WASHINGTON – It’s musical chairs time in the Obama White House as several officials who served during the first four years of the administration pack their bags and a new set of faces moves in.
President Obama experienced an unusually stable cabinet during his first term. Only two of the 16 top cabinet posts – Defense and Commerce – changed hands. But that stability is drawing to a close.
An exodus of top administration officials, especially at the outset of a second term, is the norm for most presidencies. Only one cabinet member made it through the entire eight years of Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, despite his reputation as a good boss – Labor Secretary Elaine Chao.
Bush went through three attorneys general, three treasury secretaries, and four budget directors. But while Bush had only two chiefs of staff during his tenure, Obama already is working on number four: Denis McDonough.
There are some extenuating circumstances surrounding the departure of those who have served as Obama’s top traffic cop. The first and best known, Rahm Emanuel, left to become mayor of Chicago. His successor, William Daley, proved to be a bad fit and was replaced by Jack Lew, head of Obama’s Office of Management and Budget and onetime deputy to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Lew openly campaigned for and received Obama’s blessing to serve as Treasury secretary with the departure of incumbent Tim Geithner during the transition from the first to second term. He faced the Senate Finance Committee at his confirmation hearing today.
Lew doesn’t have the sort of resume usually associated with the nation’s top financier, exhibiting only flimsy experience dealing with Wall Street and international economics. He does, however, provide a hands-on experience with fiscal policy as a former budget director, a hint, perhaps, of a new direction for the administration as it moves away from addressing the financial crisis of 2008 and concentrates on wrestling with Congress over taxes and spending.
Lew is credited with brokering a deal that averted a government shutdown in 2011 and is considered a strong supporter of raising taxes on the wealthy to close the national debt.
“Over the past year I’ve sought Jack’s advice on virtually every decision that I’ve made, from economic policy to foreign policy,” Obama said. “One reason Jack has been so effective in this town is because he is a low-key guy who prefers to surround himself with policy experts rather than television cameras. And over the years, he’s built a reputation as a master of policy who can work with members of both parties and forge principled compromises.”
Geithner noted that Lew is “committed to defending the safety net for the elderly and the poor. He understands what it takes to create the conditions for stronger economic growth and broader economic opportunity. And he understands that to govern responsibly is to govern with a recognition that we have limited fiscal resources.”
While Lew’s knowledge of the budget process probably earned him the nomination, it also could prove problematic for his confirmation. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), ranking member of the Senate Budget Committee, already has said Lew “must never be secretary of the Treasury,” noting that he is “the architect of two of the worst budgets in American history” and that he once offered testimony on an administration spending plan that was “so outrageous and false that it alone disqualifies.”
Sessions isn’t alone. Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who caucuses with the Democrats, also has announced his opposition from the left, expressing concern over Lew’s dedication to preserving programs like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare.
McDonough also appears to be an unconventional choice to replace Lew as chief of staff. He comes in from the national security/foreign affairs side with very limited experience on the domestic side of the ledger. But he has essential Capitol Hill ties, having worked at one point for former Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota.
Unlike many other senior advisers, McDonough is counted among the president’s closest friends, dating back to 2007 when he joined the staff of then-Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois as chief foreign policy adviser. He held a similar position during the 2008 presidential campaign.
McDonough, who eventually rose to the position of deputy national security advisor in the White House, is one of those depicted in the now famous situation room photo keeping tabs on the Navy SEAL operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden in 2011.
More than anything else, perhaps, McDonough got the call for the coveted chief of staff post, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation, because of his close personal relationship with Obama. Another friend and confidant, Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama who goes back with him to the Chicago days, was thought to be under consideration for the post but it was determined that she best serves the president in her current behind the scenes capacity where she can, as one White House aide put it, “stomp out fires.”
The Obama-McDonough relationship was on display during the press conference announcing the appointment when he turned to the new chief of staff and said, “Denis, you’re not just one of my closest friends, but you’re also one of my closest advisers, and like everybody here I cannot imagine the White House without you.”
He added, “I know you’ll always give it to me straight, as only a friend can — telling me not only what I want to hear, but more importantly what I need to hear to make the best possible decisions on behalf of the American people.”
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.