October 23, 2020

Obama lacks a Cabinet super star

IMMEDIATE RELEASE 26 November 2014

WASHINGTON MERRY-GO-ROUND

Today’s Events in Historical Perspective

America’s Longest-Running Column, Founded 1932

Obama lacks a Cabinet super star

By Douglas Cohn and Eleanor Clift

WASHINGTON – After less than two years on the job, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was shown the door, giving President Obama the opportunity to replace him with someone better suited to the crises facing the administration. The rise of the Islamic State, the deteriorating situation in Syria, and the ongoing challenges from Russian President Putin, all appear to have caught the administration by surprise and without a credible game plan.

Hagel was brought in to cut the defense budget and keep the troops at home, tasks he was well suited to handle. A decorated Vietnam combat veteran and the first enlisted man to lead the department, the wellbeing of the troops is his highest priority. As someone who has seen combat and knows the hell of war, he was also the right choice to fulfill Obama’s pledge to end the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, and not involve the country in another war in the Middle East.

But Obama has been forced to tweak, if not outright change his plans, and he needs a defense secretary who he has confidence in to relay what the military thinks is necessary, offer his own view, and act as a bulwark against the military’s wish list when needed. Hagel was a sergeant in Vietnam, and over-ruling and second-guessing the generals and admirals now answering to him did not come naturally.

White House aides were quoted anonymously in news accounts saying they never knew where Hagel stood, that he was quiet in meetings and didn’t offer insights of his own. Even if that’s true, the fault with Obama’s policies lies less with Hagel than the men and women in Obama’s inner circle at the White House, and with the president himself.

Hagel will stay on the job until his successor is confirmed, just as Eric Holder remains in place until the Senate confirms his successor, U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch. Holder, unlike Hagel, is a close personal friend of Obama’s, and the timing of his resignation was his own choice.

Still, each departure gives Obama a chance to re-set policy or to re-cast relations with Congress. Two people on Obama’s list as possible replacements for Hagel have withdrawn their names. National Security expert Michelle Flournoy called the president and cited family considerations. She left a high-ranking job at the Pentagon two years ago saying she needed to spend more time with her three adolescent and young teen children.

Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed, an Army veteran and West Point graduate, also took himself out of the running, prompting speculation that Obama might move Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, a rising star in the Cabinet, to the Pentagon. That of course would create a vacancy at Homeland Security, another critical post.

With the exception of Hagel, who proved a weak successor to former Defense chiefs Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, the president has picked some inspired Cabinet replacements, but none have a high-profile. When General Eric Shinseki was forced out at the Veterans Administration, Obama installed former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald to go in and clean house. His private sector management skills get high marks for helping turn around the troubled VA.

After Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius offered her resignation in the wake of the rocky rollout of the Obamacare website, Obama tapped his then Budget Chief, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, to head the mammoth department. She’s not a household name, but she gets the job done and she enjoys better relations with Congress than most Democrats.

A legitimate criticism of Obama is that he relies too much on his White House inner circle, and that his Cabinet lacks star quality. The next Defense Secretary will be coming into an administration in its fourth quarter with the home team behind. For the right person, that’s the kind of challenge if met with creativity and determination, would give Obama the super star he sorely needs.

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© 2014 U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

Distributed by U.S. News Syndicate, Inc.

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