President Obama rounded out his national security team on Monday, nominating former senator Chuck Hagel to head the Department of Defense and designating deputy national security adviser John Brennan as his choice to serve as CIA director.
The differences in their nominating ceremony and the one last month for Senator John F. Kerry to be secretary of state were startling, reflecting the audible the administration had to call when it came to rolling out the team, as well as the bumpier confirmation hearings Hagel and Brennan are expected to face.
The common denominator, though, was the clear deepening of White House control over the different elements of its national security apparatus.
True, of course, that Obama favored having Robert Gates serve as his first-term secretary of defense, but Gates was a holdover from the Bush administration.
True, too, that the president handpicked Hillary Rodham Clinton to be his first-term secretary of state, but that choice was also a move to accommodate the former first lady and New York senator’s legions of supporters from the 2008 presidential campaign.
It also forged a Lincolnesque “Team of Rivals” approach—along with Gates—as Obama built his initial Cabinet.
And while Leon Panetta served as CIA director for Obama’s first term, he was an established Washington persona with a lengthy management record before the president sought him out for the posting.
The new nominees, though, could be well expected to harbor a special allegiance to this president and his team, given the circumstances of their respective nominations.
Kerry, for example, first expressed interest in being in secretary of state back in 2008, when the president was elected to his first term. Now, as Obama embarks on his second, the president has granted his wish.
It fulfills not only a personal aspiration of the senator, but closes a familial loop that started when Kerry was raised as the son of a Foreign Service worker.
On Dec. 21, the same day the president departed for his annual Christmas vacation in Hawaii and official Washington headed out of town for the holidays, Obama hosted Kerry at the White House for an intimate announcement ceremony.
“In a sense, John’s entire life has prepared him for this role,” the president said as Kerry stood beside him in the White House Roosevelt Room. “I think it’s fair to say that few individuals know as many presidents and prime ministers or grasp our foreign policies as firmly as John Kerry. And this makes him a perfect choice to guide American diplomacy in the years ahead.”
Obama went on to pay credit to Kerry’s wife, Teresa Heinz Kerry, noting her history as an African immigrant and early work as a United Nations translator. Yet he concluded the event without offering Kerry a chance to deliver even the most perfunctory of thanks.
A senator walked out of a room without saying a word.
In part, the announcement was skewed by Clinton’s absence, itself generated by the awkward circumstances of her suffering a concussion after falling down while dehydrated from a virus.
Also hanging in the air were Republican criticisms that Clinton was trying to dodge planned congressional testimony about the circumstances of the Sept. 11 attack on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
Both circumstances served to mute the celebration.
Furthermore, the administration’s hopes of rolling out its full national security team in one pre-holiday grand announcement were scotched by incomplete work assessing potential opposition to Hagel’s nomination; determining if Brennan or acting Director Michael Morell should be the permanent replacement at CIA for David Petraeus; and weighing possible diversity complaints if the White House fielded a heavily white, male national security team.
Instead, Obama forged ahead with the one sure thing he knew at the time: after Susan Rice dropped out of contention for the job, he wanted Kerry to replace Clinton. And the senator already enjoyed widespread support from his colleagues in the Senate—the same people who will vote on his confirmation.
On Monday, the president and his team took a different approach with their second group of announcements.
Instead of a private gathering in the West Wing’s inner sanctum, they staged a grand event—with a crowd of invited guests—in the stately East Room.
The president walked in not only with Hagel and Brennan, his nominees, but also Panetta and Morell, the people they will replace.
And, after a speech in which he underscored the connections both Hagel and Brennan have to the personnel he wants them to command, he invited both of them to speak.
It allowed each to make the case for their nomination, especially important for Hagel as he faces criticism from outsiders and, to a lesser degree, as Brennan braces for likely questions about the Bush administration’s use of waterboarding while he worked at the CIA, and the Obama administration’s use of drone aircraft for counterterrorism attacks.
“Mr. President, I am grateful for this opportunity to serve our country again and especially its men and women in uniform and their families,” Hagel said in fairly vanilla remarks. “These are people who give so much to this nation every day with such dignity and selflessness. This is particularly important at a time as we complete our mission in Afghanistan and support the troops and military families who have sacrificed so much over more than a decade of war.”
Brennan spoke at a bit more length, making a nonpartisan appeal for his nomination.
“While the intelligence profession oftentimes demands secrecy, it is critically important that there be a full and open discourse on intelligence matters with the appropriate elected representatives of the American people,” he said. “Although I consider myself neither a Republican nor a Democrat, I very much look forward to working closely with those on both sides of the aisle.”
Yet after the group left the East Room, a newspaper in Hagel’s home state of Nebraska released the text of an interview in which the former senator defended himself against critics of his record toward Israel, or his alleged intolerance of a gay US diplomat.
“The distortions about my record have been astounding,” Hagel told the Lincoln Journal Star.
He added: “I fully recognize that confirmation is up to the Senate. All I ask is a fair hearing, and I will get that. I am very much looking forward to having a full, open, transparent hearing about my qualifications and my record. All I look for is an opportunity to respond.”
The interview was followed with a bevy of endorsements for Hagel, including one from Colin Powell, the former secretary of state, Army general, and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. White House aides also confirmed that Chief of Staff Jack Lew had been working the phones to assuage pro-Israel groups and thought leaders.
“Chuck displays his courage in many ways. You can always count on him to analyze a difficult situation and take a position that reflects his best judgment,” Powell said. “I believe that more than ever we need that kind of independent and bold leader who thinks in and out of the box. He is the kind of leader needed by the Department of Defense to deal with the strategic and resource challenges it will be facing over the next several years.”
The verbose announcement ceremony, the green light to launch a public relations offensive before his confirmation hearing, and the statements of support the White House certainly appreciated if not arranged, reflected the administration’s broad range of public displays of affection for its new crop of national security team.
It’s the type of passion that could engender an even deeper relationship between the White House, the State Department, the Defense Department, and the CIA during Obama’s second term.