WASHINGTON—President Obama faces a mountain of pressing issues in his second term, including economic challenges at home and foreign policy challenges abroad, but selecting a new cabinet underscores all.
Changes to the Cabinet are traditional at the beginning of a presidential second term, providing an opportunity to present a reinvigorated administration and a new focus. It can also bring immense challenges, according to Dr. Terry Sullivan, political scientist at the University of North Carolina.
“It is hard to undermine the delivery of services by botching the transition from the first to the second term, but appointments is one of those areas where that can happen,” Sullivan wrote in an email.
Obama’s first-term Cabinet has been one of the most stable in recent history, with changes in only two departments: defense, when retiring Bush-appointed Defense Secretary Robert Gates was replaced by Leon Panetta in 2011, and commerce, when first Commerce Secretary Gary Locke was appointed U.S. Ambassador to China and second Commerce Secretary John Bryson resigned following a car accident.
Leading into the second term, high-profile Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, and Defense Secretary Panetta have all indicated that they are ready to leave.
Changes are also expected in many other departments, including energy, homeland security, and the interior, as well as the White House chief of staff and the attorney general.
Hillary Clinton, whose popularity ratings are stellar, has repeatedly said that she is not interested in a second term.
Susan Rice, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., was considered Clinton’s likely replacement until the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, which led to the death of Ambassador Chris Stevens. Rice copped flack after delivering the administration’s initial explanation that the attack was in part due to an anti-Muslim video.
There is speculation as to what the president will do regarding the secretary of state position. One theory is that Obama may ask Clinton to stay until Benghazi is sorted out and newer cabinet members are settled. Clinton has hinted that she may reconsider her timing, telling the Wall Street Journal last month, “A lot of people have talked to me about staying,” without giving an indication either way.
Meanwhile, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) has plenty of support as her replacement. As chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Kerry is experienced and was considered second choice in 2008. National Security Adviser Thomas Donilon is also considered well qualified for the position.
Panetta has said that he wants to leave, but with an investigation pending on Benghazi, like Clinton, he may stay longer rather than setting a new appointee off to a rough start.
Candidates mooted for Panetta’s replacement are his deputy, Ash Carter, a physicist; Michèle Flournoy, former under secretary of defense for policy, who, if chosen, will be the first woman to hold the position; and Richard Danzig, Clinton’s former secretary of the Navy and a 2008 Obama adviser.
While Geithner may stay longer to help steer fiscal cliff negotiations, he has indicated a readiness to leave.
Jacob Lew, presently White House chief of staff, is considered to be the most likely replacement. Lew has twice been director of the Office of Management and Budget: once under Clinton and again from 2010–2012.
Other names mentioned include Erskine Bowles, former White House chief of staff under Clinton and notable for the Simpson–Bowles Deficit Reduction Plan; Roger Altman, founder and executive chairman of Evercore Partners, a private equity firm, and former treasury secretary under Clinton; and Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council.
Chief of Staff
If Lew does not move to the Treasury, it is likely that he will leave his current position anyway, and there are a number of names circulating as his replacement including Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to Obama, and Ron Klain, former Chief of Staff for Vice President Joe Biden.
Some secretaries may also move to other positions. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a two-term Arizona governor and former state attorney general, is a possible candidate to replace Attorney General Eric Holder. Holder is said to be keen to leave, but it is expected that he will want to wait until after celebrations of the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Movement next year.
Dr. John Hudak, a governance fellow at the Brookings Institution, believes that Obama may also step outside the ranks of the expected, choosing department heads that may help build bridges across the floor.
There are a number of retiring senators with plenty of experience, according to Hudak, including moderate Republicans like Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).
“She would make a hell-of-a Cabinet secretary,” Hudak said of Snowe.
Keeping in mind the need to balance the interests of both the opposition and members of his own party, Hudak believes that Obama will seek input from Congress and weigh his choices carefully.
“The Constitution says the Senate advises and consents and, while consent is formal, there is a bit more advice than you think,” he said.
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