President Obama is reportedly choosing Republican Chuck Hagel as his nominee for Defense secretary.
(Image credit: Kris Connor/Getty Images)

Soon after Barack Obama was first elected president, an aide told me that Obama hoped to make his mark on the Department of Defense in a very specific way: After then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates stepped down a few years hence, Obama would nominate a strong Democrat to the post, establishing a precedent of sorts for the building and for the Democratic Party after years of perceived weakness on national security matters. Leon Panetta was a natural fit. But Obama, in nominating Chuck Hagel, a Republican former senator from Nebraska, has new priorities now that he's been president and understands the massive institutional and political obligations that the Secretary of Defense has, and by proxy, the role that the Secretary plays in terms of providing him with advice and counsel.

Why isn't Obama replacing Panetta with a Democrat? Simple: Of all the possible candidates, he trusts Hagel. Hagel was the head of Obama's intelligence advisory board, and was a frequent informal "red cell" brain that Obama privately turned to when he wanted a second opinion. He has been picking Hagel's brain on subjects as diverse as Afghanistan, China, special operations force posture, and intelligence for several years now. (Hagel has all the required clearances.)

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Marc Ambinder

Marc Ambinder is's editor-at-large. He is the author, with D.B. Grady, of The Command and Deep State: Inside the Government Secrecy Industry. Marc is also a contributing editor for The Atlantic and GQ. Formerly, he served as White House correspondent for National Journal, chief political consultant for CBS News, and politics editor at The Atlantic. Marc is a 2001 graduate of Harvard. He is married to Michael Park, a corporate strategy consultant, and lives in Los Angeles.