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Ex-Labor Secretary Reich backs Obama

Times Staff Writer

Former Labor Secretary Robert Reich on Friday became the fifth former Clinton Cabinet member to endorse Barack Obama, saying that loyalty to his old friends the Clintons had been overwhelmed by unhappiness with the tone of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s presidential campaign.

“I did not plan to endorse. I wanted to stay out of the whole endorsement racket. But my conscience wouldn’t let me stay silent after this latest round of mudslinging,” Reich, a UC Berkeley professor of public policy, said in a telephone interview from his campus office.

“When millions of Americans are losing their homes and jobs, when the economy is facing its worst crisis in 60 years, when the Iraq war is still causing chaos in the Middle East, to focus on whether Obama should have used the word ‘bitter’ when he talked about the plight of many in Pennsylvania, and to resurrect the old Republican themes of guns and religion, and to call Obama ‘elitist’ . . . just put me over the edge.”

A spokesman for Bill Clinton, who first met Reich when the two were sailing to England in 1968 as Rhodes scholars, said the former president had no comment. A spokesman for Hillary Clinton, who attended Yale Law School with her husband-to-be and Reich in the early 1970s, dismissed the endorsement.

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“He made clear his choice some time ago, so this isn’t any surprise,” said Mo Elleithee.

Reich had previously laced into the Clintons on his blog, including postings titled “Will HRC Spoil the Party?” (yes, he suggested, by staying in the race too long); “Why Is HRC Stooping So Low” (which criticized her “stridency and inaccuracy” in discussing Social Security); and “Bill Clinton’s Old Politics” (which criticized his “ill-tempered and ill-founded attacks” on Obama).

Still, Reich’s written endorsement -- which offered only positive reasons for his decision -- drew wide coverage after being posted on his blog (robertreich.blogspot.com). It also underscored one of the difficulties that Clinton faces as she struggles to overtake Sen. Obama of Illinois, who leads the Democratic contest in pledged delegates and the popular vote with just a few major primaries remaining. The more aggressive her tack, polls suggest, the higher she drives her own negative standing with voters.

“She’s in a box,” said Democratic strategist Joe Trippi, who has stayed neutral since his candidate, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, quit the race. “The more she does the thing she has to do, the more people don’t like her.”

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Others suggested that Reich’s endorsement was significant for the signal it would send to the 300 or so unpledged superdelegates, the party leaders who are likely to decide the Democratic nomination. Reich is not a superdelegate.

Even so, “what it says to superdelegates is loyalty only goes so far. You have to make your decision based on what you think is best for the party,” said Bruce Cain, a UC Berkeley political scientist. “If people like Richardson and now Reich can step out of the Clinton orbit, then it gets easier for fellow superdelegates who are bound by reasons of loyalty to also do so.”

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who dropped out of the Democratic race, served as Energy secretary and as ambassador to the United Nations in the Clinton administration.

Along with Reich and Richardson -- who is a superdelegate, by virtue of his office -- the others who served in the Clinton Cabinet and now support Obama are former Commerce Secretary William M. Daley; former Commerce Secretary Norman Y. Mineta; and Federico Pena, who held two posts under Clinton, Transportation secretary and Energy secretary.

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Reich left the administration at the end of Clinton’s first term and wrote a book that expressed both affection for the president and disappointment with some of his policies, which Reich considered too accommodating of Republicans.

On Friday he carefully weighed his words. Like Richardson, who discussed his Obama endorsement in an interview last week, Reich said he had felt “very torn, frankly,” because of residual loyalty to the Clintons. Initially, he considered it “unnecessary and inappropriate to endorse Obama.”

After changing his mind over the last few days -- “I just had enough” -- Reich tried calling the couple Thursday but was unsuccessful. It has been about a year since he last spoke with Hillary Clinton, Reich said, and even longer since he last talked to her husband.

He gave no advance notice of his endorsement to the Obama campaign and professed no interest in a Cabinet position should Obama win in November. “Been there, done that,” Reich said. “Nobody will ever get me to leave the Bay Area, regardless of what is offered.”

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Obama picked up two other endorsements Friday, from former Sens. David Boren of Oklahoma and Sam Nunn of Georgia. Clinton won the backing of a superdelegate, Rep. Betty Sutton of Ohio.

Clinton leads among superdelegates, 257 to 231, but Obama leads in the overall delegate count, 1,645 to 1,507, according to the Associated Press. It takes 2,025 delegates to win the nomination.

They campaigned across Pennsylvania on Friday, ahead of their next big test in Tuesday’s primary.

Clinton appeared at a midday rally at Radnor High School, in a wealthy suburb in eastern Pennsylvania, where she scoffed at suggestions that the questioning in Wednesday night’s debate was too tough.

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“I’m with Harry Truman on this: If you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen,” Clinton said. “Just speaking for myself, I am very comfortable in the kitchen.”

Obama appeared at a town-hall meeting in Erie and at Philadelphia’s Independence Hall.

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mark.barabak@latimes.com

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Times staff writer Louise Roug and Bloomberg News Service contributed to this report.


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