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Obama Draws Confidantes Closer in His Second-Term Cabinet

Shuffle sees close friend with little domestic experience becoming chief of staff, and Jarrett sticking close to "stomp out fires."

by
Bill Straub

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February 13, 2013 - 3:28 pm
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Meanwhile the administration’s foreign affairs shop is being almost completely overhauled. Former longtime Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry already has moved into Foggy Bottom as the successor to Clinton as secretary of State. Former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, who has undergone intense scrutiny from Republican members of the Senate Armed Services Committee despite his GOP affiliation, has yet to be confirmed by the upper chamber as the replacement for outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta.

Unlike some of the other recent Obama appointments, Kerry was an obvious choice after serving for years on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, most recently as chairman. Obama served with Kerry on the influential panel but actually took much of his advice from former Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who was rumored to be in the mix before the president settled on Clinton in 2008.

Lugar said he wasn’t offered the job at the time – word circulated, accurately, that he would not accept – and at this stage, coming off a re-election defeat at age 80, he was not considered.

The CIA also is in line for a new chief with Deputy National Security Advisor John Brennan in line to succeed Gen. David Petraeus, who resigned in November 2012 when an FBI investigation revealed that he was involved in an extramarital affair.

The Brennan choice was so obvious that few others were considered. In fact, this marks the second time Obama has attempted to make him CIA director – he was forced to withdraw in 2008 because of his views in support of torture and the Bush administration’s secret rendition program.

As a consolation prize, Obama made him his top counter-terrorism counselor, characterizing him as “one of my closest advisors” and “a great friend.” With views on torture and rendition no longer viewed as a detriment to appointment, Obama opted to give Brennan another try.

It was Brennan’s 25 years of experience within the perennially dissatisfied CIA – a closed society that places high value on leaders who served in the agency – that convinced Obama.

“Having held senior management, analytic and operational positions at the agency, John is committed to investing in the range of intelligence capabilities we need — technical and human,” Obama said. “He literally built — and then led — the National Counterterrorism Center. And he knows the risks that our intelligence professionals face every day.”

Hagel was one of the few members of the Senate during Obama’s four years there who developed a relationship with the man who would be president. The two traveled together across the Middle East and discovered they held similar views, recognizing, Obama said, “that America stands strongest when we stand with allies and with friends.”

“And that’s exactly the spirit I want on my national security team — a recognition that when it comes to the defense of our country, we are not Democrats or Republicans; we are Americans,” Obama said. “Each of us has a responsibility, Chuck has said, to be guided not by the interest of our party or our president even, but by the interests of our country.”

Despite his GOP credentials, Hagel faced harsh questioning about his views on Israel and the war in Iraq – hostilities he initially supported but subsequently turned against. His confirmation cleared the Senate Armed Services Committee on a party-line vote Tuesday, and a vote in the full Senate is expected later this week – although both Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are threatening to waylay the proceedings.

The one key member of the Washington-based national security team expected to stay on is National Security Advisor Tom Donilon, who the administration hopes will provide some continuity on foreign affairs at least in the short term as the new appointees settle into their roles.

There was some discussion of replacing Donilon with United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice after she withdrew as a candidate for secretary of State when Republicans threatened to reject her if nominated.

But Donilon is well situated. McDonough, the new chief of staff, was his deputy national security advisor and the two are viewed as close. Upon McDonough’s appointment, Donilon said, “I could not have had a better friend or colleague over the past four years and look forward to continuing our work together on behalf of President Obama.”

Donilon also has good relations with Kerry, who cited him during the swearing-in ceremony at the State Department, calling him “my friend” and characterizing him as “a great steward of our foreign policy.”

“These are people I have had the privilege of working with before and I am so confident about where we’re heading in this partnership,” Kerry said.

Several cabinet members are remaining, at least for the time being: Attorney General Eric Holder; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius; Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Shaun Donovan; Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano; and Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki.

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Washington freelancer Bill Straub is former White House correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service.
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