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Obama Drawn to Shared Views in Choosing Hagel

Obama Drawn to Shared Views in Choosing Hagel

By Alexis Simendinger - January 8, 2013

In selecting former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel to head the Pentagon and John Brennan, the top counterterrorism adviser at the White House, to lead the CIA, President Obama is banking on trust, friendship and a shared view of the world to carry out his international policies the next four years.

If Obama’s first-term national security Cabinet was his “team of rivals” -- merging opinions and objectives, especially about Iraq and Afghanistan -- the group he’s assembling now is more like a team of pals who share Obama’s goals but also admire one another for occasionally defying institutions, party ideology and the mentality of the pack.

An outspoken and seemingly growing number of senators from both sides of the aisle have suggested Hagel may be the wrong person to succeed outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta. At an East Room event announcing the appointments Monday, Obama acknowledged that he picked a fight that could initially unsettle both parties, but he insisted Hagel would lead at the Pentagon while forging alliances along the way.

“Chuck represents the bipartisan tradition that we need more of in Washington,” Obama said of the former Nebraskan with whom he once traveled to the Middle East as senators, and who advised him before and after his transition to the White House.

“For his independence and commitment to consensus, he's earned the respect of national security and military leaders, Republicans and Democrats, including me,” the president said. “In the Senate I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind, even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. And that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team.”

Hagel’s detractors say that he defied the GOP on too many issues while serving two terms in the Senate; has too thin a record of managing large bureaucracies such as the Pentagon; has been too tolerant of Iran’s nuclear ambitions; too tough on Israel and what Hagel once described as “the Jewish lobby” in Washington; and was wrong to object to James Hormel serving as U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg because he was openly gay.

In an interview this week with a Nebraska newspaper, Hagel complained that critics had “completely distorted” his record. He said he would work to correct the facts with senators, with the military, and with the American public. In the period before Obama officially appointed him, Hagel explained he felt he was "hanging out there in no-man's land, unable to respond to charges, falsehoods and distortions."

If confirmed, Hagel and Brennan, who has been a close adviser to the president for more than four years, would join Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Obama’s nominee to succeed Hillary Clinton at the State Department, and Susan Rice, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, on the president’s national security team. Rice had hoped to succeed Clinton at State until Senate GOP objections persuaded Obama to tap Kerry, the 2004 Democratic nominee for president and chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Rice has agreed to continue her role at the U.N.

Kerry’s confirmation hearing, which will take place before the committee he now chairs, could occur after he has a chance to vote on some of Obama’s other Cabinet picks. He and Hagel are both decorated Vietnam War veterans, but Senate Republicans have sounded more enthused about a Massachusetts liberal becoming America’s top diplomat than a Midwestern Republican taking command of troop withdrawals from Afghanistan and upcoming budget tightening at the Pentagon.

Clinton has said she will serve until her successor is confirmed, which the White House originally envisioned as immediately after Obama’s Jan. 21 public inauguration. She told the president last year she would give up her exhausting role if he won re-election; following weeks of medical treatment for the flu, a subsequent concussion and a blood clot in her head, Clinton resumed work at State this week.

Panetta -- whose public career has spanned close to five decades, multiple administrations and leadership roles in two branches of government -- plans to return to his family in California, where he owns a walnut farm and runs the Panetta Institute, which encourages public service.

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

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