Four years after promising to change Washington, President Obama has left everyone guessing just how much change will occur if he wins a second term. This time, he may not want many tweaks to his senior staff or his Cabinet. But, like the past five two-term presidents, Obama will find that things never stay the same -- even if he wants them to.
The president has had a fair amount of turbulence in his White House staff, including three chiefs of staff, two press secretaries, two legislative directors, and a shifting cast of senior advisers. But he has had a remarkably stable Cabinet. Only two of Obama’s 15 Cabinet posts have turned over -- Defense and Commerce. And only two of his six Cabinet-level slots have seen turnover -- budget director and head of the Council of Economic Advisers. But that very stability hints at the change to come in a second term. The long hours and constant stress inevitably take their toll. Few people have the stamina to last eight years.
On average in the five two-term presidencies since World War II, only one or two Cabinet officers have stayed for eight years. Bill Clinton held on to the most; five of his Cabinet secretaries stuck it out for the second term. In the Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush administrations, two Cabinets officers served for eight years; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each had one who did the full stretch. That history suggests a big turnover ahead for a reelected Obama.
But history gives no clues about where or when the turnover will come. And this president is not sharing his thoughts. In fact, his failure to talk much about his goals for a second term complicates efforts to plan or to even speculate about the people he hopes to have around him over the next four years. “The staff that you select should reflect your best presidential judgment as to the focus of the second-term agenda,” said William Galston, Clinton’s top domestic adviser. “And I’m not the first to have noticed that the president hasn’t said very much about that during the campaign, to put it mildly.”
Martha Joynt Kumar, the Towson University professor who is one of the leading experts on presidential transitions, said that both Reagan and Bush suffered in staffing second terms because their reelection campaigns conveyed so little about what the reelected incumbent planned to do with four more years. “When you talk about the past four years rather than the four years ahead of you,” she says, “you come in for the second term with no clear agenda that the public had a chance to give its approval to.”
Kumar added, “Another danger in a second term is, you lose so many people in the White House and in your administration generally that you don’t have a lot of people who remember why you’re there in the first place. And that is especially true when you haven’t laid out a clear agenda.” The agenda is particularly important for a president who has shown an aversion to personal negotiations over legislative details. If comprehensive immigration reform is on the second-term To Do list -- along with the fiscal issues everybody knows are there -- the White House staff will need to include people able to deal effectively with Congress.
“What you have right now at the White House with Jack Lew and Gene Sperling is a very experienced team,” Galston says. “So if you want to give priority to the fiscal situation, then you would think twice before busting up that team.”
Changes in the White House staff take on even more importance because Obama has not championed strong Cabinet governance. “His White House did not give his Cabinet a lot of running room or a lot of responsibility,” Galston said, noting that folks at the White House, not in the Cabinet departments, played the lead role on almost every major issue in the past four years. If that pattern holds, it could mean less of a Cabinet shake-up. Another argument for a cautious approach is that Republicans are likely to have a louder voice in the Senate after the elections. The White House will not be eager for too many confirmation battles.
But even if Obama sees his Cabinet officers primarily as managers to keep the government running and to head off embarrassments, and even if he wants to avoid contentious confirmation votes, this is the time when he needs to decide which members of his first-term Cabinet performed well and which failed to live up to his expectations.
It is a question that every president must ask at the end of four years. But some have handled the transition more smoothly than others. Obama has kept the process behind the scenes, with Lew and his deputy, Pete Rouse, sounding out Cabinet officers and senior staffers about their plans.
Previous presidents did not always keep the process out of the headlines. “What doesn’t work is what Nixon did: asking everybody to resign. That sends a very bad signal,” Galston said. Kumar recalls it as “just dispiriting. Right after a big win, you have everyone at a meeting and then ask for their resignations? It was without precedent, and I don’t expect it ever to be repeated.” For not even a champion of change like Obama wants that kind of upset.
Here's a look at who President Obama might place in a few key positions. For a full list, visit National Journal.
Secretary of Defense
When Romney tried recently to seize back the venerable Republican issue of “strong on defense and national security” with a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, the Obama campaign was quick to counterpunch. Even before the GOP nominee spoke, Obama surrogates issued a memo to reporters labeling Romney’s foreign-policy positions “erratic, unsteady, and irresponsible.” One of the memo’s authors was Michele Flournoy, a fierce defender of Obama’s foreign-policy record who was Defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 till February of this year, when she became the campaign’s go-to surrogate on national-security issues. Unless a lot of experts are mistaken (always a distinct possibility with such speculation), Flournoy is well positioned to succeed Leon Panetta and become the first woman to head the Pentagon if Obama is reelected.
She long ago began crashing through glass ceilings in the defense-policy world, displaying a wonk’s grasp of the issues and impressing bosses with her poise and intellect. With degrees from Harvard and Oxford, Flournoy served dual roles as principal deputy assistant Defense secretary for strategy and threat reduction and deputy assistant Defense secretary for strategy in the 1990s. She went on to work on national-security issues at the National Defense University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In 2007, she cofounded the Center for a New American Security, and The New York Observer named her a “Hot Policy Wonk for the Democrats.” “I think there’s a pretty strong consensus that in a second Obama term, Flournoy is a likely historic choice as the first female secretary of Defense,” said James Carafano, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. “She’s already mastered the Pentagon bureaucracy and shown herself to be in lockstep with President Obama as a team player who is easy to work with.”
Other strong potential candidates include former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, who has resurrected the key national-security adviser and surrogate role he played in the 2008 Obama campaign; Ash Carter, the current deputy Defense secretary and a cerebral defense wonk whose long service in the Pentagon stretches back to the Clinton administration in the 1990s; and former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran and a moderate Republican whom Obama befriended when they traveled overseas together as senators. “Given that the next secretary of Defense will face significant budget cuts that will require close consultation with Congress, I think Chuck Hagel is a likely top candidate,” said Larry Korb, a defense expert and senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, and an adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. “He’s a war veteran and a Republican who is very well liked on Capitol Hill, and he and Obama are known to get along since they worked together in the Senate.”
Secretary of State
With Hillary Rodham Clinton planning to depart, the betting on a successor has largely coalesced around three major contenders: Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the party’s 2004 nominee for president; Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador and longtime Obama adviser; and Tom Donilon, the current national-security adviser, who is credited with stabilizing a White House team roiled by infighting in the first half of the president’s term. Donilon, who has held White House and congressional posts dating back to the Carter administration, is not seen as a figure who would command center stage the way a secretary of State is expected to, and he could run into confirmation problems because of his tenure as a top executive at Fannie Mae, the controversial government-sponsored mortgage-finance company.
Democratic Party insiders, however, see problems with both Kerry and Rice. The latter, 47, is still viewed as somewhat junior, and critics have hammered her in recent weeks for making what they say were misleading statements about what the administration knew and when it knew it regarding the deaths of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. Kerry, who he has been a stalwart defender of the administration and who intervened when relations between Obama’s chief envoy, Richard Holbrooke, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai froze in 2010, has occasionally gone afoul of official policy—by advocating intervention in civil-war-torn Syria, for example. Kerry has also drawn criticism for the way he played Mitt Romney in practice runs leading up to Obama’s disastrous first debate. Still, Kerry has one big ace up his senatorial sleeve: Joe Biden, who is very influential on foreign policy, is close to him and was even slated to be the latter’s secretary of State had Kerry won the presidency in 2004. So, Biden could tilt the balance.
Office of Management and Budget Director
No matter who wins the White House, the partisan budget battles are ongoing. Obama will want a seasoned person to oversee the agency charged with preparing and mapping out the president’s budget. Some names bandied about in Democratic circles include:
• Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, who is widely respected for his geeky and resolutely nonpartisan delivery of facts and figures. Peter Orzag, Obama’s former OMB director, also came from the top CBO job.
• Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy. He is well versed in budget battles, having helped to negotiate the 1993 and 1997 deficit-reduction acts.
• Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director for management at OMB, who has received good marks in his role as the temporary public face of the agency.
• Rob Nabors, the head of legislative affairs at the White House and Orzag’s former deputy. Nabors once served as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, experience that could help him push budgets through Congress.
Two possible long-shot candidates come from Capitol Hill. One is retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Six.” Conrad has been obsessed with solving the deficit problem for years. The other long shot is Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee. His profile has risen considerably this fall as a key surrogate for the Obama campaign and one of the party’s loudest critics of his House colleague Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nomine.