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
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1914 GMT (0314 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2055 GMT (0455 HKT)
David Wheeler wonders: If Scotland votes to secede, can America take its place and rejoin England?
September 12, 2014 -- Updated 2036 GMT (0436 HKT)
World-famous physicist Stephen Hawking recently said the world as we know it could be obliterated instantaneously. Meg Urry says fear not.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1721 GMT (0121 HKT)
Sally Kohn says bombing ISIS will worsen instability in Iraq and strengthen radical ideology in terrorist groups.
September 11, 2014 -- Updated 1327 GMT (2127 HKT)
Artist Prune Nourry's project reinterprets the terracotta warriors in an exhibition about gender preference in China.
September 10, 2014 -- Updated 1336 GMT (2136 HKT)
The Apple Watch is on its way. Jeff Yang asks: Are we ready to embrace wearables technology at last?
ADVERTISEMENT