Obama turns to like-minded allies, advisers to fill out his second-term Cabinet
By Scott Wilson,
It may not have the glamour of the first Cabinet — no Nobel laureates or former political rivals — but the team President Obama is assembling for his second term reflects a desire to complete the unfinished business of his first.
From ending the war in Afghanistan to the episodic negotiations with Congress over fiscal issues, the emerging Cabinet reflects Obama’s views, not the contrarian ones he once said he welcomed. His nomination of Jack Lew as Treasury secretary on Thursday fits the pattern of choices the president has made in recent weeks.
The nominations underscore how little time Obama has left to accomplish an enduring governing legacy, and that on-the-job training, political drama and the unpredictability he discovered in some of his outside-the-Beltway nominees last time around have no place in a second-term administration. Nearly all of the men — and so far they are all men — have been with Obama, one way or another, since his first presidential campaign or early days in office.
“Unlike the first term, which was often referred to as a team of rivals, I think this is going to be more like a band of brothers,” said Karl F. Inderfurth, an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration.
It is not an uncommon approach for second-term presidents to take. But it leaves Obama vulnerable to criticism, including from his supporters, that he is burrowing deeper into an insular inner circle rather than reaching out for new people and their ideas about how to work most effectively with a sharply divided Congress.
In recent weeks, Obama has tapped former senator Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to head the Pentagon, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) to lead the State Department, and John O. Brennan, his chief counterterrorism adviser, to run the CIA.
On Thursday, he looked again to someone he knows well to fill what has been the most influential economic post in his administration, picking Lew, his chief of staff, to run the Treasury Department.
If confirmed, Lew would replace Timothy F. Geithner, a former central banker who helped steer the economy from crisis to tentative recovery during his high-profile tenure.
Obama has worked closely with all of the recent nominees — either in the Senate, during his abbreviated term there, or in the White House during difficult times. Only Kerry was a second choice, named after U.N. Ambassador Susan E. Rice, one of Obama’s first and most loyal foreign policy advisers, bowed out last month in advance of a confirmation fight that the president did not want.
He now must select a chief of staff, the fourth of his tenure, and is again apparently leaning toward old hands. Denis McDonough, the deputy national security adviser and perhaps Obama’s most dedicated defender, and Ron Klain, Vice President Biden’s former chief of staff, are among those in consideration.
Both men have long experience working on or with the Hill, and each would be expected to quickly ramp up a White House operation that during the last election year has been more interested in avoiding mistakes than in pushing new initiatives.
Given the history of second terms, Obama probably has about 18 months to promote gun-control and climate-change initiatives, achieve meaningful immigration reform and ensure that his first-term health-care law is firmly in place by the time he leaves office.
He also faces a series of decisions, starting as early as the end of next month, on how quickly to draw down the remaining 66,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
“There’s no time left for the learning curve,” said Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution. “From the president’s point of view, you might not make the right choice in picking from the inside and who you think you know well. But you have a much greater chance of going wrong in choosing from the outside.”
Selecting senior advisers from the outside, though, could have provided new support for Obama and his priorities, particularly on the Hill.
Although familiarity among the president and his inner Cabinet may make decision-making more efficient, it also can keep from Obama an outsider’s argument and any new sources of political help he or she might bring to the administration. Those he has named are likely to do little to expand his political base inside or outside the Beltway.
During Obama’s first term — especially in the crisis-management atmosphere of the first two years — he often relied on advice from his national security and economic teams while doing little to enlist the help of his broader Cabinet.
The so-called outer Cabinet included Energy Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel laureate who represented Obama’s stated aspiration of bringing in the country’s brightest, regardless of Washington experience. Chu proved far more adept in the physics lab than inside the Beltway, and he is expected to announce his departure soon.
Obama, a former law lecturer, tried to assemble a Cabinet that his closest advisers said suited his seminar-style of decision-making. Everyone in the room, including those with opposing views, got a chance to make their case. And Obama did not shy away from picking stars — including those whom his aides believed had rival political ambitions.
He chose then-Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), a former first lady and his primary opponent for the Democratic nomination in 2008, as secretary of state. Obama has praised Clinton in the job, but within the White House, lingering suspicions about her intentions never disappeared.
Her power inside the administration derived in part from the fear that she would embarrass the president if her requests weren’t met, particularly on State Department budget requests.
Later, Obama selected retired Gen. David H. Petraeus, the most celebrated military officer in decades, to run the CIA. Petraeus, who resigned last year after an extramarital affair was made public, ruled out a 2012 presidential run repeatedly. His acceptance of the CIA post made any White House doubts about that denial moot.
Obama has closer personal relationships with the new batch of nominees. But several of the choices have proved unpopular on Capitol Hill, potentially undermining his hope that the confirmations of the Washington veterans will go smoothly, allowing them to get a quick start on his agenda.
Some Republicans have criticized the selection of Lew for Treasury chief, and he probably would be dealing directly with several of his chief critics in negotiations over how to avoid scheduled across-the-board spending cuts at the end of February.
Although Obama has vowed not to discuss raising the borrowing limit as part of those talks, Lew — who has long experience working on the Hill — would be chiefly responsible for heading off the next fiscal showdown.
Unlike Geithner and some other previous Treasury secretaries, Lew has spent only brief time on Wall Street, running a hedge fund for Citibank for a couple of years before joining the Obama administration.
“He would not look like anyone’s first choice for Treasury secretary, lacking in particular that long Wall Street experience,” Hess said. “It suggests that the issues most occupying the next Treasury secretary will be in dealing with Congress, and this guy has a long history of that.”
In nominating Hagel and Kerry to run defense and state, Obama may secure a place in history. If they are confirmed, it would be the first time in U.S. history that the top four national security posts — president, vice president, defense secretary and secretary of state — are held by men who served together on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
All three nominees support Obama’s approach to U.S. foreign policy, which favors multilateral efforts and alliances, the use of intelligence, drones and diplomacy to further national security goals, and holding out war as a last resort.
“These are people he knows well and feels are in line with his worldview,” said Ben Rhodes, the deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, referring to the national security picks. “They share a similar orientation but have their own views, as well. That’s the dynamic the president likes in his national security team.”
Hagel has challenged the wisdom of bombing Iran’s nuclear sites to head off that country’s production of a bomb, something Obama has questioned while not removing the option.
It is expected that Hagel would push hard for a quick drawdown of forces in Afghanistan, but whether those specifics would coincide with Obama’s views might not be clear immediately.
“Obama owns this war. He’s four years into it,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Even if Hagel’s instincts are to get out more quickly, Obama has been willing to overrule even his own vice president in force levels and timelines in the past. He could very well do so again.”