Does President Obama know what he wants?
The president's puzzling expenditure of political capital on Susan Rice and Chuck Hagel raises real questions
The fiscal cliff. The jobless recovery. Comprehensive immigration reform. Climate change. Implementing ObamaCare. Cutting healthcare spending. Rebuilding our infrastructure. Addressing student debt. Fixing the tax code. Gun control. There is no shortage of domestic issues that this president might address. But to govern is to choose, and this president has limited political capital. He will have to choose carefully.
And yet, the nature of President Obama's campaign, coupled with a few odd choices relating to the selection of the president's second-term cabinet, raise questions relating to whether Obama has thought carefully about what he truly cares about, or whether he is instead playing a very complicated game of whack-a-mole, reacting to events as they pop up.
Let us begin with Chuck Hagel and Susan Rice. The president wanted to nominate Susan Rice to be secretary of state (she withdrew because of GOP opposition), and he seems prepared to nominate Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense (Hagel faces similar opposition). Of course, the president has the constitutional authority to nominate members of his cabinet as well as enough Democratic votes in the Senate to confirm virtually any nominee he can get past a potential filibuster. But that he can pick whoever he wants does not mean that he should, which is where Rice and Hagel raise questions.
Being the secretary of either state or defense is undoubtedly a powerful and important position. But in the grand scheme of things, getting the exact nominee a president wants is not vital. Why? Because cabinet members serve directly under the executive (i.e. they answer to the president), and their decisions will mirror the president's wishes. This contrasts quite radically from judicial nominees — especially Supreme Court appointees — who, if confirmed, gain life tenure and play an incredibly important role in shaping the legal landscape while not answering to any political body. The bottom line is that a president with limited political capital has far less incentive to fight for a specific individual to serve in his cabinet than he might for a specific judge. So why is the president bothering with Rice and Hagel? It is utterly puzzling. Obama has limited political capital. Thinking strategically about his long-term political goals, why on Earth would he deliberately rankle GOP senators when he could select a similarly valuable candidate without fostering ill will on the right?
Might the Hagel/Rice sagas merely reflect poor political judgment? Perhaps. But one of the dirty little secrets of the 2012 presidential campaign is that Barack Obama provided almost no vision for his next four years in office — his campaign focused almost entirely on destroying Mitt Romney's character. The result: We know almost nothing about what the president really intends to focus on. The fact that President Obama never took the time or effort to paint a clear picture of his vision for the next four years, coupled with the quixotic way he is handling seemingly uncomplicated nomination processes on the Hill, makes me wonder whether that vision even exists, or whether it is being cobbled together on the fly.
Either way, the conclusion is troubling. If the vision does exist, then the fact that he has been so aggressive in pushing potential nominees to which the GOP is overtly hostile suggests that the president failed to learn the most important political lesson of his first four years, which is that he can do very little without Republican support. If, on the other hand, the president is only now thinking about what he wants to do with his next four years, he had better come up with a vision quickly, because trying to navigate from event to event without any comprehensive vision is apt to create an incoherent jumble of policy decisions that result in no real legacy and, more importantly, no real progress in any one direction.
Jeb Golinkin is a 3L at the University of Texas School of Law. From 2008 to 2011, he served as an editor and reporter for FrumForum. Follow Jeb on Twitter: @JGolinkin.