Restocking the Cabinet

John KerrySecretary of State

Nominee: John Kerry

Qualifications: Member of the Senate; Committee on Foreign Relations for 28 years and chairman for the last four.

The Work Ahead: Iran continues to make progress toward a nuclear weapon while Israel agitates for US intervention. Meanwhile, Syria’s Bashar Assad slaughters his own people and the international community lacks consensus on the appropriate response. Just this month, French President François Hollande launched a military intervention in Mali, where Islamist rebels have taken the northern Sahel region and started pushing south. Without a clear endgame, the French action is eerily reminiscent of our own messy intervention in Afghanistan. Despite Obama’s much reported desire to pivot foreign policy attention to Asia, this year will find Kerry’s focus stuck firmly on the Middle East.

What to Expect: Kerry is often one step ahead of White House foreign policy. In 2011, well before it was US policy, he called for the imposition of a no-fly zone in Libya. He preempted the White House again that year when he called for the US to cease supporting Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak. Though writing Op-Eds is undeniably simpler than wrangling the whole White House toward decisive action, Kerry’s prescience is notable. With regards to Iran’s nuclear program, Kerry is concerned with the global perception that we have exhausted all diplomatic avenues. He balanced this emphasis on diplomatic engagement with firm remarks at his confirmation hearing on January 24. He told the Foreign Relations committee, “Our policy is not containment. It is prevention, and the clock is ticking on our efforts to secure responsible compliance.”

Naysayers: There aren’t many. Kerry’s first confirmation hearing was positively friendly.

Points for Diversity: None

Chuck HegelSecretary of Defense

Nominee: Chuck Hagel

Qualifications: Decorated Vietnam War veteran; former Nebraska Senator and member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Policy; current co-chairman of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board.

The Work Ahead: Like Kerry, Hagel will be concerning himself with the Middle East, orchestrating an exit strategy for Afghanistan, addressing the growing Nuclear threat from Iran, and responding to Assad’s human rights violations in Syria. The Pentagon may face considerable budget cuts in the coming year but Hagel may welcome the chance to lower military spending. In 2011 Hagel told the Financial Times, “There’s a tremendous amount of bloat in the Pentagon, and that has to be scaled back.”

What to Expect: Not quite a dove, but certainly not a hawk, Senator Hagel voted for the Iraq War in 2002. He now says he regrets his vote and in 2007 he voted against the Bush Administration’s “Surge” strategy due to the war’s death toll and economic drainage. While many consider the surge a success and Hagel’s opposition short-sighted, the former senator’s voting record makes him a strong nominee for Obama as he moves toward a lighter military footprint. Hagel has formerly opposed sanctions on Iran and, like Kerry, encourages direct engagement with the Iranian government. It seems, however, that Hagel is stepping in line with the President’s agenda. In a recent letter to Senator Barbara Boxer, Hagel wrote, “With Iran’s continued rejection of diplomatic overtures, further effective sanctions, both multilateral and unilateral, may be necessary and I will support the President.”

Naysayers: Hagel is an extremely controversial nominee. Though he is a Republican, he alienated much of his party with his vocal opposition to the Bush administration. Many view Hagel as soft on Iran and In 2006, Hagel criticized the political influence of “the Jewish Lobby,” inciting accusations of anti-Semitism.

Points for Diversity: None

John BrennanCIA Director

Nominee: John Brennan

Qualifications: Twenty-five years at the CIA; one tour as station chief in Saudi Arabia; current counter-terrorism advisor to the President.

The Work Ahead: Brennan will be returning to an agency that many claim has lost its traditional function of intelligence gathering and analysis. He is already facing growing questions and criticism of the military’s drone program and as CIA director will have to address calls for more transparency. He, too, will be put to work unraveling the messy knot of Iranian nuclear enrichment.

What to Expect: Brennan is an Obama Administration insider. Though he was passed over for CIA Director in 2009, he has likely wielded more power in the White House as counter-terrorism advisor. He is the chief architect and spokesperson for the drone campaign. Today the White House relies heavily on drones to combat Al Qaeda in Pakistan and, more recently, Yemen. Brennan has spent the last four years pushing the White House toward low-cost, low-US casualty strategies, relying not only on drones, but also cyber-attacks and Specials Ops Forces. We can likely expect more of the same from Brennan as support for boots-on-the-ground military intervention plummets.

Naysayers: Because Brennan worked in the CIA under the Bush Administration, anti-torture senator John McCain said in a statement that he is concerned about the role Brennan may have “played in the so-called enhanced interrogation programs while serving at the C.I.A.” Civil liberties groups also raise questions about executive branch “kill-lists” and question the legality of drone strikes.

Points for Diversity: None

Treasury Secretary

Nominee: Jacob LewJacob Lew

Qualifications: Briefly managing director of Global Wealth Management at Citigroup; director of the Office of Management and Budget under Clinton and Obama; current White House Chief of Staff.

The Work Ahead: As Chief of Staff, Lew has already been deeply involved in the congressional squabbles over debt ceilings and fiscal cliffs. As Treasury Secretary, one of Lew’s principle roles will be chief negotiator for the White House, forging a plan for deficit reduction. This will require haggling with a Congress that regularly differs responsibility for budgetary woes through quick fixes. Lew’s legacy, and that of the President, will likely depend on whether the White House can put an end to Congress’ continual budgetary squabbles and push the legislative branch to take decisive action to reduce the deficit.

What to Expect: Like Brennan, Lew has been a part of the Obama Administration since day one. He is a veteran negotiator, although his last bout with Republicans over the debt ceiling in 2011 ended poorly. For Obama, Lew is a strong choice, a trusted aide, and plenty experienced with budget struggles. Still, Obama’s first term saw little progress with Republicans in Congress and, like Brennan, Lew represents business as usual. Fiscally progressive, Lew will try to protect antipoverty programs like Medicaid as the government looks to cut spending.

Naysayers: Aside from a brief stint at Citigroup, Lew has limited experience with the private sector. Without strong relationships with the banking industry in the US or abroad, critics fear Lew might be ill equipped to handle another financial crisis. Lew’s loop-de-loop signature has also come under scrutiny from the political blogosphere. If he is confirmed, his scribble may become a permanent feature on the American dollar-bill.

Points for Diversity: None

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