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 4:47 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jim Bell says NASA's latest discovery support the notion that habitable worlds are probably common in the galaxy.
updated 2:17 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jay Parini says even the Gospels skip the actual Resurrection and are sketchy on the appearances that followed.
updated 1:52 PM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Graham Allison says if an unchecked and emboldened Russia foments conflict in a nation like Latvia, a NATO member, the West would have to defend it.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
John Sutter: Bad news, guys -- the pangolin we adopted is missing.
updated 1:10 PM EDT, Sat April 19, 2014
Ben Wildavsky says we need a better way to determine whether colleges are turning out graduates with superior education and abilities.
updated 6:26 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Charles Maclin, program manager working on the search and recovery of Malaysia Flight 370, explains how it works.
updated 8:50 AM EDT, Fri April 18, 2014
Jill Koyama says Michael Bloomberg is right to tackle gun violence, but we need to go beyond piecemeal state legislation.
updated 2:45 PM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Michael Bloomberg and Shannon Watts say Americans are ready for sensible gun laws, but politicians are cowed by the NRA. Everytown for Gun Safety will prove the NRA is not that powerful.
updated 9:28 AM EDT, Thu April 17, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Steve Israel is right: Some Republicans encourage anti-Latino prejudice. But that kind of bias is not limited to the GOP.
updated 7:23 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Peggy Drexler counts the ways Phyllis Schlafly's argument that lower pay for women helps them nab a husband is ridiculous.
updated 12:42 PM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Rick McGahey says Rep. Paul Ryan is signaling his presidential ambitions by appealing to hard core Republican values
updated 11:39 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Paul Saffo says current Google Glasses are doomed to become eBay collectibles, but they are only the leading edge of a surge in wearable tech that will change our lives
updated 2:49 PM EDT, Tue April 15, 2014
Kathleen Blee says the KKK and white power or neo-Nazi groups give haters the purpose and urgency to use violence.
updated 7:56 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Rep. Henry Waxman say read deep, and you'll see the federal Keystone pipeline report spells out the pipeline is bad news
updated 7:53 AM EDT, Wed April 16, 2014
Frida Ghitis says President Obama needs to stop making empty threats against Russia and consider other options
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT