Obama Cabinet nominees, from left: Jack Lew, John Brennan, John Kerry and Chuck Hagel. (Washington Post illustration)
January 11, 2013

David J. Rothkopf is chief executive and editor at large of the FP Group, which publishes Foreign Policy magazine. A visiting scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, he is the author of “Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power.”

What happened to the team of rivals?

The choices President Obama has made for his second-term Cabinet are all experienced, capable men. Each has had a distinguished career, whether as a legislator, a veteran of past administrations or in another top government post.

But in nominating Sen. John Kerry to be secretary of state, former senator Chuck Hagel to be defense secretary, White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to be Treasury secretary and John Brennan to be CIA director, and in keeping Tom Donilon to run the National Security Council, the president is sending a clear message that what you’ve seen is what you’ll continue to get in America’s foreign policy.

Former State Department official Karl Inderfurth has tried to put a positive spin on the new team by calling its members “a band of brothers.” But one could just as easily call them the usual suspects. Unfortunately, old ideas and standard Washington thinking will probably be just as effective in improving foreign policy as they have been in solving economic and political problems at home.

Of course, familiarity should not reflexively breed contempt. But the same qualities that make these men well-known, comfortable with one another and probably confirmable may also limit them. They are closely linked to a Washington establishment that has struggled mightily to cope with a radically changed Middle East, our faltering economy, the challenges of complex and volatile global markets, and the emergence of new threats such as cyberwarfare. Is this really the right crew to produce the policy changes that America needs and that Obama was elected twice to provide?

Kerry is perhaps the quintessential Democratic Party foreign policy leader: Not only is he chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he has been a leading voice on international issues since entering the Senate in 1985. Hagel was in the Senate for just two terms, ending in 2009, but since then he has been a fixture in the Washington policy community, serving as a co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, chairing the Atlantic Council and teaching at Georgetown’s School of Foreign Service.

Brennan, an innovator in shaping America’s controversial drone warfare strategies, is also a 25-year veteran of the CIA and would be returning to an agency whose culture is resolutely resistant to change. And Lew, a respected member of the Obama and Clinton administrations, is a consummate Washington insider but has limited experience in dealing with international financial markets.

Since his first days in office, Obama has been criticized for relying too heavily on a very small group of advisers, almost all in the White House, and for being largely disconnected from his Cabinet. For all the heavy hitters on the original team of rivals — think Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner — much of the real heavy lifting on foreign policy was done in the small circle that convened with the president for his morning security briefings, typically including Vice President Biden, Donilon, Brennan, deputy national security adviser Dennis McDonough and Biden aide Tony Blinken.

Top political advisers such as Valerie Jarrett, David Plouffe and David Axelrod also had special entree and influence. But few other outsiders did, and even some officials who should have played significant roles often found themselves frozen out. (See former national security adviser James Jones.)

A similar pattern was apparent on the economic side, with Geithner, Lew and a few White House advisers enjoying great access and influence, and other members of the economic Cabinet often out of the loop.

This kind of bubble insulates a commander in chief from a diversity of views and can lead to the unhealthy groupthink that emerges when the few on the inside have most of their conversations with the same people over and over again.

At the outset of a second term in which electoral considerations are diminished, and with the president’s expertise on national security and economic policy vastly expanded, now would be a natural time to introduce new voices to the mix. Instead, with the addition of people like Hagel and Kerry — who were among the few outsiders who had the president’s ear from time to time — the bubble is only expanding a little.

The problem is compounded because the administration’s “new” faces include several from Capitol Hill, a place not known as a hotbed of creativity in any area other than petty infighting. As defense analyst Tom Ricks recently wrote, “I cannot remember another modern administration that pulled almost all its top national security officials from the Congress.” He argued that some of the best past choices came from other pursuits, whether science and technology specialists such as Harold Brown and William Perry, former business leaders such as David Packard and Robert McNamara, former lawyers along the lines of Caspar Weinberger and Henry Stimson, or military men including George Marshall and Colin Powell. (The Obama Cabinet’s one bona fide scientific genius, Energy Secretary and Nobel laureate Steven Chu,seems likely to depart.)

Today’s economic and foreign policy concerns are increasingly centered on cyberwar, information technology security, financial innovation, economic reconstruction and other arenas where the newest ideas and top experts are in short supply in Washington. So why not turn to business leaders, who are far more internationally experienced and aware than many members of Congress? Or scientists, who work with colleagues around the planet, routinely sharing data and insights across labs and time zones? Or financial innovators? Academic leaders? How about someone outside the Beltway?

What’s more, given the pace of change, we could use different generational perspectives — not to mention those of women, who appear woefully underrepresented even in the government that gave us Secretary of State Clinton and U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice. More ideological diversity would also be welcome; it has been a hallmark of many of our most successful Cabinets.

Our Cold War playbook is 20 years out of date, though it still seems to drive much of our defense budget. Our Middle East playbook was undone by the Arab Spring. Our helplessness over the euro-zone crisis reveals that our international economic playbook has some pages missing. Such challenges — along with the failure to make progress on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or on nuclear proliferation, or to prepare adequately for the rise of emerging powers — make clear that the next four years will require some new approaches. And such approaches are not typically found inside bubbles or presidential comfort zones.

To be productive, a true team of rivals requires discipline and a collaborative spirit. Obama was lucky (and smart) in his first term to have advisers such as Clinton who were strong, but who also had every incentive and inclination to be team players, offering differing views behind the scenes while deferring to the president in public. Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration and perhaps the ultimate career national security officer, was direct about his views (as in the review of U.S. policy in Afghanistan, in which he and Clinton challenged key White House positions) but was always respectful of the chain of command.

The proposed, more homogenous Cabinet may not be as disciplined, however. Kerry has been a loyal supporter of Obama, conducting diplomatic missions for him and even helping him prepare for debates during the presidential campaign. But neither he nor Hagel has historically been regarded as a team player accustomed to leaving the spotlight to others.They will be tested when decisions don’t go their way, and they may grow frustrated by Obama’s White House-centric policy process.

It is possible, of course, that the president’s new team will recognize the need for change and the benefits of working together to make it happen. Both Kerry and Hagel, for instance, have generally opposed reckless U.S. engagement in foreign conflicts, the kind of adventurism in which Obama’s predecessor specialized and that the current administration has spent much time undoing. In choosing people such as Brennan, Kerry and Hagel, the president is signaling that he will stay focused on getting out of Afghanistan, that cutting defense spending is a priority, and that he intends to further develop the “Obama doctrine” of warfare through drones, special ops and cyberattacks, of which Brennan was an architect.

Perhaps the most encouraging part of this roster of old familiar faces is that the freshest and youngest voice in the group, the most pronounced outsider, is also its most powerful member: the president of the United States. Ultimately, Obama will set the direction for the team and empower its members. He will decide whether to sidestep the tough questions or stretch for new ideas. And he will determine whether their vast experience becomes a useful platform on which to build or a trap that mires us in old processes, policies and ideas.

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