Hagel’s personal conduct was never questioned. His supporters touted his bravery as a combat infantryman in Vietnam, where he was awarded two Purple Hearts. As a Republican, he gave Obama an opportunity to claim a measure of bipartisanship in his Cabinet and was initially seen as a lock for Senate approval.
But the White House underestimated the degree to which Hagel had alienated his former GOP colleagues. John McCain (Ariz.) and James M. Inhofe (Okla.), influential Republicans on the Senate Armed Services Committee, insisted throughout the confirmation battle that Hagel was still a “friend” but criticized him as unqualified, uninformed and ill prepared to lead the Pentagon.
On Tuesday, Inhofe said he still had “serious concerns” but softened his criticism a touch, pledging to work with Hagel to avert military spending cuts. “It is my hope that Senator Hagel will not want to be known as the secretary of defense responsible for overseeing the gutting of our military,” Inhofe said.
Hagel did not help his cause with a mediocre performance during his confirmation hearing. Supporters said he was already working hard to erase the episode from memory and predicted he would soon reach out to repair relations in the Senate.
“It’s a two-way street,” said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who also sits on the Armed Services Committee. “He’s already had many conversations. Obviously there has to be communication. It has to be honest, civil but honest. And I’m confident that will happen.”
Apart from politics, Reed and other backers acknowledged that Hagel has his work cut out for him in managing the Pentagon, with its 2.2 million employees, a tricky withdrawal from Afghanistan and a fiscal crisis.
“He has got probably the best preparation one can have, given his military and executive and legislative experience,” Reed said. “But it is a very daunting time.”
Thomas Donnelly, a defense and security analyst at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, predicted that Hagel would wield minimal clout. He said the Obama administration dictates national-security policy from the White House and has marginalized the secretary of defense into a “ceremonial” job.
“It’s a slight exaggeration to say that,” Donnelly said. “It should be an important job. But if the White House is calling all the shots, there’s not much left for the secretary to do.”