Obama Drawn to Shared Views in Choosing Hagel

By Alexis Simendinger - January 8, 2013

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Life on the farm, the 74-year-old Panetta joked during his prepared remarks Monday, would be “dealing with a different set of nuts.”

Brennan, Obama’s White House expert on counterterrorism and homeland security, worked in the CIA for 25 years. If confirmed, he would succeed former director David Petraeus, who resigned last year after admitting to an extramarital affair with his biographer. Panetta was Obama’s first CIA director before shifting to the Pentagon after Republican Robert Gates, an Obama holdover from the Bush years, stepped down.

Brennan first met Obama after the 2008 election when the president-elect invited him to his Chicago transition office. Obama was searching for a CIA director and Brennan had been recommended by Tony Lake, a national security adviser under President Clinton.

As Daniel Klaidman wrote in his 2012 book, “Kill or Capture,” the two men bonded over tales of their experiences living and traveling in the Muslim world, and their shared belief that America’s war against terrorism had to tackle the range of factors that propelled young Muslims to become radicals and killers. “Their views were so complementary that Obama found himself almost finishing Brennan’s sentences,” Klaidman wrote.

As it turned out, Obama did not nominate Brennan to head the CIA in 2009 because liberals, reacting to news reports about the possible nominee, criticized Brennan as too closely identified with the intelligence agency’s controversies during the Bush years, including torture, renditions, secret prisons and the advent of using unmanned drones to kill suspected terrorists with missiles.

“John, you've been one of my closest advisers. You've been a great friend,” Obama said with evident warmth. His nominee stood ramrod straight next to the president, altering his impassive expression just once -- when Obama hailed Brennan’s long work hours and teased him about telling an inquiring reporter during a briefing in Hawaii that he doesn’t “do downtime.”

Reacting to the anecdote, Obama’s adviser raised his eyebrows and met the president’s gaze with a tiny grin. The assembled White House audience laughed.

Hagel and Brennan, along with Kerry and Rice, have earned Obama’s trust, something the president has frequently emphasized as an essential ingredient in a second term. In Obama’s mind, his picks can challenge members of both parties, with the experience to bolster the administration’s positions.

Nonetheless, Hagel will no doubt eat up some of Obama’s political capital -- capital he will otherwise need for fights over the debt ceiling, the size of government and federal spending, immigration reform, and gun control.

Some senators and interest groups insist Hagel will have to defend past statements and positions. What is interesting is how many Republicans have given Kerry, the GOP’s punching bag more than eight years ago, a much warmer reception as a prospective Cabinet member. When lawmakers assailed Rice after sensing that Obama might name her to head State, Obama came to her defense and argued they used her to target him. But he did not nominate her.

“At the end of the day, I don’t think any leader gets into trouble for saying exactly what he or she thinks, provided you are informed and educated on the issues,” Hagel wrote in his 2008 book, “America: Our Next Chapter.”

Obama is going to test that idea.

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Alexis Simendinger covers the White House for RealClearPolitics. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @ASimendinger.

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