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Team Obama, 2013: handicapping the new cabinet

Credit: Pete Souza/ White House

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).

Secretary Clinton, while in Kabul a few months ago, pledged major U.S. security and economic assistance to the present Afghan government for years after the pullout date. Kerry and Hagel may not agree. Obama is likely to go along with his two new advisors, since his own instincts clearly lean toward fuller disengagement sooner.
Obama's nominee for Treasury Secretary, Jack Lew, cannot claim the senior banking/Wall Street background that has become common for Treasury appointees (such as the outgoing Tim Geithner) — although he did do a brief, undistinguished tour at Citigroup before and after the 2008 financial crisis. Lew’s lack of financial-sector experience could hurt his credibility internationally and in the financial community. He does bring a deep background, though, in public taxing, spending and borrowing issues — and he is a partisan. Lew served as a junior aide to former House Speaker Tip O'Neill and, later, as a congressional and White House budget director and chief of staff to Obama. Lew was Obama's principal negotiator last year in the talks with House Speaker John Boehner and other congressional Republicans about deficit-reduction and borrowing issues that ultimately turned nasty.
Given the confrontational tone on tax and spend issues in Obama's inaugural speech, it appears likely that White House and Congress will continue to confront each other over budget issues in the coming months. We'll see how Obama plays his upcoming State of the Union speech. Lew will be tough or accommodating, depending on the course his boss chooses.
One further change to the Obama inner circle was replacing Lew with Dennis McDonough as White House chief of staff. McDonough was a foreign-policy aide on Obama's Senate staff before becoming the Deputy National Security Advisor in the president's first term.  He knows his boss well. Normally, a new chief of staff might herald a change in the content and tone of Obama’s second term policies. But I expect McDonough to be more of an executor of Obama's wishes than someone who will dissent or present an independent view. 

I met McDonough during Obama's 2008 presidential campaign when he engaged in an off-the-record debate with Sen. John McCain's campaign national-security advisor (McCain's staffer clearly had the upper hand). Afterward, I talked with McDonough. He is a Minnesotan who has that state's progressive policy outlook. He projected honesty and trustworthiness. White House alumni and watchers confirm that he has those qualities. He won’t rock the boat. 

I do not know Chuck Hagel personally. He is a graduate of the University of Nebraska – Omaha. He served as an enlisted infantryman in Vietnam. His origins are modest but, since leaving the Senate, he has made money from corporate directorships. I have heard him talk in small-group settings. Hagel is no policy intellectual, not even close. But his experience has taught him valuable lessons about defense policy, and he has a feel for ordinary servicemen and women. The current deputy at Defense, Ashton Carter, no doubt will manage the Pentagon. Hagel will be its public face. 
I have known John Kerry since 1971, when he co-founded Vietnam Veterans Against the War. Whereas Hagel was a Cornhusker and a military foot soldier, Kerry was Yale Skull&Bones and a Navy Swiftboat commander. Kerry has great wealth. Yet I have never found him to be self important or to display a sense of entitlement. He entered politics not just out of personal ambition, but from a sense of service and genuine interest in policy. When he remarried, his second wife (Teresa Heinz) complained about his habit of beer-drinking with his staff members at the end of Senate workdays. Kerry is a regular guy at heart.
So, how will Obama’s second- compare to his first-term team?
The president will be more personally comfortable with this second-term group. Obama knew both Kerry and Hagel in the Senate.  Lew and McDonough have worked with him in the White House, see him on a daily basis there, share his politics and are likely to pursue  his policies without question.  
Obama and Hillary Clinton had an edgy relationship at the outset of his presidency. They had been competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. (Some believe Obama offered State to Hillary as a way to remove her from her independent political base in the Senate.) As things turned out, there were no public disputes between them, although Hillary's constant travels might have been due in part to her desire to avoid the tensions between State and White House. 

Unlike Clinton, John Kerry has no past history of rivalry with Obama. He was a presidential nominee and chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Kerry would not hesitate to make contrary views known internally on any issue he considered important. But a public disagreement with the president would be unlikely.
Hagel was nominated because he will, without objection, make the Defense cuts that both predecessors (Bob Gates and outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta) would have publicly resisted making. But Obama is mistaken if he thinks Hagel's appointment will inoculate the administration from Republican criticism of budget cuts, or other Pentagon policy changes. (That was clearly demonstrated during Hagel’s confirmation hearings the nominee was attacked by Sen. John McCain, whose 2008 presidential campaign Hagel strongly supported). Hagel isn’t popular with Democrats either, although they will vote for his confirmation rather than see their president embarrassed.

Hagel testified that he does not see himself as "a policymaker." He will not be a strong Defense Secretary, but he will do Obama's budget-cutting bidding. Hagel is no willful McNamara or Rumsfeld, and for that we can be grateful.
Obama didn’t really know or necessarily trust Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates and Leon Panetta, and Tim Geithner when he came into office in 2009. In his second term, the president is starting out with people who are very familiar and trusted.  (On the domestic front, he has kept Attorney General Eric Holder and Education Secretary Arne Duncan, both of whom he sees as "his people.")

We're likely to see a more forceful Obama from this point forward. He has four years on the job and a team of loyal and predictable colleagues nearby.

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