Obama "genuinely conflicted" over Hillary successor

So says National Journal’s Michael Hirsh, reporting from leaks inside the White House.  Barack Obama’s first choice to succeed Hillary Clinton at State has run into a trap Obama and his team set for her after the Benghazi attack, while an easy confirmation ride remains at hand.  Decisions, decisions:

President Obama is said to be “genuinely conflicted” about whether to nominate his favored candidate, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, or Sen. John Kerry as his next secretary of State, two aides said. Rice faces stiff resistance from some Republican senators — as well as grumbling among some foreign-policy elites who question her suitability — yet the GOP objections may backfire, making the president even more likely to nominate her so as not to be seen as backing down. …

Despite harsh criticism of Rice from Republicans, Obama is leaning hard toward her because she’s been one of his closest advisers since 2007, and “she and the president are on exactly the same page on all foreign-policy issues,” said an Obama team official who is privy to the transition discussions. “She represents Obama’s foreign policy in a way that Kerry doesn’t, in other words a new way of being a Democrat on foreign policy.” It was a reference to Obama’s carefully cultivated self-image as a tough commander in chief willing to apply diplomatic leverage to get what he wants and use power aggressively, especially covertly.

In addition, Obama is developing an ambitious foreign-policy agenda for the second term, including nuclear nonproliferation, and “it would be clear to foreign leaders that when Susan Rice is speaking she’s speaking for the president,” the official said. At the same time “he really respects John Kerry, who did an amazing job on debate prep. He respects Sen. Kerry as a leading figure in our party,” said this official, who like others spoke only on condition of anonymity about transition deliberations. Both this official and a senior administration official used the same words in describing the president as “genuinely conflicted” over the choice, which could come as early as next week.

Perhaps another development might make Obama’s decision-making a little more clear.  Kerry’s name leaked a while ago for another Cabinet position, replacing Leon Panetta at Defense.  That aroused considerably more controversy than the possibility of Kerry going to State, given Kerry’s history of equating Vietnam War veterans to the forces of Genghis Khan in testimony to Congress in the early 1970s.  However, another name has emerged as a short-list contender for Defense:

President Barack Obama is expected to announce his nominees for secretaries of state and defense in the next two weeks, with former Republican Senator Chuck Hagel on the short list of potential choices to head the Pentagon, senior administration officials said on Tuesday.

Hagel, whose appointment would give Obama’s reshuffled second-term Cabinet a bipartisan cast, met the Democratic president at the White House this week to discuss a post on his national security team. But there was no sign that Obama had decided on any of the key nominations he will put forth. …

Other top contenders to replace Defense Secretary Leon Panetta are believed to include former senior Pentagon official Michele Flournoy, Deputy Defense Secretary Ashton Carter and Democratic Senator John Kerry.

Hagel would likely get an easy ride in the Senate, where he served for two terms representing Nebraska.  He often disagreed with fellow Republicans on foreign policy, especially on the war in Iraq, of which he became a strong critic.  Hagel has served on Obama’s Intelligence Advisory Board for three years, shortly after he retired from the Senate, so he has been active in the national-security and defense efforts.  Republicans might chafe a bit at Hagel, but won’t give him much trouble — and it will allow Obama an opportunity to look bipartisan.

If Hagel goes to Defense — or if it goes to anyone else besides Kerry — then Obama probably has to send Kerry to State.  Kerry gave Obama considerable time and support during the presidential campaign, and that usually requires some public show of gratitude other than, “Heckuva job, Johnny.”  It’s also the better political play, especially with the concerns over Rice’s record that have arisen on the Left as well as the Right.  With the debt-limit and fiscal-cliff fights already in full swing, a wise President would choose not to waste political capital on Rice and keep her where she is now.  We’ll see whether any wisdom has sunk into the West Wing in the next couple of weeks.