News Column

Obama Sticks to Circle of Friends for Top Posts

January 8, 2013

By Aamer Madhani

President Barack Obama

In his first term, President Obama purposefully set out to build an administration that, while not quite Abraham Lincoln's team of rivals, ensured that his most prominent advisers included some outside his tight inner circle.

He tapped Hillary Rodham Clinton, his vanquished rival for the Democratic presidential nomination and a lawmaker who had a more hawkish foreign policy philosophy than his own, for the State Department, the highest-profile Cabinet position. After Democrats were crushed in the mid-term elections in 2010, he turned to William Daley, a Commerce secretary in the Clinton administration, to come on as White House chief of staff with the hopes of repairing his relationship with GOP leaders and the business community.

In 2011 he chose David Petraeus, who was mentioned as a potential 2012 vice presidential candidate, to replace Leon Panetta, another Clinton administration alumnus, as director of the Central Intelligence Agency after Obama picked Panetta to be Defense secretary.

But if his revamping of his national security team is any indication -- Chuck Hagel for the Pentagon, John Brennan to lead the CIA and Sen. John Kerry for State -- Obama is staying well within his comfort zone as he prepares for his second term, choosing to surround himself with a circle of friends he knows and trusts.

"These two leaders have dedicated their lives in protecting this country," Obama said as he announced the nominations of Hagel and Brennan. "I am confident they will do an outstanding job. I urge the Senate to confirm them as soon as possible so we can keep our nation secure and the American people safe."

Brennan, who is currently the president's in-house counterterrorism adviser and Homeland Security adviser, has been by Obama's side during some of the toughest moments of his presidency. He played a key role during the planning of the Navy SEAL operation to kill Osama bin Laden, and he was the one to deliver the news to Obama about the Newtown, Conn., school shooting. Obama paid tribute to Brennan as "one of the hardest-working public servants I've ever seen."

"I'm not sure he's slept in four years," Obama joked.

Brennan has also overseen the expanded use of drones and special operations forces by the Obama administration. Brennan, who spent 25 years at the CIA prior to joining the Obama administration, carries some political baggage. He withdrew his name from consideration for a top intelligence position in 2008 amid questions about his connection to enhanced interrogation techniques such as waterboarding while at the agency. He later denied involvement in such tactics.

Kerry might not have been Obama's first choice to head the State Department. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice had the inside track on the job but withdrew herself from consideration as she faced fierce Republican opposition over inaccurate comments she made in days after the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. Consulate in Libya that left four Americans, including Ambassador Christopher Stevens, dead.

Still, Kerry has a long-standing relationship with the president. The Massachusetts senator picked then relatively unknown Illinois state Sen. Barack Obama to deliver the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention. During his re-election effort, Obama turned to Kerry to stand in as Mitt Romney during debate preparation.

And, like Obama, Kerry questioned the efficacy of the Iraq War.

Hagel, a moderate Republican from Nebraska, irked many of his former GOP colleagues when he endorsed Obama in 2008 over Sen. John McCain, a longtime colleague and Vietnam War veteran. Since his name was floated last month as a possible successor to Panetta, Hagel has come under sharp criticism from Republicans as well as some pro-Israeli and gay rights advocates.

Hagel, who voted in favor of the Iraq War in 2002, later criticized President George W. Bush's handling of it and bonded with Obama when they traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan before the 2008 election.

"Hillary, Petraeus and Panetta ... they were experienced in-house practitioners who brought very different perspectives to the table and had the status and experience to challenge the president," said Mark Dubowitz, an analyst at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. "These choices are three men who very clearly reflect Obama's world view."

Former senator Max Cleland, a Vietnam veteran who served with Kerry and Hagel, said it makes sense Obama would pick men with whom he's built deep relationships and on whose advice he's come to rely. "Maybe, it's a team of friends, but it's a team that is totally professional in their areas and totally proven."

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2013

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