Bill Richardson’s Real Job: Obama’s “Latino in Chief”

Bill Richardson may not have been appointed secretary of state, but his remarks in Spanish after a brief and ceremonial thank you in English left no doubt that he had in mind a bigger role for himself in the Obama Administration: that of “Latino in Chief.”

“To our Latino community, thank you for your votes. Like he (President-elect Barack Obama) told us, ‘Yes, we can’, and our vote has been our voice,” he said in his very Mexican Spanish. “To the millions of people in Latin America and the Caribbean, we have to strengthen the ties that bind us and remember the importance of a united continent.”

[Watch Richardson’s remarks here:]

Those are lofty words for somebody who is supposedly only going to deal with issues of commerce, and not diplomatic relations. But his comments made some believe that he sees himself as a link between Obama — who is said to have limited relations with Latino leaders outside of Illinois — and Latinos everywhere.

It’s hard to know if Secretary of State designate Hillary Clinton will give up Latin America to her “former friend-former rival,” but it appears that Richardson is not asking for permission, and that he has Obama’s support for this larger role.

Obama gave Richardson his own press conference and declared him to be part of his “economic team” — introducing him separately from the previously-announced team members. He also said that Richardson was being named an “economic diplomat.”

“Commerce secretary is a pretty good job,” said Obama somewhat defensively after a Latino reporter mentioned that some believed Commerce was a consolation prize for Richardson, who was rumored to actually want the State post.

Some Latino leaders have been critical of Obama for not offering Richardson one “of the most important cabinet positions.” But Richardson seems happy with his appointment and even got rid of that beard that suited him so well — and that he grew after leaving the Democratic presidential primary race.

A reporter asked about the beard during the news conference. “I think he made a mistake in getting rid of it,” Obama said. “That rugged western look was really working for him.”

Kidding aside, Richardson will be in the room when some key decisions are made. Later Thursday, a leak from the transition camp said Congressman Xavier Becerra, an early Obama supporter from Los Angeles, was being offered the job of U.S. trade representative.

Suddenly, trade and commerce with Latin America seem to be high on the agenda again. And better relations may be on the way.