Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Second-term Obama will play defense

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
January 14, 2013 -- Updated 1529 GMT (2329 HKT)
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
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1812 GMT (0212 HKT)
By now it should be painfully obvious that this latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis in Gaza is fundamentally different than its predecessors.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 2124 GMT (0524 HKT)
Sally Kohn says like the Occupy Wall Street protesters, Market Basket workers are asking for shared prosperity.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2331 GMT (0731 HKT)
President Obama will convene an Africa summit Monday at the White House, and Laurie Garrett asks why the largest Ebola epidemic ever recorded is not on the agenda.
August 1, 2014 -- Updated 1803 GMT (0203 HKT)
Seventy years ago, Anne Frank made her final entry in her diary -- a work, says Francine Prose, that provides a crucial link to history for young people.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2350 GMT (0750 HKT)
Van Jones says "student" debt should be called "education debt" because entire families are paying the cost.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1941 GMT (0341 HKT)
Stuart Gitlow says pot is addictive and those who smoke it can experience long-term psychiatric disease.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 2300 GMT (0700 HKT)
Marc Randazza: ESPN commentator fell victim to "PC" police for suggesting something outside accepted narrative.
July 31, 2014 -- Updated 1845 GMT (0245 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says working parents often end up being arrested after leaving kids alone.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2031 GMT (0431 HKT)
Shanin Specter says we need to strengthen laws that punish auto companies for selling defective cars.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1645 GMT (0045 HKT)
Gabby Giffords and Katie Ray-Jones say "Between 2001 and 2012, more women were shot to death by an intimate partner in our country than the total number of American troops killed in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars combined."
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1158 GMT (1958 HKT)
Vijay Das says Medicare is a success story that could provide health care for everybody, not just seniors
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1743 GMT (0143 HKT)
S.E. Cupp says the entrepreneur and Dallas Mavericks owner thinks for himself and refuses to be confined to an ideological box.
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1311 GMT (2111 HKT)
A Christian group's anger over the trailer for "Black Jesus," an upcoming TV show, seems out of place, Jay Parini says
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 2028 GMT (0428 HKT)
LZ Granderson says the cyber-standing ovation given to Robyn Lawley, an Australian plus-size model who posted unretouched photos, shows how crazy Americans' notions of beauty have become
July 30, 2014 -- Updated 1939 GMT (0339 HKT)
Carol Dweck and Rachel Simmons: Girls tend to have a "fixed mindset" but they should have a "growth mindset."
ADVERTISEMENT