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Team Obama, 2013: handicapping the new cabinet

As President Obama welcomes new secretaries of Treasury, State and (hopefully) Defense, Ted Van Dyk looks at the critical role of presidential advisers - past and present.

Last Thursday’s prickly confirmation hearings for Chuck Hagel, President Obama's Defense Secretary nominee and a former Republican senator, provided yet another reminder that although demographics, the general political climate and interest-group power all influence policy, in the end it is the people chosen to make and execute policy who make the difference.
 
You don't have to ponder long to conclude that, at the national level, Presidents Franklin Roosevelt, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Obama, among others, made policy course changes that would not have been pursued by their electoral opponents. Their Cabinet and advisory casts played influential roles in those policy decisions.
 
Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon must share blame for a mistaken U.S. intervention in Vietnam. But so should the Cabinet members and advisors — Robert McNamara, Dean Rusk, McGeorge Bundy, Walt Rostow and Henry Kissinger — who pushed that intervention. A newly elected President George W. Bush followed the advice of Vice President Dick Cheney, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Under Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and their neoconservative allies when he tried to stop Iraq's Saddam Hussein from using nuclear, biological and chemical weapons which, it turned out, were nonexistent.
 
Walter Heller, economic advisor to JFK and LBJ, was instrumental in initiating policies that promoted growth, investment, and employment. A team of exceptionally high quality domestic Cabinet members that included Health Education and Welfare’s Secretary John Gardner, Labor Secretary Willard Wirtz, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and war-on-poverty director Sargent Shriver, succeeded in carrying those policies out. (Most of the Kennedy/Johnson domestic Cabinet members served for the entire eight years of those presidencies.)

Nixon, for his part, instituted groundbreaking new environmental policies, making Bill Ruckelshaus the country’s first administrator of the new Environmental Protection Agency. The domestic policy advisors of that era made a positive difference, unlike their national-security counterparts.
 
President Obama, through two national campaigns and his first term, has clearly defined himself as a president who wants center stage and the microphone and prefers his Cabinet and White House staff singing backup. Yet, the single strongest Cabinet member during his first term was Defense Secretary Bob Gates. A holdover from the George W. Bush administration, Gates was not afraid to dissent openly, as when he declared that anyone contemplating a U.S. military intervention in Libya, as Obama was at the time, "should have his head examined." Obama launched such an intervention anyway, mainly at the urging of another independent voice in his Cabinet, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. 

Clinton, departing State, generally gets good marks. She has been bright, forceful, knowledgeable and hard working and has logged more overseas miles than her recent predecessors. But there were no large policy achievements on her watch and she will be judged eventually on how the whole "Arab Spring" enterprise turns out in the Middle East. Regime changes in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and prospectively in Syria, were considered automatic pluses for the United States. In the end, they may turn out like the earlier Bush intervention in Iraq, a failed attempt to bring democratic, western-style governance to that part of the world. Des Moines, it turns out, is not that easily replicated in Baghdad or Benghazi or, as we have seen, in Kabul.
 
Assuming Chuck Hagel is confirmed, he and new Secretary of State John Kerry have some personal history and viewpoints in common. Both Kerry and Hagel served in Vietnam and returned as avid critics of that war.  Both have questioned the use of American military power in places where our vital interests were not clearly at stake. Kerry, as a senator, showed an independent streak when he joined a handful of other Democrats and Republicans in an attempt to broker a last minute deficit-reduction deal last year after both Obama and the special congressional deficit-reduction committee, co-chaired by Sen. Patty Murray, had given up on it.  As a Senator, Hagel showed a more negative independent streak, which is coming back to haunt him. Earlier remarks about gays, Jews and other groups, for which he has since apologized, are causing him grief as he seeks the Defense Secretary post. 
 
Obama, at the beginning of his first term, clearly lacked confidence in foreign policy and national security arenas. He went along with Pentagon and other advisors who were urging a continuing role in Afghanistan. Already, since his reelection, the president has begun to talk openly about withdrawing U.S. combat forces from the country prior to his earlier announced timetable (which called for a pullout at the end of 2014).


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