“Second terms are hard work,” a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House told me Tuesday. “It’s a good idea to get some fresh blood in there.”
But so far, President Obama seems more inclined to simply shuffle the chairs as he reshapes his Cabinet for the new term.
Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, appears likely to get the marquee job as secretary of State — if she survives congressional inquiry into the administration’s handling of the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Other likely appointments of familiar faces to new jobs include Jacob Lew, the White House chief of staff, as Treasury secretary; Janet Napolitano, secretary of Homeland Security, as attorney general; and John Brennan, Obama’s advisor on counter-terrorism, as CIA director (if he wants the job).
The only outsider who appears to be heading for the Cabinet at this point is Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who wanted State but is more likely to become secretary of Defense. And Kerry’s not far outside the current inner circle, having proved his loyalty by working closely with the White House on tough issues like Afghanistan.
There’s no shortage of competence there. None will have any difficulty getting confirmed, with the possible exception of Rice. But the reshuffled team doesn’t expand an insular administration’s gene pool much, and that has some Democrats outside the White House worried.
“A president needs people around him he knows and trusts,” another former Clinton aide said. “But he also needs people who are strong and assertive. They don’t have to be his best friends.”
What’s missing from Obama’s reported picks? For one thing, there are no Republicans. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) endorsed Obama over his own party’s presidential nominee, but that hasn’t gotten him anything more than polite speculation about a possible appointment to the Pentagon or CIA.
There are no people from the business world on the list either. Fans of the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan have been lobbying for Erskine Bowles, an investment banker who also worked for Clinton, as Treasury secretary. But insiders say Bowles’ chances haven’t been good since last year, when he chewed out Obama for failing to endorse the plan.
It’s still likely that someone from the private sector will be named secretary of Commerce, with instructions to expand the job into “secretary of business,” a slogan Republicans derided during the campaign. But even an expanded version of Commerce isn’t as good a job as Treasury secretary. (Quick: Can you name the current secretary of Commerce? It’s a trick question. The job has been vacant since June; that’s how essential it is.)
There’s always jockeying for Cabinet jobs, especially for secretary of State. But as demonstrated by the exodus of exhausted Cabinet members at the start of every second term, the work can be grueling.
For all their prestige, some of the jobs aren’t much fun. The Energy Department is famously dysfunctional, even though its jurisdiction is a major national priority. Homeland Security, cobbled together from 22 other agencies, is an organizational nightmare, although Napolitano has managed to emerge with her reputation intact.
And the most coveted job of all, State, is also one of the toughest. Yes, the job promises its tenant a place in history and even, with luck, a chance to negotiate peace somewhere. But it’s also a punishing pace, with almost nonstop travel, and it comes with frequent turf battles against other powerful players who want a share of the action, beginning with the national security advisor and the secretary of Defense. Moreover, the State Department’s budget is perennially starved; the secretary has to ascend Capitol Hill with a tin cup several times a year.
Those who have worked in Cabinet jobs generally say that Treasury, Defense and the CIA are the most rewarding. The secretary of the Treasury gets to negotiate with foreign governments too but never has to travel to war zones. (“We only go to capitals where the restaurants are good,” a Treasury aide once confided to me.) Besides, the next secretary of the Treasury will probably get to preside over an economic recovery.
The secretary of Defense commands a much larger budget than the secretary of State, with at least as much influence over foreign policy, especially anywhere U.S. troops are deployed.
Even the director of the CIA runs an organization roughly as big as the State Department, and has the luxury of doing most of it in secret. “That’s the best job in government,” a former Cabinet secretary told me.
In the end, the effectiveness of a Cabinet job depends “on how much authority the president is willing to give them,” a former White House aide noted. “Where has Obama’s Cabinet gone? It’s been hard to find most of them during the campaign.”
Still, there’s no shortage of talented people willing to take the toughest jobs, even in an administration with a reputation for top-down management. Obama would do well to look outside his bubble for some new faces. A second-term president could use new allies, new talent and new ideas.
Follow Doyle McManus on Twitter @DoyleMcManus