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Not All Cabinet Posts Are Made the Same: How Obama Should Approach His Second Term Team

Along with addressing the fiscal cliff and wrestling with the Middle East, President Obama now faces the task of reconstructing his Cabinet and senior White House staff. Like every prior chief executive, Obama find himself balancing a host of competing considerations—competence, compatibility with potential colleagues, agreement with the established agenda, the willingness to defend the president’s decisions (regardless of prior advice to the contrary), appeal to the party’s base, appeasement of disaffected groups, and outreach to the opposition party, among others. The President must also consider collateral damage: tapping an elected official may turn an important seat over to the opposition; pushing a controversial nominee may burn scarce political capital; moving someone who already occupies a senior administration position generates another vacancy and disrupts relationships that may be working very well.

Some cabinet positions are clearly more important than others. Among them, the Treasury Secretary, one of the voices that contends to dominate economic policy. Since the departure of Larry Summers as head of the National Economic Council, Obama has seemed to prefer giving his Treasury Secretary that role. Finding a replacement for Tim Geithner thus confronts President Obama with one of his most fateful choices. Not least because the Treasury Secretary is bound to be a central player in the fiscal negotiations that will dominate at least the first year of the president’s second term; the incoming appointee’s prior stance on fiscal policy will send an especially loud signal, inside and outside the administration.

Against this backdrop, consider two possible choices—Jack Lew and Erskine Bowles. (I don’t mean to suggest that the short list either includes or is limited to these two.) While both are experienced professionals concerning the federal budget, they differ in politically salient ways. Lew’s selection would be read as indicating Obama’s desire to remain closely aligned with congressional Democrats on fiscal policy, while Bowles would indicate the opposite. Lew’s private sector experience is limited; Bowles’s is extensive. The business and financial communities would view the latter as an olive branch; the former, less so, even though Lew enjoys respectful relations with more than a few private sector leaders. In addition, moving Lew to Treasury would force the president to find a new chief of staff, his fourth in five years, at a time when a smoothly functioning White House will be especially important.

As challenging as finding a new Treasury Secretary may prove, reconstructing the foreign policy/national security team will be even more complex—akin to solving a Rubik’s cube. Within the next few months, Obama must find, at a minimum, a new Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense, and CIA Director. If Tom Donilon is asked to accept a new assignment, the president would have to designate a new National Security Advisor as well.

The history of the modern presidency is replete with instances of dysfunctional clashes between State and Defense, between cabinet officers and the National Security Council, and between the White House and the intelligence agencies. Some of this reflects inevitable differences among departments and agencies with different missions and constituencies. But differences of policy and worldview also play a role, as do the large egos that these positions tend to attract. To a far greater than in economic policy, then, it is critical that the replacements for departing national security and foreign policy officials be considered, not only individually, but also as a team.

Susan Rice’s trip to the Hill to talk with a bevy of harshly critical senators suggests that Obama is inclined to nominate her as Hillary Clinton’s successor and is prepared to pay a political price for insisting on her. If so, he should think long and hard before tapping John Kerry as Secretary of Defense-designate, a move he is also reportedly considering. Not only would that open the door for the return of Scott Brown to the Senate; but also, and more fundamentally, it would set up a clash between Defense and State. Kerry very much wants to be Secretary of State, a position for which his knowledge and experience have amply prepared him. This would make it hard for him to “stay in his lane” as Secretary of Defense, even if he wanted to.

Besides, the president might consider using this appointment to broaden support for policies—such as drawing down forces in Afghanistan and scaling the defense budget to fiscal reality—that will fare better if pursued with a measure of bipartisanship. During his second term, Bill Clinton selected William Cohen as his secretary of defense, a choice that worked reasonably well in both policy and political terms. Either Joe Lieberman or Chuck Hagel might fill the bill, even though neither has much experience managing huge, complex institutions like the Pentagon, and Lieberman might find it challenging to hew to the president’s views after going his own way for so long. Alternatively, if Obama would like to knock another crack in the glass ceiling, he could nominate Michele Flournoy, who has recent high-level DoD experience and is widely respected across party lines, as the first female Secretary of Defense.

While some presidents have chosen to make their national security advisors primus inter pares—Nixon with Kissinger, for example—Obama has chosen a different course. While Tom Donilon, the current national security advisor, enjoys the president’s trust and speaks for him with authority, he does not appear to have dominated State, Defense, or the intelligence agencies. Given his desire to hear a range of views and then have his decisions crisply and loyally implemented, his national security advisor needs three qualities above all: managerial skill, the ability to serve as an honest broker among powerful departments and personalities, and the strength to lay down the law once the president has made up his mind. It’s not easy to find people in Washington with this trifecta of attributes, though if the president chooses to move Donilon to another senior role, Denis McDonough, the Deputy National Security Advisor, appears well prepared to take on the assignment. And his extensive Hill experience would be a plus.

The Benghazi controversy has reminded us once again of the importance—and political salience—of timely intelligence provided in full to the administration. During the transition in 2008, Obama wanted to nominate John Brennan to head the CIA but changed course in the face of liberal opposition. Since then he has done an excellent job as the president’s principal counter-terrorism advisor. He would have been a superb choice for the CIA four years ago and remains one today.

The president’s choices could prove fateful. The Middle East is aflame, a confrontation with Iran looms, and China’s rise poses risks for other nations in the region—and for Obama’s Asia “pivot.” At the same time, our ongoing fiscal problems are reducing our room to maneuver abroad as well as our international standing. It will take a disciplined and unified national security team to square new challenges with diminished resources—even if the new Treasury Secretary manages to negotiate a deal that puts our finances on a sustainable course.