Rice’s withdrawal might even work to Obama’s favor, in the end, if he goes ahead and nominates his presumed second-favorite candidate for the job—Sen. John Kerry. I’ve written (and I’m far from alone in this view) that Kerry was always the better choice. As longtime chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he has a thorough grasp of all the issues on the agenda; he served as Obama’s de facto envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, cleaning up some of that region’s messier political disputes; he navigated Obama’s New START nuclear arms-reduction treaty to ratification by a resistant Senate; and, not least, he is largely responsible for Obama’s political rise, picking him to be keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic convention when he was a mere Illinois state senator. Clearly Kerry wants this job; surely he deserves it.
There are two potential drawbacks, though. First, Kerry’s departure from the Senate would leave open a Democratic seat that might switch to Republican control in a special election, especially if Scott Brown—a popular Republican who just lost his seat to Elizabeth Warren—decides to run again. It’s unclear how big a factor this might be. Presumably the Democrats in Massachusetts can come up with some suitable candidate for the race.
Second, Kerry’s departure from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee would leave the chairmanship to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who is more hawkish on such issues as Iran, Cuba, and arms control. He would be a less amenable partner for Obama—to the extent that Obama’s foreign-policy agenda requires Senate approval. It could be that his agenda in the second term doesn’t require this approval—or, if it does, that Kerry, with his experience and respect on Capitol Hill, could push it through himself. One thing is for certain: Kerry would have no problem getting confirmed; McCain and the others who disparaged Rice have explicitly said so.
Rumors also rumbled Thursday that Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator from Nebraska, would be nominated to replace Leon Panetta as secretary of defense. Hagel reportedly met with Obama on Dec. 4, perhaps for personal vetting. It’s worth noting that he was also on the short list of candidates for the job four years ago when Obama began his first term in office. (Robert Gates, who’d run the Pentagon during President Bush’s final two years, decided to stay on.)
If Obama wants to cut defense spending or reorganize the armed forces in ways bound to meet resistance, Hagel would be a credible figure to push for the changes, both in the Pentagon and on Capitol Hill. A Vietnam veteran and former deputy chief of the Department of Veterans Affairs, he served two terms in the Senate before resigning in 2008, rising to the position of deputy Republican whip. Yet he was also an independent voice, especially in his criticism of the Iraq War—and of the escalation of the war in Afghanistan. In short, like Kerry, Hagel would sail through the confirmation process.
The question is what he would do afterward—specifically whether Obama could rely on Hagel to take a scalpel to the budget, if that’s what he wanted him to do. Panetta was given the top Pentagon job in part because of his background as budget chief, but once he assumed the helm, he proved to be more a defender of the services, opposing any cuts. Would Hagel be more pliable? Presumably this was one of the topics discussed at that Dec. 4 meeting with the president.
One thing that seems clear about President Obama: He values loyalty but not to the point of sentimentality or obstruction. He won a mandate in the 2012 election, and he wants to exploit that fact as quickly as possible, knowing that presidents often lose momentum—tend to fall into lame-duck’s syndrome—as their second terms get under way. Nominating Kerry and Hagel would sweep away the partisan games that he clearly detests—and clear the path for what he sees as the business of governing.