Cabinet Confirmations: A Look at the Second Term

| January 17 2013
John Walker

Shortly after President Obama takes the oath of office next week to begin his second term, the laborious confirmation process will begin to fill the top posts in his cabinet. Although confirmations are likely, it will be a bumpy ride, filled with controversy and a fair share of personal contention.

Confirmation hearings will be held to fill the top spots at State, Treasury, Defense, and the CIA. Later, hearings will be held to confirm a new director of the Environmental Protection Agency, the most powerful and controversial regulatory agency in the federal government.

We often learn the most about our presidents by assessing the views of those they choose to lead the government. Without a doubt, Obama’s choices for the top cabinet posts are an open book on what’s to come in the next four years.

Larry Kudlow, CNBC host and columnist, points out that Obama’s choices for State, Treasury, and Defense are all to the left of their predecessors. This is in keeping with the president’s determination to pursue increasingly leftist policies across the board.

Skeptical senators will certainly challenge Obama’s nominees, creating a somewhat chaotic confirmation process filled with the usual sharp questioning and institutional stonewalling. Nevertheless, the proceedings will reveal much about coming Obama policies both domestic and foreign.

The confirmation process of the top cabinet posts will not begin in earnest until outgoing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testifies only two days after the inauguration. She will face the House Foreign Affairs Committee to address the still simmering controversies over the attack on the U.S. diplomatic post in Benghazi on September 11 of last year. Sadly, her testimony is likely to be a bit of an anti-climax, short of new revelations or tacit admissions. Clinton is a veteran of such proceedings and is unlikely to make her last Capitol Hill appearances memorable.

Then comes the task of filling the top spots in the cabinet. Here’s the lineup and the expected controversies surrounding each one.

State. The nominee to replace Clinton is veteran Senator John Kerry. This will be the easiest confirmation. Kerry is a bona fide member of the Senate club, currently serving as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was the nominee of his party for president in 2004. He still carries the baggage he created when he vilified his fellow soldiers following his service in Vietnam. What is more, he is no fan of the Pentagon and is likely to lean in favor of international organizations over the core concerns of the United States.

Treasury. The nominee is White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew. This is Obama’s weakest choice and the one likely to cause the most trouble down the road. Lew is a Democratic Party operative who lacks both the credentials and the status to lead the Treasury Department. He is a committed leftist who will advance Obama’s confrontation with the House Republicans on taxes and spending and the Administration’s refusal to tackle entitlement reform and any serious revisions to the tax code. In choosing Lew, Obama missed the opportunity to nominate a Treasury Secretary who could be a bridge between Democrats and Republicans as the nation faces the most serious fiscal challenges in memory.

Defense. The nominee is Chuck Hagel, the undistinguished two-term senator from Nebraska who has been out of the public eye for years. He is a lightning rod on sanctions against Iran, Pentagon spending, and the ongoing tension between the United States and Israel. Democratic senators have rallied to his cause, but a number of senators on both sides of the aisle remain highly skeptical of his views and qualifications.

CIA. The nominee is John Brennan, President Obama’s chief counterterrorism advisor. In spite of his 25-year CIA career, Brennan is not without controversy. In 2008, his name was withdrawn for CIA Director following concerns about his role in so-called enhanced interrogation techniques and rendition in the Bush administration. In addition, he is an architect of the use of drones in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and Afghanistan. Some senators remain concerned about Brennan’s zealous promotion of the president’s role in the raid that killed Osama bin Laden.

It is a tradition in the Senate to grant presidents their choices for cabinet posts barring undue circumstances that would disqualify a nominee. Surely President Obama will be granted this deference. Nevertheless, the confirmation of these Obama nominees will be revealing and informative, telling us more about the president than the individual views of the nominees themselves.

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