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Obama, Hagel Couldn't Make Relationship Work

Obama, Hagel Couldn't Make Relationship Work

By Alexis Simendinger - November 25, 2014

Vice President Joe Biden looked stricken Monday. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel kept his saggy eyes fixed on President Obama as the commander-in-chief cut his defense secretary loose.

Before an awkward hug, the president ended Hagel’s government career, calling the Vietnam veteran and former Nebraska senator “an exemplary defense secretary.”

During brief remarks in the State Dining Room, the president volunteered no clear rationale for jettisoning the sole Republican in his Cabinet. While dispatching Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki last spring, and former Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius months after the disastrous Obamacare rollout, the president had made his thinking more transparent.

Hagel’s resignation trails a wave of Democratic defeats Nov. 4, and took place after months of unresolved debate about whether Islamic State terrorists can be destroyed without deploying U.S. combat forces to Iraq.

Hagel, who followed Robert Gates and Leon Panetta as Obama’s Pentagon chiefs, is departing because the president decided that “another secretary might be better suited” to the challenges of his final two years in office, White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Hagel’s challenges as a public communicator contributed to criticisms of the president’s own jerky narrative about ISIL and Syria policy, leaving him vulnerable.

Other personnel changes are not out of the question, the president’s spokesman added.

Obama’s foreign policy team has been described in media accounts for months as agonizingly insular, controlling, reactive to events, leaks and to criticism, and fatigued after a pileup of foreign policy crises.

Gates and Panetta, in separate memoirs published after they left the administration, complained about White House intrusions into Pentagon operations and decision-making (frictions not entirely unlike those disclosed during the final term of George W. Bush, when the president fired Donald Rumsfeld after the 2006 midterms).

Hagel had privately questioned U.S. policy toward Syria in a blunt two-page memo addressed to National Security Adviser Susan Rice, and first reported by the New York Times. Obama aides denied that the secretary’s expressed worries evidenced a lack of cohesion that prompted his departure.

“When I nominated you for this position, you said that you’d always give me your honest advice and informed counsel,” Obama said. “You have. When it’s mattered most, behind closed doors, in the Oval Office, you’ve always given it to me straight, and for that I will always be grateful.”

Hagel will serve until the GOP-controlled Senate confirms a successor. Obama is seeking a nominee who knows the “inner workings” of the department, has strong leadership capabilities and demonstrated management skills, Earnest said. He did not mention close relations with Capitol Hill as one of Obama’s priorities with Republicans, who will soon be in charge.

Hagel and Sen. John McCain, who is expected to become chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee next year, had testy exchanges during the secretary’s confirmation hearing, but the Arizona senator came to his former colleague’s defense Monday.

“Already White House people are leaking, ‘Well, he wasn’t up to the job,’" McCain said during a radio interview. "Well, believe me, he was up to the job. It was the job he was given, where he really was never really brought into that real tight circle inside the White House that makes all the decisions, which has put us into the incredible debacle that we’re in today throughout the world.”

Although Hagel was seated beside Obama at a Nov. 7 Cabinet meeting following the elections, and during a Cabinet meeting to discuss Ebola, the erosion of their relationship occurred over months and resulted in a decision by both men to announce the secretary’s resignation.

“This was a more recent decision that came out of a month of discussions between the two men,” Earnest said. 

Hagel, who thanked Obama for the opportunity to serve America’s military personnel and their families, formally submitted his resignation shortly before appearing with the president.

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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