Obama Considering Centrists for Top Cabinet Positions

John Kerry and Chuck Hagel are rumored to be among the top contenders for cabinet posts.

Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009
Democratic senator John Kerry of Massachusetts speaks with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington DC, October 21, 2009 (White House/Pete Souza)

After United Nations ambassador Susan Rice asked President Barack Obama not to be considered as Hillary Clinton’s replacement as secretary of state, Massachusetts senator and former Democratic Party presidential candidate John Kerry is expected to be elevated to the cabinet next year. Several Americans news media report that former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel could replace Leon Panetta at the Defense Department in line with Obama’s first term promise to have at least at least one Republican serving in his administration.

Rice withdrew her nomination after Republican lawmakers had fiercely criticized her for misinforming the public about September’s attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya. In five separate television appearances on the Sunday after the attack, Rice insisted that it had been “a spontaneous, not a premeditated, response to what had transpired in Cairo,” the Egyptian capital where earlier in the week demonstrations were staged outside the United States embassy against an anti-Islam film.

It quickly became clear that there was no such demonstration in Benghazi. The Central Intelligence Agency considered the attack on the diplomatic post there, in which four Americans, including Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, were killed, a terrorist attack the day after. So did the Libyan authorities.

Rice’s defenders, including the president, argued that she had simply communicated the intelligence services’ initial assessment of the incident but Republican criticism wouldn’t wane. In a letter sent to the president on Thursday, she argued that, if nominated, her Senate conformation precess would be “lengthy, disruptive and costly — to you and to our most pressing national and international priorities.” She added, “That tradeoff is simply not worth it to our country.”

As a result, Kerry, who was rumored to be among the president’s candidates to replace either Clinton or Panetta all along, is likely to take the helm of the State Department. Tom Donilon, the incumbent national security advisor, may also still be in the running.

A dark horse candidate could be Republican Jon Huntsman, who was President Obama’s ambassador to China for two years before he tried to secure his party’s presidential nomination last year. Huntsman’s realist foreign policy views are similar to Kerry’s but very much unlike Rice’s whose interventionist tendencies actually overlapped with those of her neoconservative critics like Senator John McCain.

If Huntsman accepts a cabinet position, it would make it nigh impossible for him to mount a presidential primary campaign for the next election which would suit the Democrats’ intentions. Obama reportedly considered him the most formidable potential adversary because Huntsman’s centrist positions on social issues could appeal to many swing voters. But it is also why he failed to enthuse conservative primary voters in his bid to win the nomination.

Hagel, who served as United States senator for Nebraska for twelve years before he retired in 2009, was one of three Republicans who voted for a withdrawal from Iraq in 2007, even if he voted for the war. He described the Iraq war as “reckless” which corresponds with the president’s own views of the endeavor. He has also cautioned against a military strike against Iran which Western nations suspect is developing a nuclear weapons capacity.