As President Obama begins to fill out the cabinet for his second term, prominent Republican senators have taken to expressing grave misgivings about several of his nominees. Liberals see the GOP's implied threats of drawn-out confirmation fights — which have already scuttled the presumed nomination of Susan Rice as secretary of state — as pure political opportunism that bucks the tradition of allowing the chief executive to staff the executive branch with people who will further his agenda. As Jamelle Bouie at The Washington Post succinctly put it, "If the GOP wants to pick cabinet members, then it should start by winning a presidential election."
In that respect, the GOP's charges that Obama is choosing "in-your-face" candidates make little sense. After all, Republicans can't demand that he choose nominees to the right of him. However, the current crop of candidates for his second-term cabinet does lack the "Team of Rivals" quality that defined his first-term cabinet, particularly in the early years. There was Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the Bush administration who emerged as a formidable pillar of power in the Obama White House; Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who commanded the loyalty of a huge chunk of the Democratic Party that was often wary of Obama; and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, another Bush-era official who was often accused by liberals of being too close to Wall Street.
In contrast, the new contenders — from Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel, to John Kerry and Jacob Lew — are, for lack of a better phrase, Obama's people. As Jennifer Rubin at The Washington Post writes:
It is not merely that President Obama has put up confrontational nominees. He is also replacing senior people with standing and reputations derived independent of his administration (e.g., Hillary Clinton, Leon Panetta, Tim Geithner) with confidants who are like-minded, disinclined to question the president or rebut his (often erroneous) thinking. It is the reign of the yes-men (a whole lot less women, as many have pointed out), dedicated to partisan sprawls. Like the president, they are convinced that leftist policy is not only sound but morally superior. [Washington Post]
Leaving aside the question of partisan gamesmanship, there is a sense that Hagel and Kerry, for example, would merely be instruments of Obama's foreign policy rather than shapers of it; the true center of power more accurately lies within an inner circle of foreign policy gurus, such as national security adviser Tom Donilon. ("The most important person in the mix," according to Vice President Joe Biden.) If we were to include the director of CIA, a non-cabinet post, in our calculation, then it's notable that David Petraeus, once viewed as a possible presidential challenger to Obama, would be replaced, if confirmed, by John Brennan, Obama's counterterrorism adviser.
And if we look to the cabinet members from the first term who are staying on for another round? I wondered yesterday why Eric Holder, a reliable punching bag for the GOP, would want to put himself through more abuse. The answer, according to Ben Smith at BuzzFeed, is that he is there precisely to soak up abuse and rein in any independent streak he might have:
[Holder] has not led any politically damaging investigations into the Obama administration.
In choosing Holder, a well-respected but low-profile Washington lawyer and former Deputy Attorney General who joined his presidential campaign early, Obama chose trust over symbolism. The Attorney General wields immense and independent power. A high-profile political figure chosen, like most Cabinet secretaries, for traditional reasons of politics, may act independently and do the president real harm. Some presidents have responded to that concern by appointing loyalists — in John F. Kennedy's case, his brother. Others, like the Bush Administration, have at times actively meddled in the Justice Department. The Holder model appears to be different. He carries no brief for Obama's staff, and has clashed with the likes of David Axelrod and Rahm Emanuel. But he is extremely close to the president. [BuzzFeed]
So is Obama surrounding himself with sycophants? That's one way to look at it. Another, more charitable view is that Obama, entering his second term, is no longer the young president he once was; that his presidency has come into its own, to the point that he no longer needs to rely as heavily on veterans from the Clinton and Bush administrations; and that he is building a well-oiled, more confident executive machine with no daylight between the gears.