Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Second-term Obama will play defense

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 10:29 AM EST, Mon January 14, 2013
In nominating Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, President Obama signaled he intends to guard his policies, Julian Zelizer says.
In nominating Chuck Hagel and John Brennan, President Obama signaled he intends to guard his policies, Julian Zelizer says.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: Obama's Cabinet appointments suggest he's preparing to battle
  • He says the president picked tough, wily veterans of Washington
  • Zelizer: Kerry, Hagel, Brennan, Lew are committed to Obama's policies
  • He says hopes for bipartisanship are gone; now it's partisan warfare

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and of "Governing America."

(CNN) -- As President Obama's second-term Cabinet starts to take shape, we can see some of the outlines of what the White House hopes to do in the next four years.

The major theme is that Obama is prepared to defend his turf, tooth and nail. This is a Cabinet whose strength is defense rather than offense.

Gone are the hopes of bipartisanship. Now it's time to really engage the partisan battle. Obama won't be pushing for many watershed changes in the next four years, but he is not going to make it easy for Republicans to make any deep inroads into what he has accomplished.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

During the last two weeks, the president rolled out his nominations on national security -- Sen. John Kerry for secretary of state, Sen. Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, and John Brennan to direct the CIA. He then nominated his chief of staff, Jack Lew, to be secretary of the treasury.

We must be careful not to infer too much from presidential appointments, since these people ultimately serve the interests of the president rather than vice versa -- but still, the identities of the members of the new Cabinet provide important hints.

This is a team with experience and deep roots in Washington. It is clear that Obama, sobered after four brutal years of fighting with Republicans in Congress, realizes that he needs leaders who have clout in Congress.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



On national security, this is a team with deep experience that can protect the existing policies the administration has adopted. Obama has selected two Senate veterans who are also military veterans, Kerry and Hagel, with the hope of using their connections with legislators and their knowledge of the ways and means of the legislative process.

Though Brennan doesn't come from the Senate, he is a veteran in national security circles, having worked at the highest levels of intelligence since the 1990s, and someone who Obama clearly feels will be effective in protecting his institutional turf should the legislative waters get rough.

Who is Jack Lew and who should care?
Who is John Brennan?
Who is Sen. John Kerry?
Who is Chuck Hagel?

The nominations also send the signal that Obama will continue to emphasize the kind of pragmatic hawkish agenda that he has embraced from the start of his presidency.

Since 2009, Obama has generally lived within the policy framework that he inherited from President George W. Bush. He has kept the national security infrastructure in place, followed through with Bush's plans on Iraq and Afghanistan (withdrawing in the first case and increasing troops, then diminishing U.S. presence in the second case), and strategically employed aggressive military power such as drone strikes and assassinations against the leadership of al Qaeda.

None of his appointees is a dove. Kerry has frequently authorized the use of military force, including against Iraq. Hagel is a solid Republican who supports using troops when necessary. Brennan withdrew his name from consideration for the CIA in the first term because of statements he made in support of "enhanced interrogation techniques" against detainees. In 2007, Brennan had said: "There have been a lot of information that has come out from these interrogation procedures that the agency has in fact used against the real hard-core terrorists."

What the three men have in common is not a predilection to being doves but a belief that force should be employed only when absolutely essential and that war must be a tool of last resort. This is a vision of internationalism that has guided U.S. policy for much of the period since World War II.

Both Kerry and Hagel are combat veterans who have seen the costs of war firsthand, and they thus remain more squeamish about making mistakes than many of the civilian leaders who have sent troops into harm's way. With continued tensions involving countries like Syria and Iran, this outlook will be an essential brake if pressure to go to war intensifies.

For all the alleged controversy over the nominations, what is notable about all three is how they are basically supportive of what Obama has done in his first four years and, just as important, much of what Bush did during his time in office -- outside of going to war in Iraq.

Although foreign policy is always hard to predict, since it depends on what others do to us as much as what we decide, this is a Cabinet that signals continuity rather than dramatic change.

At Treasury, the choice of Lew sends a slightly different signal. As with the national security nominations, Lew is someone with a deep record of experience in Washington, having served in many roles in the executive and legislative branches since the 1970s.

His appointment shows a shift in concern from banking to budgets. In certain respects, the choice of Lew, a veteran of budget wars since the 1990s, signals Obama's preparedness to fight Republicans over spending cuts and the debt ceiling, putting into high office one of his most effective and wily negotiators.

But Lew is also a progressive, someone who believes deeply that the wealthy should pay their fair share of taxes and that Social Security and Medicare must be protected. This will be one of the biggest issues at the center of the upcoming budget wars, and by selecting Lew for this job, Obama is sending a clear signal that he does not plan to give ground easily on these programs in the months ahead.

People who were still hoping for big changes on national security or domestic policy are going to be disappointed.

At this point, it's too early to tell what the appointments say about new initiatives that the administration might pursue, such as immigration reform.

But we do know that the president is not planning to give much ground on the programs that are in place. These nominations suggest that the administration is gearing up to fight to defend national security and the major social programs from budget cuts rather than really pushing through big reforms.

At the same time, Obama has selected some of the toughest fighters in Washington, suggesting that if Republicans want big change, they are going to have to mount a pretty heroic effort to get it done.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Julian Zelizer.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:49 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Patrick Cronin and Kelley Sayler say the world is seeing nonstate groups such as Ukraine's rebels wielding more power to do harm than ever before
updated 6:05 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ukraine ambassador Olexander Motsyk places blame for the MH17 tragedy squarely at the door of Russia
updated 7:42 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 2:53 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Les Abend says, with rockets flying over Tel Aviv and missiles shooting down MH17 over Ukraine, a commercial pilot's pre-flight checklist just got much more complicated
updated 9:17 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Mark Kramer says Russia and its proxies have a history of shooting down civilian aircraft, often with few repercussions
updated 12:37 PM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
Gerard Jacobs says grieving families and nations need the comfort of traditional rituals to honor the remains of loved ones, particularly in a mass disaster
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Thu July 24, 2014
The idea is difficult to stomach, but John Sutter writes that eating dog is morally equivalent to eating pig, another intelligent animal. If Americans oppose it, they should question their own eating habits as well.
updated 12:30 PM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Bill van Esveld says under the laws of war, civilians who do not join in the fight are always to be protected. An International Criminal Court could rule on whether Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rocketing are war crimes.
updated 8:05 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
LZ Granderson says Ronald Reagan went horseback riding and took a vacation after the Korean Air Crash of 1983. So why does the GOP keep airbrushing history to bash Obama?
updated 9:38 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Aaron Miller says Kerry needs the cooperation of Hamas, Israel, Egypt and others if he is to succeed in his peacemaking efforts
updated 8:51 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Errol Louis says the tragic death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD has its roots in the "broken windows" police strategy from the crime-ridden '80s.
updated 10:08 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Gordon Brown says the kidnapped Nigerian girls have been in captivity for 100 days, but the world has not forgotten them.
updated 7:27 AM EDT, Wed July 23, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Texas Gov. Rick Perry is right to immediately send 1,000 National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexico border in response to the border children crisis.
updated 9:56 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Ukraine's president says the downing of MH17 was a terrorist act, but Richard Barrett says it would be considered terrorism only if it was intentional
updated 4:15 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Robert McIntyre says the loophole that lets firms avoid taxes should be closed
updated 11:35 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Jeronimo Saldana and Malik Burnett say Gov. Perry's plan to send National Guard to the border won't solve the escalating immigration problem.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Sally Kohn: The world's fish and waters are polluted and under threat. Be very careful what fish you eat
updated 8:42 AM EDT, Tue July 22, 2014
Les Abend says threat information that pilots respond to is only as good as the intelligence from air traffic controllers. And none of it is a match for a radar-guided missile
updated 8:35 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Frida Ghitis: Anger over MH17 is growing against pro-Russia separatists. It's time for the Dutch government to lead, she writes
updated 8:27 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Julian Zelizer says President Obama called inequality the "defining challenge" of our time but hasn't followed through.
updated 7:57 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Gene Seymour says the 'Rockford Files' actor worked the persona of the principled coward, charming audiences on big and small screen for generations
updated 10:17 AM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
Daniel Treisman says that when the Russian leader tied his fate to the Ukraine separatists, he set the stage for his current risky predicament
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Andrew Kuchins says urgent diplomacy -- not sanctions -- is needed to de-escalate the conflict in Ukraine that helped lead to the downing of an airliner there.
updated 9:50 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Jim Hall and Peter Goelz say there should be an immediate and thorough investigation into what happened to MH17.
updated 11:07 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Pilot Bill Palmer says main defense commercial jets have against missiles is to avoid flying over conflict areas.
updated 1:55 PM EDT, Sun July 20, 2014
Valerie Jarrett says that working women should not be discriminated against because they are pregnant.
updated 3:53 PM EDT, Mon July 21, 2014
David Wheeler says the next time you get a difficult customer representative, think about recording the call.
updated 3:33 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich says the more dangerous the world becomes the more Obama hides in a fantasy world.
updated 6:11 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Michael Desch: It's hard to see why anyone, including Russia and its local allies, would have intentionally targeted the Malaysian Airlines flight
updated 3:14 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
LZ Granderson says we must remember our visceral horror at the news of children killed in an airstrike on a Gaza beach next time our politicians talk of war
updated 8:06 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Sally Kohn says now the House GOP wants to sue Obama for not implementing a law fast enough, a law they voted down 50 times, all reason has left the room.
updated 8:14 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
A street sign for Wall Street
Sens. Elizabeth Warren, John McCain and others want to scale back the "too big to fail" banks that put us at risk of another financial collapse.
updated 4:16 PM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Newt Gingrich writes an open letter to Robert McDonald, the nominee to head the Veterans Administration.
updated 12:01 PM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Paul Begala says Dick Cheney has caused an inordinate amount of damage yet continues in a relentless effort to revise the history of his failures.
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Fri July 18, 2014
Kids who takes cell phones to bed are not sleeping, says Mel Robbins. Make them park their phones with the parents at night.
updated 8:37 AM EDT, Fri July 25, 2014
Buzz Aldrin looked at planet Earth as he stood on talcum-like lunar dust 45 years ago. He thinks the next frontier should be Mars.
updated 2:04 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Mark Zeller never thought my Afghan translator would save his life by killing two Taliban fighters who were about to kill him. The Taliban retaliated by placing him on the top of its kill list.
updated 11:18 AM EDT, Thu July 17, 2014
Jeff Yang says an all-white cast of Asian characters in cartoonish costumes is racially offensive.
updated 9:24 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Gary Ginsberg says the late John F. Kennedy Jr.'s reaction to an event in 1995 summed up his character
updated 12:41 PM EDT, Wed July 16, 2014
Meg Urry says most falling space debris lands on the planet harmlessly and with no witnesses.
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT