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White House Chief of Staff Valerie Jarrett?

From cabinet secretaries to the White House team, expect some shuffling for Obama's second term.

by
Sarah McHaney

Bio

December 10, 2012 - 12:00 am

Despite an ever-changing White House senior staff, President Obama has had a remarkably stable Cabinet throughout his first term. Only two of the 16 Cabinet seats turned over: the secretaries of Defense and Commerce.

However, on average only one or two secretaries stay for the second term of any two-term presidency. Knowing this history and based on secretaries’ statements, in the coming year we can expect new faces around Obama’s table.

Although the president nominates individuals to each post, the Senate must confirm each appointment through committee hearings and then a vote. Each nominee must receive majority support from the committee as well as the entire Senate body.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has expressed his wish to step down after the fiscal cliff is muddled through. Jacob Lew, Obama’s current chief of staff, has expressed interest in the seat, but that would leave a gaping hole (again) in Obama’s White House staff. Other possibilities are Clinton’s former White House chief of staff, Erskine Bowles; former Goldman Sachs vice chairman Suzanne Nora Johnson; and Roger Altman, deputy Treasury secretary during Clinton’s administration.

There is no doubt that the secretary of Treasury has a tough job ahead of him or her: stagnant unemployment rates, restructuring of the budget, and a eurozone in threat of collapse.

If Lew were to take that seat then Obama would need to fill the office that sits directly adjacent to his own. Lew is already the third person to hold the chief of staff position in the Obama administration. Unless his successor remains for Obama’s entire second term, the president will have had more chiefs of staff than any of his predecessors. Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton each had four.

Senior adviser Valerie Jarrett remains the only original loyalist in the White House and thereby well-positioned to take Lew’s place. Jarrett has been an adviser to Obama since his early days in Illinois and is a trusted confidante of the first couple.

The rest of Obama’s inner circle have each moved on. Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s first chief of staff, successfully ran for mayor of Chicago after a year and half in Washington. Robert Gibbs, a force behind the Obama campaign and the administration’s first press secretary, left the administration after two years to become an “outside” adviser. He did, however, return to the inner circle for the 2012 campaign. There has been no suggestion that Gibbs will return to the White House. David Axelrod is Obama’s top campaign strategist and was a senior adviser in the White House from 2009-2011. He left the White House to run Obama’s re-election campaign. However, Axelrod has publicly stated that the 2012 campaign was his last job as a political operative.

Jarrett is a somewhat controversial figure, though, with no international policy experience. The other contender for chief of staff could be Ron Klain, both Vice President Biden’s and Gore’s former chief of staff.

Asking Jarrett to lead his White House team would be telling of what we can expect from Obama’s second term. Jarrett has been seen as more liberal than Obama’s other Clinton-centrist advisers. If Jarrett leads the White House, we can expect bold moves.

Attorney General Eric Holder has suggested he has not decided whether to remain for a second term, but odds are he’ll be leaving the post soon. During a speech last Thursday at the University of Baltimore School of Law, he made off-the-cuff remarks about needing to make sure he still has “gas left in his tank” for a second term.

Current Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano has expressed interest in the post. Napolitano was Arizona’s attorney general before being elected governor, but she is also rumored to be on a White House short list of Supreme Court nominees. Other candidates are former Rhode Island attorney general and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D), Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (who was assistant attorney general in the Clinton administration), and former governor and attorney general of Michigan Jennifer Granholm.

If Napolitano does become the new attorney general, that will leave her seat open, but the lack of rumors of a replacement suggests that if she is making a move it will not be for a while yet.

The most high-profile departure is, of course, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton. She is reported to be leaving “as soon as she can.” Her replacement is already making headlines as the presumed nominee, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice, has recently been strongly criticized by lawmakers for her response to the Sept. 11 attack on the diplomatic mission in Benghazi. Rice appeared on news shows the Sunday after the attack saying it was a result of an anti-Muhammad YouTube video instead of a coordinated terrorist strike. Several Republican senators have already expressed concern over her nomination and stated her confirmation in the Senate would be difficult.

Though presumed, Rice’s nomination is far from certain. She faces a stiff contender: Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Kerry was the 2004 Democratic presidential nominee and is current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. With the controversy swirling over Rice, Kerry could be looking at a new title in a few months. If this happens, a Senate seat in Massachusetts would open up, causing some concern among Democrats who want to maintain their comfortable majority in the Senate.

Obama, in an interview with Bloomberg TV last Tuesday, reiterated that Rice is “highly qualified” for the job, but said, “I haven’t made a decision about secretary of State.”

The Pentagon is likely to see its second turnover during the Obama administration as Leon Panetta reportedly eyes retirement. Several names are surfacing for Panetta’s replacement, including his deputy, Ash Carter, former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), and former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig. There is also the possibility of the first female secretary of Defense: Michele Flournoy was the undersecretary of Defense for Policy from Feb. 2009-Feb. 2011, when she left to work on Obama’s campaign. On the campaign she was a strong advocate for Obama’s foreign policy.

Reuters reported that Hagel met with the president last week to discuss a post on his national security team, but there has been no announcement yet from the White House.

The Washington Post reported that President Obama is considering Kerry for secretary of Defense, making it possible for both him and Rice to have seats in the cabinet. The Pentagon is likely to face huge budget cuts and will need a leader who knows Congress well to navigate through budgets. Unless the post goes to Hagel, this would leave secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood as the only Republican among the 16 cabinet members. LaHood has made no mention of leaving and will most likely stay through Obama’s second term.

“He and I are going to continue our discussions,” LaHood told Politico last Wednesday. “We had a meeting a week or so after the election and we agreed to continue talking. … I think the president will get back to some of these discussions after some kind of a deal is reached on the fiscal matters.”

Energy Secretary Steven Chu and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar are also potentially on their way to new jobs. Chu has been tainted by Solyndra, and Salazar was criticized for his handling of the BP oil spill. Salazar also had to apologize last month for threatening to punch out a Colorado Springs reporter.

Though not cabinet positions, the chair of the Securities and Exchange Commission, Mary Schapiro, and the director of the CIA, David Petraeus, have both already stepped down, leaving important roles to be filled.

Sarah McHaney is a freelance journalist living in Washington, D.C.
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