How Obama’s Cabinet will shape his second term

March 11, 2013

Now that President Obama has the bulk of his Cabinet filled, a question looms: what does he aim to do with his new team?


President Obama and his Cabinet.

Here’s a look at the men and women who will shape the president’s second-term agenda, as well as his legacy:

National Security Team

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, CIA director John O. Brennan and Secretary of State John F. Kerry are the three men who will aim to downsize the military while still maintaining America’s position as a global leader prepared to tackle both terrorism threats and instability abroad. All three men are veterans of conflict: Hagel and Kerry served in Vietnam, while Brennan has spent a quarter century at the agency he now leads.

In announcing Hagel and Brennan’s nominations, Obama said he would charge them with “ending the war in Afghanistan and caring for those who have borne the battle, [and] preparing for the full range of threats.”

Facing a war-weary nation, these new appointees will focus on strengthening multilateral alliances and using the nation’s intelligence system and counterterrorism technology to confront threats from America’s enemies. But, as Sen. Rand Paul’s filibuster over Brennan’s nomination last week shows, the Obama administration’s reliance on drones to target terrorists will face increased congressional scrutiny and criticism in the months ahead.

As Paul (R-Ky.) wrote in The Post’s Outlook section Sunday, “I believe the support I received this past week shows that Americans are looking for someone to stand up and fight for them. And I’m prepared to do just that.”

Susan E. Rice, Obama's ambassador to the United Nations and one of his most trusted advisers, emerged over the weekend as the favorite for national security adviser, where she would play a leading role on the team. Two longtime administration aides -- Denis McDonough, who served as deputy national security adviser before becoming White House chief of staff, and White House national security adviser Thomas Donilon -- will also play key roles in charting the administration’s national security agenda.

More broadly, the administration will engage in international affairs by expanding its presence in Asia, working to defuse tensions in the Middle East, seeking to curb nuclear proliferation and tackling climate change through negotiations with China and other key countries.

National Economics Team

This group is composed largely of veteran Obama adminstration, and for that matter, Clinton administration officials, who face the formidable challenge of boosting the nation’s economy and resolving the ongoing battle over sequestration and the future standoff over the debt limit. And in the best of all possible worlds, they will strike a grand bargain to ensure the long-term viability of the nation’s Social Security and Medicare programs.

Jacob Lew, who served budget director for both Obama and Bill Clinton, now heads the Treasury Department and will help orchestrate the overall policy. He has played a key role in forging deals on both spending and taxes for three decades. He knows the terrain well, but has also angered a few Republicans along the way.

Gene Sperling, who directs the White House National Economic Council, will remain in a post that has allowed him to both generate policy ideas and sell those proposals to Capitol Hill and the general public. Sperling has recently become embroiled in a debate with Bob Woodward over who initially came up with the idea of sequestration -- Lew hatched it, but Sperling has emphasized that Republicans shaped it by ruling out any revenue increases as part of the deal. But overall, he’s fairly well liked by those in the GOP.

The new director of the Office of Management and Budget, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, served along with Lew and Sperling in the Clinton administration. Burwell, who hails from a small town in West Virgina, has been focused on the same issue of economic inequality that concerns the president.

Now, this liberal economic team will have to figure out if they can do what was beyond Obama’s reach in his first term: a sweeping compromise with Republicans that will put the nation’s fiscal house in order. The president has sketched out key elements of a deal, including cutting two dollars in spending for every dollar increase in revenue, and changes to how Social Security would be calculated. At the same time, he has made it clear he will not negotiate over raising the national debt ceiling once again. Whether Obama’s recent overture to Republicans, coupled with his reconfigured team, will be enough to forge a deal remains to be seen.

National Energy/Environment Team

With Massachusetts Institute of Technology physicist Ernest Moniz poised to take over the Energy Department, and Environmental Protection Agency air chief Gina McCarthy nominated to head her agency, Obama has picked two individuals well versed in both substance and bureaucratic politicking. Moniz, who served as DOE undersecretary during the Clinton administration, is a proponent of Obama’s “all of the above” energy policy and committed to technological advancement. McCarthy, who spent several years as an environmental regulator under Republican governors in New England before taking over EPA’s air and radiation office in 2009, has managed to charm many of her critics with her blunt, humorous style even as she’s imposed stricter air quality standards.

Both of them will pursue the president’s stated goal of addressing global warming, but they will approach it differently. Moniz won’t have the same kind of money to hand out that his predecessor Steven Chu had, but he can still target key federal grants to different sectors of the energy industry and will likely weigh in on future federal rules aimed at regulating hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. McCarthy has plenty of regulatory tools at her disposal --especially the Clean Air Act, which she can use to regulate greenhouse gas emissions from existing power plants. That will trigger a major political battle, however, so the Obama administration is still weighing how it will exercise its executive authority.

The rest of the Cabinet

Obama still has a few posts left to fill, including those of labor secretary, commerce secretary, transportation secretary and U.S trade representative. Thomas E. Perez is likely to be named as labor secretary, while longtime Obama donor Penny Pritzker continues to lead the pack of potential commerce secretary nominees. For the most part, however, the trajectory of Obama’s second term is pretty clear.

 

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