Obama's Cabinet: Six seats likely to change

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the most high-profile of the Cabinet members likely to step down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the most high-profile of the Cabinet members likely to step down. Saul Loeb/AP

President Obama and his staff have been tight-lipped about possible changes to the Cabinet in a second term. But if history is a guide, Obama’s team could see substantial turnover this year: On average, in the five two-term presidencies since World War II, only one of two Cabinet officers have stayed for eight years. Some on Obama's team, such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, have already publicly said they’ll stick around. Others, including Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, have been more opaque: last summer Shinseki told The New York Times he will “serve at the pleasure of the president.”

Some Cabinet members, however, have publicly committed to stepping aside and others are widely known to want to do so. Here are six officeholders whom Washington is watching closely. And here’s a link to National Journal’s more exhaustive list of who could be tapped to serve in a second Obama administration.

Secretary of State

With Hillary Rodham Clinton planning her departure, there are three major contenders for America’s top diplomatic post: Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, 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. Of the three, Kerry is the most plausible pick. Kerry has occasionally gone afoul of official policy—by advocating intervention in civil-war-torn Syria, for example—but he’s viewed as a contender with the stature to serve in the role. Kerry’s close ties with Vice President Joe Biden could help tilt the administration’s decision-making. However, the last thing Democrats want is a special election in Massachusetts to fill Kerry’s seat. If Kerry’s the man, he’s likely to move over next year, rather than during the lame-duck negotiations to avert the so-called fiscal cliff.

Treasury Secretary

Obama chose Timothy Geithner during the depths of the financial meltdown for his expertise in managing crises. Geithner has said he plans to step down at the end of Obama’s current term, and the two top contenders to succeed him are both budget experts with extensive government experience: White House Chief of Staff Jacob Lew and former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles. Lew, the former director of the Office of Management and Budget, is trusted by the president and has ties to Capitol Hill. Bowles famously co-chaired a bipartisan deficit-reduction panel with former Sen. Alan Simpson. National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling has been mentioned as a third possible contender. Many are skeptical that Obama would choose a Wall Street veteran for Treasury, but if he were to do so, he could consider Larry Fink, chief executive officer of the huge money-management firm BlackRock, or Roger Altman, co-founder of Evercore Partners and a former deputy Treasury secretary.

Defense Secretary 

Leon Panetta has made it clear that he wants to retire to his California walnut farm sooner rather than later. Panetta’s stature and Washington experience are hard to match, but that doesn’t mean the White House doesn’t have options. Top contenders include Michele Flournoy, a former Defense undersecretary for policy and the Obama campaign’s go-to surrogate on national security issues, and Ashton Carter, the current deputy Defense secretary. Other possibilities are former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig and former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska. Whomever Obama nominates, one thing is sure: The next secretary must be able to manage implementing budget cuts and working closely with Congress.    

Energy Secretary

Obama’s choice of Nobel physicist Steven Chu as Energy secretary signaled the president’s high hopes for the department. The idea was that Congress would pass a cap-and-trade bill, and Chu would lead a department transformed into a driver of clean-energy development. But cap-and-trade failed, a solar company called Solyndra went bankrupt—tarring Chu in the process— and prospects for a climate bill are bleak. Chu has indicated that he’d like to leave his post, but the president may ask him to stay; among other reasons, it could be extremely difficult to get a new secretary confirmed by the Senate. Should Obama be forced to nominate a successor, former Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota has strong bipartisan relationships and a strong energy policy background to recommend him. Dan Reicher, who served as President Clinton’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, and John Podesta, chairman of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, are two other possible candidates.

Transportation Secretary

Ray LaHood has said that he doesn’t plan to stick around for a second Obama term, although he hasn’t ruled out staying put. If LaHood does step down, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa could be a front-runner to replace him. Villaraigosa has been an outspoken advocate of infrastructure improvements, and he’s a high-profile Democratic mayor who has the added advantage of being Hispanic. His term as mayor will be up in May 2013. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell is another die-hard infrastructure advocate who could fill the post, as is Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a longtime LaHood ally in Congress.

Commerce Secretary

Obama hasn’t had a commerce secretary since June, when John Bryson was involved in a car crash. Earlier this year, Obama proposed to essentially eliminate the department, floating a plan to combine much of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency. The plan went nowhere, and Commerce needs a leader. A number of administration officials might be interested in the post, including Ron Kirk, Obama’s U.S. trade representative since early 2009; Fred Hochberg, president of the Export-Import Bank; and Karen Mills, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, a post that Obama elevated to Cabinet-level status earlier this year. 

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