Time to play Who Wants To Be A Defense Secretary

Earlier today, Barack Obama bid a fond farewell to the man he fired, according to what his own White House was telliing reporters. The scene was more than a little awkward, with both Obama and Chuck Hagel gushing over each other and even engaging in an awkward embrace, even while administration sources leaked assessments about Hagel like “in over his head” and “not up to the job.”


Now the White House has to find a replacement. What will the ad in the Washington Post’s classifieds say?

“Wanted: Front man for failing national security policies. Preferred background: Experienced political hand with significant portfolio either in Defense or Congress. Must have skills at working as part of a team rather than acting on own initiative. Proven experience at dealing with declining budgets and overextended resources. Discretion a must. Equal opportunity employer, ie, willing to consider any political affiliation. Opening immediate. Contacts: either Denis McDonough or Valerie Jarrett. Include list of any YouTubed video remarks from the last six years, if applicable.”

Does anyone think this want ad will attract a parade of applicants? Given the unpopularity of the Obama administration, it certainly won’t attract anyone with larger political ambitions. With two wars on (again) and the Pentagon facing a series of budget cuts and materiel issues, the job is likely to diminish its next occupant after Chuck Hagel got the unceremonious boot today. That doesn’t mean it won’t attract any occupants, but don’t expect anyone with a significant enough political profile to allow him or her to push back against Obama’s policy choices in national security, even as mildly as Hagel appeared to do with ISIS this summer.

That includes Senator Jack Reed (D-RI), one of the first names that popped up in speculation. Reed has a long record on defense issues in the Senate, and might have been unenthusiastic enough about serving in the Senate minority that a two-year finale at Defense might have been attractive. No dice, Reed’s office said immediately:

“Senator Reed loves his job and wants to continue serving the people of Rhode Island in the United States senate,” said Unruh. “He has made it very clear that he does not wish to be considered for secretary of defense or any other Cabinet position. He just asked the people of Rhode Island to hire him for another six-year term and plans to honor that commitment.”

It’s easy to see why people thought of Reed. He served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne in the Vietnam era, staying in the reserve to get his 20-year mark and retiring as a Major. His seat would be a safe Democratic hold in almost any election, and a newly-elected Democratic governor would appoint his temporary successor. Reed just won his fourth term, too. However, he’s only 65 years old and has plenty of time left to stick around in the Senate, so that’s probably a lot more attractive than jumping into the morass at Defense at the moment.

Who will want the job? The Washington Post games out the potential candidates, which are mainly technocrats who won’t have much political heft on the inside or outside of the Obama administration. They boil it down to three:

One of the names immediately pondered is Michèle Flournoy. She served as the under secretary of defense for policy from February 2009 to February 2012, while Robert Gates and Leon Panetta ran the Pentagon. She said she need to rebalance her life when she stepped down, but has remained active in Washington.

Flournoy is currently the chief executive officer at the Center for a New American Security, a non-partisan think tank that the Obama administration is believed to have relied upon in developing national security policy. She co-founded CNAS in 2007, and served as its president until 2009, when she took her under secretary job.

Robert Work is currently the deputy defense secretary, and has previously served as undersecretary of the Navy. Work, a retired Marine colonel, also served as the CEO of CNAS before the Senate confirmed him in his present position in April.

Work has a reputation for being a blunt speaker, and as the Pentagon’s No. 2 leader, has had a major role in examining the Defense Department’s budget and a variety of crises in recent months. For example, he currently is chairman of the Nuclear Deterrent Enterprise Review Group, which is assessing how the Pentagon should manage its aging nuclear weapons arsenal in light of several recent scandals.

Ashton Carter served as the Pentagon’s No. 2 official from October 2011 until December 2013, and stepped down after being bypassed in favor of Hagel for the job.

Of the three, I’d guess that Flournoy would be the likeliest choice. Obama passed up the chance to appoint the first woman as Secretary of Defense in favor of Hagel, but would he do so again with this being the last possibility of making history? She’s known well enough by Congress, and would probably not have the lengthy record of foolish public statements that made Hagel’s confirmation hearings a nightmare for the White House.

Joel Pollak says the perfect candidate is right under Obama’s nose, with a proven record of defense … in a manner of speaking:

Peter Beinart hears whispers of another direction:

He’s hearing whispers that Obama’s going to nominate George W. Bush’s national-security adviser? The man who offered his resignation (which Bush refused to accept) over the inclusion of the notorious “yellowcake claim” in Bush’s SOTU speech? Someone’s pulling Beinart’s leg, or the leg of his source.

Besides, as Chris Cillizza argues, the whole “Team of Rivals” model has already collapsed in favor of insularity:

And, as Obama’s presidency wore on — and he won a second term — he almost totally abandoned the idea of surrounding himself with people who actively disagreed with him.  In fact, the decisions to nominate Hagel at Defense, John Brennan at the CIA, John Kerry at State and Jack Lew at Treasury at the start of his second term were widely seen as  evidence of the president’s belief that he needed loyalists around him as he sought to build a second term legacy. …

So, was the “Team of Rivals” ever a real thing? Or was it a mythology created by Obama and a willing media? The obvious “rivals” were Clinton and then Defense Secretary Bob Gates, who had served in the same position in George W. Bush’s second term and Obama kept on.  In other key jobs, Obama went with longtime loyalists like Eric Holder for Attorney General, Tim Geithner at Treasury and Arne Duncan at Education. (Obama also tried to put a loyalist at the Department of Health and Human Services but Tom Daschle’s nomination failed.)  And, his key inner core — David Axelrod, Dan Pfeiffer and Valerie Jarrett to name three — was always at the center of every decision and, in many ways, superseded the people Obama put into the Cabinet.

That consolidation of power into a select few top aides — and the related powering-down of the Cabinet — wasn’t unique to Obama. Bush had his“Iron Triangle” of advisers — Joe Allbaugh, Karen Hughes and Karl Rove — who were seen as the final decision-makers on many policy decisions.

But, remember that one of the key arguments Obama made when running for office in 2008 was that he represented a break from the sort of buddy-buddy government management style that Bush symbolized for many Americans.  The very idea of the “Team of Rivals” concept grew out of Obama’s campaign promises to run a meritocracy in direct contrast to how he saw the Bush White House run.

They also argued that Chuck Hagel was the most qualified candidate to replace Gates and Panetta. They’re either not too adept, not too honest, or both.