Political Chairs


President Barack Obama meets with his Cabinet early in his first term. Going into his second, his advisers are set for a shake-up. (Photo credit: White House Photostream)

As the saying goes, out with the old and in with the new.

Consisting of the most-senior executive officials, the presidential Cabinet is, unsurprisingly, a hot topic in Washington. The President appoints while the Senate confirms, a familiar process that’s grown ever more partisan with time. Trading his first term’s “team of rivals” for political allies, President Barack Obama’s first choices signal an impending tonal shift from the White House. The name of the game in 2008 was (attempted) bridge building, but 2013 brings new political realities and a presidential legacy on the line.

Too white? Too male? Too liberal? All or none of the above? You decide.



Currently: Hillary Clinton (D) — Nominated: Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)

Nomination withdrawn: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice

Topping the list is the Secretary of State, a position held by former First Lady and New York Sen. Hillary Clinton since 2009. The President’s onetime rival, Clinton’s appointment united a liberal base divided by the bruising Democratic primaries. Determined to repair the nation’s image abroad, her State Department focused on restoring the “civilian power” of diplomacy and “smart power” solutions beyond military force. Having announced her intention to serve just one term, Secretary Clinton prepares to leave the State Department with a stunning 65% approval rate—fueling speculation that she’ll return to politics in 2016 for another run at the White House.

Nominated on December 21, 2012, Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry is President Obama’s nominee to replace Clinton as Secretary of State. First elected in 1985, Kerry’s credentials and experience (and thorough vetting during the 2004 presidential race) all but ensure Senate confirmation. His military service in Vietnam, prosecution of the Iran-Contra hearings, and chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations made him a logical choice, though not the President’s first. That honor belonged to United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who withdrew her name from consideration following heated Republican opposition concerning the Benghazi consulate attack.

What would a Kerry State Department look like? In all likelihood, not unlike Clinton’s. The two share an appreciation for diplomacy and “smart power” solutions, though he hasn’t shied from criticizing the Obama administration when he feels they’ve moved too cautiously. A pragmatist by nature, Kerry supports a results-oriented foreign policy built on personal expertise and the willingness to broker a deal. The President could have fought harder for his first nominee, but his second denies Senate Republicans the public confirmation battle they so dearly hoped for. Nine years after conservatives routed his presidential campaign, it’s John Kerry who’ll get the last laugh; a chamber of GOP “yeas” backing his ascent to the State Department.

There is, of course, another issue. Kerry’s imminent confirmation would open his Massachusetts Senate seat to special election just three months after Elizabeth Warren forced Republican Scott Brown out of office. Young, popular, and charismatic, Brown’s statements since defeat have left open the possibility of another run for high office. Without a similarly qualified populist to contest his candidacy, the ex-Senator may well return to frustrate Democratic efforts throughout the President’s second term. It shouldn’t dissuade him from moving forward with Kerry’s nomination, but it’s a potential headache to keep in mind.



Currently: Timothy Geithner (I) — Nominated: White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew (D)

Arriving in Washington at the height of the recession in 2009, former Chairman of the New York Federal Reserve Timothy Geithner has served four years as the President’s chief economic adviser. As Treasury Secretary, Geithner rescued the American Insurance Group (AIG) from financial collapse and managed the wider bailout of the national banking sector. Before leaving office, he will have served as the White House point man in congressional negotiations concerning the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling.

Nominated on January 10, 2013, White House chief of Staff Jacob “Jack” Lew is President Obama’s nominee to replace Geithner as Secretary of the Treasury. A graduate of Harvard and Georgetown graduate, Lew served as senior policy adviser to then-Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill. He worked under two Democratic presidents, first helping develop health care reform policy for Bill Clinton and later appointed Director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) by Barack Obama. Made White House Chief of Staff in early 2012, Lew hoped to negotiate “grand bargain” agreements between the President and Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner.

If State enters the second term largely unchanged, the Treasury appears set for a serious shake-up. After four years of relative autonomy, the President’s decided to trade a political independent for a reliable Democrat—a clean break with his first term’s “team of rivals.” A financier in the top spot made common and political sense with the financial sector in freefall, but times have changed. Obama can afford to nominate someone less agreeable to Republicans and the business community without risking economic well-being, and, like John Kerry, Jack Lew’s too qualified to deny confirmation. It’s a smart move for the White House, capping a successful (if controversial) four years under Geithner’s leadership.



Currently: Leon Panetta (D) — Nominated: Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE)

Formerly the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), Leon Panetta is President Obama’s second Secretary of Defense, replacing George W. Bush-appointee Robert Gates in mid-2011. Originally a Republican, Panetta served several GOP officials before taking office as a Democratic Representative from California. As Obama’s Director of the CIA, he increased drone strikes and Pakistan and oversaw the mission to kill al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden. Once Secretary of Defense, he spearheaded the dismantlement of the Pentagon’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Nominated on January 7, 2013, former Nebraska Sen. Charles “Chuck” Hagel is President Obama’s nominee to replace Panetta as Secretary of Defense. An Army veteran who served in Vietnam (for which he received two Purple Hearts), he was named deputy administrator of the Veterans Administration (VA) by President Ronald Reagan. He worked briefly in the business sector before his election to the U.S. Senate in 1997, where he voted for the PATRIOT Act, war in Afghanistan, and invasion of Iraq. Hagel later criticized the politicization of terrorism, speaking against the mindset and policies of the Bush administration before retiring in 2008.

After four years of partisan gridlock, Chuck Hagel has done the impossible. On the one hand, he’s united liberals and conservatives in common cause; on the other, they’re united in staunch opposition to his confirmation. He reads like a sure bet, a moderate Republican with exemplary military service. Unfortunately, fellow conservatives have labeled him an anti-Semitic enemy of Israel who’ll gut the defense budget and cave on a nuclear Iran. The truth is that he’s served with honor, voiced reasonable opinions with which Republicans disagree, and “betrayed” his party to serve the President. For that, former Secretary of State Colin Powell believeshe’s won the partisan smear job. At least he and Secretary Kerry will have something in common.



Currently: Gen. David Patreaus (R), Michael Morell (acting) — Nominated: U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan

The onetime Commander of United States Central Command (CENTCOM) and commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq and of the international coalition in Afghanistan, Gen. David Patreaus was until recently President Obama’s second Director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). After thirty-eight years in the U.S. Army, Patreaus resigned in 2011 to take civilian leadership of Central Intelligence. He would resign again a year later, undone by a scandalous affair with his biographer. Deputy Director Michael Morell has since taken charge of the CIA in his absence.

Nominated on January 7, 2013, U.S. Homeland Security Adviser John Brennan is President Obama’s nominee to replace Patreaus as Director of the Central Intelligence Agency. A former spy, he once prepared daily intelligence briefings for Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. The latter would appoint him Director of the National Counterterrorism Center, a job he would eventually leave to advise President Obama. Brennan was the first administration official to publicly acknowledge U.S. drone operations in Pakistan, and he was among the officials inside the White House Situation Room during the raid to kill Osama bin Laden.

While not technically a position of Cabinet rank (it lost that distinction in 2001), the CIA’s directorship remains subject to congressional approval and  the politics that come with it. Nicknamed Obama’s “drone warrior,” Brennan’s a controversial choice from a President trying to placate a frustrated left. Liberals have plenty to criticize, though they may swallow their pride come confirmation rather than hand Republicans an easy political victory. Having designed the administration’s covert war on terror, there’s no denying his qualifications. But do Americans trust a man so comfortable with assassination and torture to work so deep in the shadows?


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