're going to say these are all people of outstanding qualifications and excellence."
In his brief remarks, Richardson -- the third former presidential candidate from the 2008 campaign to join Obama's close circle -- took issue with the idea that the president-elect was assembling a "team of rivals," saying the word "rival" was "harder edged and less forgiving" than necessary.
"In the worlds of diplomacy and commerce, you open markets and minds not with rivalry, but instead with partnership and innovation and hard work," he said. "The unique strengths of the department and its talented public servants make it that natural agency to serve as a programmatic nerve center in America's struggle to rejuvenate our economy. The catch phrases of your economic plan -- investment, public-private partnerships, green jobs, technology, broad-band, climate change and research -- that is the Department of Commerce."
The governor spoke briefly in Spanish. He directed his remarks to the Latino community, saying in part "Our vote has been our voice. This election has demonstrated our strength and our unity."
During a roughly nine-minute Q&A with reporters after the announcement, Obama also said his economic team was closely monitoring the use of the $700 billion in TARP funds Congress approved. "My team has been reviewing very carefully how the TARP program has proceeded," he said. "The GAO report has now come out; we're seeing some areas where we can be doing better in making sure that this money is not going to CEO compensation; that it's protecting tax payers and that the taxpayers are going to get their money back; that it's effective in shoring up our financial markets."
When a reporter asked the clean-shaven Richardson what had become of his beard, Obama stepped in to answer, displaying a bit of mischievous humor as he joked that there was deep disappointment at the loss of a beard that had given Richardson "whole western rugged look" he thought "was really working for him."