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Up Next: Obama Must Get Cabinet Picks Through a Testy Congress

During the pageantry of the inauguration festivities yesterday, President Obama made a snarky comment that alluded to the coming battles in the Senate over his first Cabinet nominations, particularly that of former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska for secretary of defense.

As he was signing paperwork to officially send the four nominations to the Senate, he said to surrounding congressional leaders, “I’m sending a few nominations up, which I know will be handled with great dispatch.” Vice President Joe Biden in particular got a good laugh from the quip.

Obama must now move into the first phase of his second term: Getting his Washington enemies to approve of his inner circle of advisers. This is a somewhat strange phenomenon in the modern era of presidential politics. A president elected by the people, presumably because they trust his judgment on matters relating to the running of the country, has to submit his choices for his Cabinet to a possibly hostile Congress filled with lawmakers whose primary objective may be to make the president look bad. It seems completely antithetical to the smooth operation of a country run by opposing political parties.

So when Sen. John McCain, perhaps the president’s most vociferous Senate critic and the man Obama vanquished in 2008, said he has questions about Hagel’s qualifications to be defense secretary, most of his objections seemed to be about their difference in military philosophy. But wouldn’t it make sense for Obama to pick someone whose outlook on world and military matters is closer to his own than to McCain’s?

McCain summarized the strangeness of the process when he explained  that his biggest concern about Hagel was his “worldview.”

“My biggest concern is his overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East, and whether we should reduce the Pentagon further, but mainly, his general, overall worldview,” McCain said on CNN after Hagel’s appointment.
McCain is one of many senators Hagel, a highly decorated Vietnam War veteran —like McCain — will be meeting before his confirmation hearings on Jan. 31.
Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) said it’s “way too early to know” whether Hagel’s nomination has enough votes to win approval from his panel, which also includes McCain.

“I can’t make an assessment until we have the hearing,” Levin said.

Hagel has gotten heat from Democrats and Republicans, but about radically different issues. Democrats are concerned about anti-gay statements Hagel made in the 1990s about a former U.S. ambassador who was gay. Republicans are concerned about statements Hagel made about the Iraq War, Israel and Iran.

Military experts have said the primary tension below the surface is that in choosing Hagel, Obama has signaled that he wants a defense secretary who is reluctant to endanger the lives of U.S. troops in war unless completely necessary — a position that deeply upsets the more hawkish members of Congress and the military establishment.

To “allege that Hagel is somehow a Republican — that is a hard one to swallow,” McCain said after Hagel’s nomination.

Obama appointments John Kerry for secretary of state and Jacob Lew for treasury secretary are expected to have an easier time sailing through the Senate. John Brennan, Obama’s choice for director of the CIA, will have a tougher time because he will be forced to answer questions about Obama’s controversial and growing reliance on drone strikes to conduct military operations against extremists in the Middle East and Africa.

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