WASHINGTON — A week after winning reelection President Barack Obama has yet to reveal his new White House dream team amid fierce jostling for coveted posts key to shaping America’s foreign and defense policy.
Speculation is heating up in Washington corridors about who will be crowned the new secretaries of state and defense, with veteran US Senator John Kerry, the US ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, and national security advisor Tom Donilon the odds-on favorites to be among the new cabinet faces.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said Tuesday “the president has not made a decision on personnel matters,” refusing to discuss any of the rumors.
But Obama’s closely-guarded calculations may have been thrown askew by Friday’s shock resignation of CIA director David Petraeus, opening up another job.
Kerry, the long-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee with foreign policy stamped into his DNA, is a well-known, respected figure in international circles and has long dreamed of becoming secretary of state.
But the outspoken, feisty Rice is part of Obama’s inner circle and has been a loyal champion of US foreign policy at the UN. US dailies reported Tuesday her nomination to replace Hillary Clinton may be almost in the bag.
Kerry might instead be tapped for the Pentagon to take over from Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, both the New York Times and the Washington Post said, quoting White House officials. They described him as a “war hero” and cited his service in the US Navy in Vietnam as qualifications for the job.
Both nominations could be problematic though.
Rice has come under fire from Republicans who have alleged there was a bid to cover-up the circumstances surrounding September’s attack on the US mission in Benghazi.
Too many questions remained unanswered and “Susan Rice would have an incredibly difficult time getting through the Senate,” veteran Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said Sunday.
Carney refused to be drawn on whether Rice could survive a contentious confirmation hearing, saying only that Obama believes she “has done an excellent job and is grateful for her service.”
“It depends whether the president wants her bad enough in that position to go… fight” for her, Barry Pavel, director of the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council, told AFP.
“It depends on how much capital the president wants to spend on this.”
Kerry’s appointment to a cabinet post would also force an election for his Massachusetts seat in the US Senate, which could see popular Republican Scott Brown defeated on November 6 take another tilt at Congress.
However, analysts felt the Democrats had done better than expected in last week’s election winning a 55-seat majority in the Senate, including two independents expected to vote with them, giving them a cushion.
While Kerry’s war record was the subject of some controversy during his 2004 presidential campaign, he is widely seen as a safe pair of hands to be entrusted with America’s wide-ranging and powerful foreign policy.
“There’s a combination of prudence, and knowledge,” said Christopher Preble, vice president for defense and foreign policy studies at the Cato Institute.
The veteran senator would bring sober reflection on US intervention in world crises to the table born from the “lessons taken away from the war in Iraq in particular, but also Afghanistan,” Preble told AFP.
Rice on the other hand was an enthusiastic proponent of intervention in Libya, which he felt was out of step with “the mood of the country.”
Pavel, however, who has sat in the Situation Room with Rice, said he appreciated her directness which at times has raised eyebrows at the UN.
“It’s sometimes a pleasure to have someone who can be diplomatic when they need to be and blunt and direct when they don’t need to be,” he said.
Donilon, who has been Obama’s trusted national security advisor since 2010, is said to want the State Department post, but some say he lacks the political stature of either Rice or Kerry.
Obama may also have a surprise in store as in 2008 when he picked Clinton, his fierce foe in the Democratic primary race, and kept Defense Secretary Robert Gates in his post. He could again choose a moderate Republican.
Names circulating include former secretary of state Colin Powell, Chinese speaker Jon Huntsman who was appointed US envoy to Beijing by Obama, and former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel.
“It’s the kind of thing a pragmatic President Obama might do,” Pavel said.
Preble, however, argued that “ultimately I don’t know how much goodwill you buy for yourself” by picking a Republican in this partisan climate.
Showing a willingness “to cooperate with the Democrats and particularly the Democratic president” effectively undermines “your credibility among your party,” he said.
At the CIA, Obama could opt for a quick fix by naming acting CIA director Michael Morell as Petraeus’ permanent replacement.