Skip Navigation

Close and don't show again.

Your browser is out of date.

You may not get the full experience here on National Journal.

Please upgrade your browser to any of the following supported browsers:

Who Might Serve in a Second Obama Administration? Who Might Serve in a Second Obama Administration?

This ad will end in seconds
Close X

Want access to this content? Learn More »

Forget Your Password?

Don't have an account? Register »

Reveal Navigation



Who Might Serve in a Second Obama Administration?

As much as he might like it to, a second Obama administration probably won’t look much like the first.


Team Obama: Meeting with the president in July are (from left) Russia specialist Chris Mizelle; National Security Adviser Tom Donilon; Chief of Staff Jacob Lew; and Deputy National Security Adviser Denis McDonough.(Official White House Photo by Pete Souza)

Four years after promising to change Washington, President Obama has left everyone guessing just how much change will occur in a second term. This time, he may not want many tweaks to his senior staff or his Cabinet. But, like the past five two-term presidents, Obama will find that things never stay the same—even if he wants them to.


The president has had a fair amount of turbulence in his White House staff, including three chiefs of staff, two press secretaries, two legislative directors, and a shifting cast of senior advisers. But he has had a remarkably stable Cabinet. Only two of Obama’s 15 Cabinet posts have turned over—Defense and Commerce. And only two of his six Cabinet-level slots have seen turnover—budget director and head of the Council of Economic Advisers. But that very stability hints at the change to come in a second term. The long hours and constant stress inevitably take their toll. Few people have the stamina to last eight years.

On average in the five two-term presidencies since World War II, only one or two Cabinet officers have stayed for eight years. Bill Clinton held on to the most; five of his Cabinet secretaries stuck it out for the second term. In the Dwight Eisenhower and George W. Bush administrations, two Cabinets officers served for eight years; Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan each had one who did the full stretch. That history suggests a big turnover ahead for a reelected Obama.

But history gives no clues about where or when the turnover will come. And this president is not sharing his thoughts. In fact, his failure to talk much about his goals for a second term complicates efforts to plan or to even speculate about the people he hopes to have around him over the next four years. “The staff that you select should reflect your best presidential judgment as to the focus of the second-term agenda,” said William Galston, Clinton’s top domestic adviser. “And I’m not the first to have noticed that the president hasn’t said very much about that during the campaign, to put it mildly.”


Martha Joynt Kumar, the Towson University professor who is one of the leading experts on presidential transitions, said that both Reagan and Bush suffered in staffing second terms because their reelection campaigns conveyed so little about what the reelected incumbent planned to do with four more years. “When you talk about the past four years rather than the four years ahead of you,” she says, “you come in for the second term with no clear agenda that the public had a chance to give its approval to.”

Kumar added, “Another danger in a second term is, you lose so many people in the White House and in your administration generally that you don’t have a lot of people who remember why you’re there in the first place. And that is especially true when you haven’t laid out a clear agenda.” The agenda is particularly important for a president who has shown an aversion to personal negotiations over legislative details. If comprehensive immigration reform is on the second-term To Do list—along with the fiscal issues everybody knows are there—the White House staff will need to include people able to deal effectively with Congress.

“What you have right now at the White House with Jack Lew and Gene Sperling is a very experienced team,” Galston says. “So if you want to give priority to the fiscal situation, then you would think twice before busting up that team.”

Changes in the White House staff take on even more importance because Obama has not championed strong Cabinet governance. “His White House did not give his Cabinet a lot of running room or a lot of responsibility,” Galston said, noting that folks at the White House, not in the Cabinet departments, played the lead role on almost every major issue in the past four years. If that pattern holds, it could mean less of a Cabinet shake-up. Another argument for a cautious approach is Republicans in the Senate after the elections. The White House will not be eager for too many confirmation battles.


But even if Obama sees his Cabinet officers primarily as managers to keep the government running and to head off embarrassments, and even if he wants to avoid contentious confirmation votes, this is the time when he needs to decide which members of his first-term Cabinet performed well and which failed to live up to his expectations.

It is a question that every president must ask at the end of four years. But some have handled the transition more smoothly than others. Obama has kept the process behind the scenes, with Lew and his deputy, Pete Rouse, sounding out Cabinet officers and senior staffers about their plans.

Previous presidents did not always keep the process out of the headlines. “What doesn’t work is what Nixon did: asking everybody to resign. That sends a very bad signal,” Galston said. Kumar recalls it as “just dispiriting. Right after a big win, you have everyone at a meeting and then ask for their resignations? It was without precedent, and I don’t expect it ever to be repeated.” For not even a champion of change like Obama wants that kind of upset.


Perhaps despite his druthers, a reelected Obama would find his second-term White House quite different from the first. West Wing offices that were filled with campaign loyalists who could talk knowingly about lonely forays in 2007 or share memories of Obama’s Senate years will have new occupants who lack those longtime ties to the president. Other than Valerie Jarrett, Obama’s confidant since their Chicago days, the original loyalists will have moved on.

That inevitable turnover partially explains why so many administration officials are hoping that Obama can talk Jacob Lew into staying in his post as White House chief of staff. They credit Lew with bringing order, discipline, and calm to the West Wing. Insiders know that he has talked about returning to his wife and home in the Bronx, N.Y. But they say he has an “open invitation” to stay in the top job he took on at the beginning of the year. In fact, the hope that he’ll stay is so strong, insiders confess that the administration has no Plan B. If Lew does go, speculation about his job would include Jarrett and Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden’s former chief of staff. But in any case, the exodus of loyalists further down the organizational chart is certain.

Neither adviser Robert Gibbs nor senior strategist David Axelrod is expected to return after the campaign. And senior adviser David Plouffe and Communications Director Dan Pfeiffer will probably take their leave sometime in 2013. Pfeiffer’s post would likely go to his deputy, Jennifer Palmieri. Press secretary Jay Carney is expected to stay on if the president asks him to. If he goes, it would be a two-person race to succeed him between Carney’s chief deputy, Josh Earnest, and campaign press secretary Jennifer Psaki.

Return to top


With Hillary Rodham Clinton planning to depart, the betting on a successor has largely coalesced around three major contenders: Sen. John Kerry, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the party’s 2004 nominee for president; Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador and longtime Obama adviser; and Tom Donilon, the current national-security adviser, who is credited with stabilizing a White House team roiled by infighting in the first half of the president’s term. Donilon, who has held White House and congressional posts dating back to the Carter administration, is not seen as a figure who would command center stage the way a secretary of State is expected to, and he could run into confirmation problems because of his tenure as a top executive at Fannie Mae, the controversial government-sponsored mortgage-finance company.

Democratic Party insiders, however, see problems with both Kerry and Rice. The latter, 47, is still viewed as somewhat junior, and critics have hammered her in recent weeks for making what they say were misleading statements about what the administration knew and when it knew it regarding the deaths of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, on Sept. 11. Kerry, who he has been a stalwart defender of the administration and who intervened when relations between Obama’s chief envoy, Richard Holbrooke, and Afghan President Hamid Karzai froze in 2010, has occasionally gone afoul of official policy—by advocating intervention in civil-war-torn Syria, for example. Kerry has also drawn criticism for the way he played Mitt Romney in practice runs leading up to Obama’s disastrous first debate. Still, Kerry has one big ace up his senatorial sleeve: Joe Biden, who is very influential on foreign policy, is close to him and was even slated to be the latter’s secretary of State had Kerry won the presidency in 2004. So, Biden could tilt the balance.

Return to top


When Romney tried recently to seize back the venerable Republican issue of “strong on defense and national security” with a speech at the Virginia Military Institute, the Obama campaign was quick to counterpunch. Even before the GOP nominee spoke, Obama surrogates issued a memo to reporters labeling Romney’s foreign-policy positions “erratic, unsteady, and irresponsible.” One of the memo’s authors was Michele Flournoy, a fierce defender of Obama’s foreign-policy record who was Defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 till February of this year, when she became  the campaign’s go-to surrogate on national-security issues. Unless a lot of experts are mistaken (always a distinct possibility with such speculation), Flournoy is well positioned to succeed Leon Panetta and become the first woman to head the Pentagon if Obama is reelected.

She long ago began crashing through glass ceilings in the defense-policy world, displaying a wonk’s grasp of the issues and impressing bosses with her poise and intellect. With degrees from Harvard and Oxford, Flournoy served dual roles as principal deputy assistant Defense secretary for strategy and threat reduction and deputy assistant Defense secretary for strategy in the 1990s. She went on to work on national-security issues at the National Defense University and the Center for Strategic and International Studies. In 2007, she cofounded the Center for a New American Security, and The New York Observer named her a “Hot Policy Wonk for the Democrats.” “I think there’s a pretty strong consensus that in a second Obama term, Flournoy is a likely historic choice as the first female secretary of Defense,” said James Carafano, a defense expert at the Heritage Foundation. “She’s already mastered the Pentagon bureaucracy and shown herself to be in lockstep with President Obama as a team player who is easy to work with.”

Other strong potential candidates include former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig, who has resurrected the key national-security adviser and surrogate role he played in the 2008 Obama campaign; Ash Carter, the current deputy Defense secretary and a cerebral defense wonk whose long service in the Pentagon stretches back to the Clinton administration in the 1990s; and former Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, a Vietnam veteran and a moderate Republican whom Obama befriended when they traveled overseas together as senators. “Given that the next secretary of Defense will face significant budget cuts that will require close consultation with Congress, I think Chuck Hagel is a likely top candidate,” said Larry Korb, a defense expert and senior fellow at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, and an adviser to the 2008 Obama campaign. “He’s a war veteran and a Republican who is very well liked on Capitol Hill, and he and Obama are known to get along since they worked together in the Senate.”

Return to top


Having weathered the “Fast and Furious” gun-walking scandal, Eric Holder has suggested he is willing to stay on duty. But if Holder decides to go, or if the White House determines it needs a fresh face at the Justice Department to repair relations with Congress, Obama has a natural pick in Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. Patrick was a top Justice official during the Clinton administration, and he also has experience in the corporate legal community through his stints as a lawyer for Texaco and Coca-Cola. Patrick’s second term in Massachusetts doesn’t end until 2014, and, according to reports, the governor has said he’ll finish his term. But Washington and a high-profile Cabinet spot could prove irresistible.

Alternatively, Obama could turn to one of two former prosecutors now in the Senate, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island. Klobuchar was a popular county attorney; Whitehouse served as attorney general and U.S. attorney in his home state. Justice could also be a landing spot for Sen. Claire McCaskill, a former county prosecutor in Missouri, who just won reelection, or for Janet Napolitano, the current Homeland Security secretary. If Obama wants to look to his home state, he could tap Lisa Madigan, the longtime Illinois attorney general. (Both Klobuchar and Napolitano have also been mentioned as possible Supreme Court nominees.)

Return to top


After handpicking Gen. David Petraeus to turn the war in Afghanistan around and then to run the CIA when the manhunt for high-value terrorists was a top administration priority, it seems unlikely that Obama will want to bump him from the Central Intelligence Agency. Petraeus’s war-hero status and service to both Republican and Democratic presidents have made him that rare individual in Washington who commands respect and support from both sides of the political aisle. That’s an awfully valuable commodity in the nation’s top spy. Similarly, Obama may well decide to keep retired Lt. Gen. James Clapper on as director of national intelligence because he has exhibited a characteristic dear to any president’s heart: loyalty. Congressional Republicans have accused the administration of a cover-up regarding the recent attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the U.S. ambassador and three other Americans. Clapper, however, has been publicly adamant that the U.S. had no advance intelligence warning of an attack, nor any immediate intelligence that an extremist group with links to al-Qaida had carried it out. Rather than re-litigate the controversy during confirmation hearings for a new DNI, Obama may well decline to change intelligence mounts in midstream. Clapper would almost certainly like to keep advancing his primary project of integrating the 16 separate intelligence agencies into a coherently functioning whole. “If given the chance, I think General Clapper would like to stay on in this job, which as a career military and intelligence officer he doesn’t see as partisan in any way,” a knowledgeable intelligence source said.

If either Petraeus or Clapper leaves in a second Obama term, the most obvious candidate for both jobs would be John Brennan, Obama’s top counterterrorism adviser. Brennan, a career CIA officer who rose to the top rungs of the agency, directed the newly created Terrorist Threat Integration Center after 9/11 from 2003 to ’04 and eventually became director of the renamed and reorganized National Counterterrorism Center from 2004 to ’05.

Brennan’s ties to Obama also go back to an advisory role in the 2008 campaign and transition. He withdrew his name from consideration for the CIA director’s job in 2009 because of concerns that his views regarding terrorist interrogations and extraditions during the Bush years might complicate his Senate confirmation. Since that time, he has been Obama’s most trusted confidant on terrorism issues, and he was at the president’s side during the raid that killed Osama bin Laden, a bonding experience for all involved. “At one point in his career, Robert Gates had to withdraw his name from nomination [to serve as CIA director], and then he was later confirmed as secretary of Defense because time had passed and views changed,” said Korb of the Center for American Progress. “I suspect a similar dynamic might play out if Brennan were nominated for a top intelligence position. Whatever complaints people had about him in the past have mostly been forgotten, and he’s very close to President Obama.”

Return to top


If Tom Donilon does not stay in the job—he’s been at it only since late 2010, when his predecessor, Gen. James Jones, resigned—one likely candidate to succeed him is Denis McDonough, who has quietly served Obama for years and has been considered by some the real gatekeeper of the White House’s national-security team. That was especially true during Jones’s reign, when Obama’s old senatorial kitchen Cabinet led by McDonough had direct access to the Oval Office. But other candidates include Susan Rice, should she fail to be named secretary of State, and James Steinberg, who served as deputy secretary of State under Clinton until he resigned in 2011 to become dean of Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs. Steinberg, considered a brilliant strategic thinker and planner, was deputy national-security adviser under President Clinton in the late 1990s, and Obama has shown an increased eagerness to place experienced former Clintonites in high positions. Another possibility is Michele Flournoy, the former undersecretary of Defense who has emerged as a leading candidate to succeed Leon Panetta as Defense secretary in a second Obama term. If she does not get that post, Flournoy, who has become Obama’s most prominent foreign-policy point person in the campaign, could very well land in the White House.

Return to top


The Homeland Security Department is an odd chimera. Invented only in the last decade, it is an unwieldy meld of such disparate organizations as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and the Coast Guard, and it has had no end of trouble finding coherence—as demonstrated under George W. Bush when the department’s officials mishandled the response to Hurricane Katrina. So the wide pool of potential nominees includes almost any organizationally talented person with experience in law enforcement or disaster response.

Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former governor and attorney general of Arizona, has run DHS with considerably less controversy than her Republican predecessors. Nonetheless, Washington scuttlebutt has it that she covets the attorney general’s job, which may come open in a second Obama term, after Eric Holder’s tempestuous and controversial tenure. Possible successors to Napolitano include Ray Kelly, the New York City police commissioner who has developed a national reputation since 9/11 and who turned down the FBI director’s job that later went to Louis Freeh during the Clinton administration; Bill Bratton, an internationally renowned law-enforcement expert who has run the police departments in New York, Boston, and Los Angeles; and Thad Allen, a retired Coast Guard admiral who was widely praised for his handling  of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Another possibility is Clark Ervin, the department’s former inspector general who runs the homeland-security project at the Aspen Institute.

Return to top


Obama could use his pick for a second-term Treasury secretary to signal a major push on deficit reduction. Secretary Timothy Geithner, whom the president chose during the depths of the financial meltdown for his expertise in managing crises, has said he plans to step down at the end of Obama’s current term. The two top contenders to succeed him, Jacob Lew and Erskine Bowles, are both budget experts with experience at the highest levels of government.

By many accounts, Lew has earned Obama’s trust in his current role as White House chief of staff and in the job he held just before that, director of the Office of Management and Budget. Lew was also a deputy to Hillary Rodham Clinton at the State Department and served an earlier stint as OMB director in Bill Clinton’s administration. As an aide to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, Lew also brings Capitol Hill experience. Bowles, who was Clinton’s White House chief of staff, cochaired the bipartisan deficit-reduction panel with former Sen. Alan Simpson that could serve as the framework to rein in the budget. Created by Obama in 2010, the Simpson-Bowles commission unveiled a blueprint calling for $4 trillion in budget reduction over a decade through a combination of spending cuts and higher revenue. Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council, could also be a contender for Treasury secretary.

Recent presidents, including Clinton and George W. Bush, have tapped Wall Street veterans for Treasury. If Obama were to choose that model—and many are skeptical that he would—he could consider Larry Fink, chief executive officer of the huge money-management firm BlackRock, or Roger Altman, cofounder of Evercore Partners and a former deputy Treasury secretary.

Return to top


While the White House race is settled, the partisan budget battles are ongoing. Obama will want a seasoned person to oversee the agency charged with preparing and mapping out the president’s budget. Some names bandied about in Democratic circles include:


• Douglas Elmendorf, the director of the Congressional Budget Office, who is widely respected for his geeky and resolutely nonpartisan delivery of facts and figures. Peter Orzag, Obama’s former OMB director, also came from the top CBO job.

• Gene Sperling, director of the National Economic Council and assistant to the president for economic policy. He is well versed in budget battles, having helped to negotiate the 1993 and 1997 deficit-reduction acts.

• Jeffrey Zients, the deputy director for management at OMB, who has received good marks in his role as the temporary public face of the agency.

• Rob Nabors, the head of legislative affairs at the White House and Orzag’s former deputy. Nabors once served as staff director of the House Appropriations Committee, experience that could help him push budgets through Congress.

Two possible long-shot candidates come from Capitol Hill. One is retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, a Democrat from North Dakota, who is chairman of the Senate Budget Committee and a member of the bipartisan “Gang of Six.” Conrad has been obsessed with solving the deficit problem for years. The other long shot is Democratic Rep. Chris Van Hollen of Maryland, the ranking member on the House Budget Committee. His profile has risen considerably this fall as a key surrogate for the Obama campaign and one of the party’s loudest critics of his House colleague Paul Ryan, the Republican vice presidential nominee.

Return to top


The chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, Alan Krueger, has been on the job for only about a year, and he has yet to make a mark on administration policy. But his speeches on the dangers of growing income inequality in the U.S. have perhaps paved the way for a major second-term push by Obama to reverse the widening gap between the very rich and everyone else. Some insiders believe that Krueger will stick around into the second term, perhaps to guide that effort.

But if he opts to return to his teaching post at Princeton University, look for another accomplished academic to take his place and help flesh out a second-term economic agenda that has lived mostly in the realm of platitudes during the campaign. Possibilities include Peter Diamond, the Nobel Prize-winning economist at MIT whom Obama tried, and failed, to put on the Federal Reserve Board; and David Cutler, a Harvard economist who specializes in health care research, including efforts to reduce administrative health costs. Keep an eye, as well, on Jeffrey Liebman, a tax and budget scholar at Harvard who worked at the Office of Management and Budget under President Clinton. More important, he emerged as one of the few new Obama economic advisers and surrogates on the campaign trail. Obama’s first two CEA picks, Christine Romer and Austan Goolsbee, were campaign confidants. Liebman would certainly fit that bill.

Return to top


Democrats have never seemed to hold the Commerce Department in as much esteem as Republicans do, a pattern that continues to hold true under Obama, who has not had a Commerce secretary since June. In fact, in a now mostly forgotten move to reorganize the government earlier this year, Obama proposed to essentially eliminate the department. His plan would have combined much of Commerce, the Small Business Administration, the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office, the Export-Import Bank, the Overseas Private Investment Corp., and the U.S. Trade and Development Agency into one new department. But the idea went nowhere.

With Commerce still alive for now, a number of administration officials might be interested in moving up to secretary in a second Obama term. Among them: Ron Kirk, Obama’s U.S. trade representative since early 2009, who was at the helm of USTR when Congress passed the free-trade deals with Colombia, Panama, and South Korea; Fred Hochberg, who as the president of the Export-Import Bank is already one of the highest-ranking business officials in the Obama administration (he is the former president of the Lillian Vernon Corp.); and Karen Mills, the administrator of the Small Business Administration, a post that Obama elevated to Cabinet-level status earlier this year. Mills would bring a small-business sensibility to a department accustomed to working with large corporations. She also has experience in the private sector as the president of the private-equity firm MMP Group.

Return to top


In his first term, Obama had sweeping ambitions for the Energy Department, as signaled by his pick of Nobel physicist Steven Chu to lead the department. The idea was that Congress would pass a cap-and-trade climate-change bill and Chu would oversee a transformation of the once-backwater department into a driver of clean-energy development. Instead, cap-and-trade failed, a solar company called Solyndra got a $535 million Energy Department loan and went bankrupt, Chu was tarred with the controversy, and prospects for a climate bill are bleaker than ever. It’s widely known in Washington that Chu wants to leave his post, but people close to the White House say that the president may ask him to stay. One reason: In the fiercely partisan Senate, it could be tough to get a new secretary confirmed.

One candidate who might make it through that process is former Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota. Respected by his Senate colleagues, the mild-mannered Dorgan formed many strong working relationships across the aisle. He's also steeped in energy policy and the inner workings of the Energy Department; he served for years on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; and he chaired the Appropriations subcommittee that oversees Energy's budget. Although a big advocate of clean energy, Dorgan supports the oil and gas fracking boom that has brought an economic revival to his home state.

Also on the list are two former Clinton administration officials. One is Dan Reicher, who served as Clinton’s assistant secretary of energy efficiency and renewable energy, and from 2007 to 2011 was Google’s director of climate-change and energy initiatives. He currently heads the Center for Energy Policy and Finance at Stanford University, where Chu was once a professor of physics. Of all the possible candidates, Reicher would likely offer the strongest continuation of Chu’s legacy. The other former Clinton official is John Podesta, chairman of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, who was Clinton’s chief of staff. Their progressive pedigrees could be stumbling blocks to Senate confirmation for both of these men, but Podesta, certainly, would be well suited to navigating the political vagaries of the top Energy post, which was widely seen as Chu’s greatest failing.   

Return to top


The consensus is that the current secretary, Kathleen Sebelius, will stay on. She was a loyal foot soldier for the administration when it passed the politically tricky Affordable Care Act, but she has avoided taking too much of the blame for the law’s unpopular features. Although she has not made a public commitment to holding her post, Sebelius is thought to be determined to see the law fully implemented.

If the secretary goes, however, Lois Quam, the executive director of the Global Health Initiative at the State Department is a possibility for HHS. She previously worked in Minnesota on a project to expand insurance access, and she is highly regarded in the White House. Several Democratic governors might be considered (but they may be on short lists for other Cabinet posts as well). Martin O’Malley of Maryland has overseen one of the most aggressive state health-insurance exchange-building exercises in the country; Deval Patrick of Massachusetts has presided over the implementation of his state’s ahead-of-the-curve health reform law; John Kitzhaber of Oregon has overseen major health reforms, including a massive experiment in lowering Medicaid costs.

Nancy-Ann DeParle, the president’s deputy chief of staff, once ran the White House’s Office of Health Reform, but she may prefer to stay put. Sebelius’s job in the first term has been to sell health care reform. The next HHS secretary will need to be a great administrator who can make it a reality across the country.

Return to top


Most insiders expect HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan to stick around. In an interview on C-SPAN last month, he said he has “loved” serving the president. “It’s up to him,” Donovan said, adding, “I’m very, very happy with the work that I’m doing.”

As HUD secretary, Donovan campaigned both for the president’s reelection and for the administration’s housing goals. Ever since Obama laid out several housing initiatives in February, Donovan has talked them up throughout the country and pushed for them in Washington. Donovan often points to Obama administration accomplishments, including the national mortgage-servicing settlement reached with top lenders earlier this year that requires them to dedicate billions of dollars to foreclosure prevention; improvements made to the government’s main refinancing program; and efforts to stabilize home prices and neighborhoods.

Should Obama not choose Donovan, the administration could look to Carol Galante, the acting Federal Housing Administration commissioner and assistant secretary for housing at HUD. Before joining HUD in 2009, Galante served as president and chief executive of BRIDGE Housing, a nonprofit developer of affordable, mixed-use housing developments in California.

Return to top


Interior Secretary Ken Salazar was slammed for his department’s handling of the 2010 Gulf oil spill, and some Washington insiders speculated then that Obama would ask him to go. But after having weathered that political storm, Salazar may be the one who wants to cut ties and Obama the one who demurs. One reason: The deeply partisan Senate could block confirmation of another secretary, a scenario Obama would like to avoid.

If Salazar steps down, the president will likely look west for his next Interior secretary. The department, which oversees oil and gas drilling—and also conservation—on the nation’s 700 million acres of public lands, is traditionally run by a governor or senator from a Western state. One candidate may be Washington Gov. Christine Gregoire, who supports the president’s progressive clean-energy and climate-change agenda, and has pushed policies to move her state off coal-fired electricity. Another possibility is John Berry, director of the White House Office of Personnel Management, a previous director of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and the National Zoo. Berry has held posts at the Interior Department as well as at the Treasury Department and the Smithsonian Institution.

No matter who takes the helm at Interior, the administration is likely to continue to push for increased development of renewable energy on public lands.

Return to top


Hilda Solis has the backing of organized labor, which is collectively girding to ride out the ongoing Republican assault on long-held sacred union cows. Unions have little in the way of a realistic affirmative second-term agenda for Obama, having all but resigned themselves to the fact that the Employee Free Choice Act, known as “card-check,” isn’t going anywhere anytime soon, and that Republicans nationally are set on enacting right-to-work legislation and scaling back collective-bargaining rights.

Should Solis leave, a host of longtime Democratic officials are waiting in the wings, many of them holdovers from the Clinton era. Deputy Secretary Seth Harris worked in the department during the Clinton administration, and Maria Echaveste, cofounder of the Nueva Vista Group, was President Clinton’s deputy chief of staff. Olena Berg Lacy, a board member at Financial Engines, was assistant secretary for pension and welfare benefits under Clinton. Laborites say they would love to see Arlene Holt Baker, executive vice president of the AFL-CIO, in the post. Despite its public-policy beating of late, labor does not lack friends on the Hill among Democrats. Reps. George Miller of California and Marcy Kaptur of Ohio have long been staunch allies. Union members are still grateful to former Rep. David Bonior of Michigan and former Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri for their opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement. Carrie Wofford, the senior Democratic counsel on the Senate Health Education Labor, and Pension Committee, also wins high marks. But a Democratic president, of course, signed NAFTA. The challenges that organized labor now faces come from Republicans and go far beyond free trade. Any Labor secretary in a second Obama term is likely to be playing more defense than offense.

Return to top


  With much of the country in severe drought, and with the farm bill stalled in Congress, Secretary Tom Vilsack’s job has taken on a higher profile than normal, and the administration doesn’t seem to be afraid to put him front and center. Vilsack spoke at the Democratic National Convention in August. “President Obama has a detailed plan for a new rural economy: more support for small businesses making, creating, and innovating; more investment in the production of biofuels and other biomaterials; more trade and more markets,” Vilsack declared. There’s more than a good chance that Vilsack will be sticking around for this “detailed plan,” but lobbyists are trading rumors that perhaps the administration might want someone with more of a congressional background. After all, the president has had a less-than-perfect relationship with Capitol Hill. Possibilities would then include lawmakers past and present. One certainly in contention would be former Democratic Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas. She was the first woman to chair the Senate Agriculture Committee and was a key player in the passage of the 2008 farm bill, before losing her seat to Republican John Boozman in 2010. Retiring Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota, a Democrat who sits on the Ag Committee, is a name that pops up. Conrad has been known to work with members across the aisle, most notably Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, in an effort to pass farm bills. Another wild-card possibility would be Democratic Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, who just won one of the closest senatorial elections in the country and is the only working farmer in the chamber.

Return to top


One year ago, Secretary Ray LaHood was caught off guard when a Chicago reporter cornered him after a media event and asked him if he planned to stick around for Obama’s second term. He answered honestly: He didn’t plan to stay. The unplanned announcement set off a media firestorm for one news cycle, and then everyone forgot about it. LaHood continued his duties shepherding a highway bill through Congress and campaigning against texting while driving. He recently waffled on his year-in-advance resignation before an industry forum in Atlanta, saying he and the president would “figure it out” after the election.

If LaHood steps down, which seems to be his preference, candidates are eagerly waiting in the wings. Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is probably the front-runner. He has been actively promoting Obama’s infrastructure agenda, had a speaking role at the Democratic National Convention, and has the added advantage of being Hispanic. Former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, another diehard infrastructure advocate, is also a possibility. If Obama is looking for another moderate Republican like LaHood, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been active on infrastructure issues (along with … wait for it … former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger). Another possibility is Rep. Steven LaTourette, R-Ohio, a longtime LaHood ally in Congress.

Return to top


This one is easy. Secretary Arne Duncan has already said he is sticking around under an Obama administration “unless the president gets sick of me.” That’s unlikely to happen, considering that Obama and Duncan both cut their teeth on politics in Chicago and have a strong personal relationship. Duncan is also popular in Washington. He was confirmed unanimously without even a whisper of dissent. Whatever controversy he stirred up as the head of the Chicago Public Schools is ancient history. His Republican detractors criticize his policies as too prescriptive, but they blame Obama more than Duncan. Many Republicans like Duncan because he has shown some willingness to take on the teachers unions.

Among Cabinet members, Duncan has an outsized influence on domestic-policy development. White House officials view the Education Department’s Race to the Top competitive grant program as one of the most successful ways it can encourage change without ponying up tons of federal dollars. Well over 30 states have embarked on some sort of school-reform effort in hopes of winning one of the grants. Grants have gone to 19 states and several districts. Duncan and Obama are both enormously proud that 46 states have signed on to the Common Core State Standards for K-12 schools; they believe that Race to the Top deserves some of the credit for that achievement.

Return to top


The person tapped to lead the Environmental Protection Agency will have what’s expected to be one of the busiest and most controversial agendas over the next four years. Whether Administrator Lisa Jackson stays or goes, the EPA will be under attack just as much in the next four years. Demanding much of the administration’s political capital will be EPA’s contentious greenhouse-gas rules for oil and gas refineries and coal-fired power plants and the smog standard that Obama punted in September 2010. The next agency chief will face pressure from Obama’s environmental base to go full throttle on these rules after slow-walking most of them throughout the election season.

Sources close to the Obama campaign were split on whether Jackson will stay for another term. Practically speaking, getting a new EPA administrator confirmed in another Obama term would be a Herculean task. Bob Perciasepe, the agency’s deputy administrator and chief operating officer, is widely rumored to be a top choice to move up if Jackson leaves. He is respected in both environmental and industry circles as someone who seeks consensus on usually divisive issues and so might be able to survive a confirmation gantlet. Some environmental groups would like to see Heather Zichal, the White House’s top aide on energy and climate issues, take the helm at EPA if Jackson leaves. Zichal might also face a comparatively easy confirmation process, given that she has worked collaboratively with the oil and natural gas sector on EPA rules. Bradley Campbell, who as commissioner of New Jersey’s Environmental Protection Department from 2002 to 2006 was Jackson’s boss before she came to Washington, is also placed in the running. He has a consulting firm in New York and spent five years in the Clinton administration as associate director of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. A more ambitious—and controversial—option would be Mary Nichols, who as chairwoman of the California Air Resources Board promulgated the Golden State’s cap-and-trade program for greenhouse-gas emissions that has come under intense attack from major oil companies.

Return to top


The Obama White House has carried the name of Merrick Garland, a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, in its back pocket for use when Senate Republicans could make confirmation difficult for a liberal-leaning nominee to the high court. Garland is a former high-level Justice Department official who oversaw the prosecution of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh and is widely viewed as a judicial moderate. His nomination would likely be a no-fuss confirmation. Having appointed Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan during his first term, Obama may feel less pressure to appoint a woman or a minority if a vacancy arises. But if, say, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg retires, a more natural choice could be Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., who might be treated more gently by her Senate colleagues than other nominees. Jennifer Granholm, the former Michigan governor and state attorney general, has also been widely mentioned as a possible candidate who could provide a Sandra Day O’Connor-like perspective to the Court. An up-and-comer is Kamala Harris, the attorney general of California. Harris is young (48), and is the first African-American and the first Asian-American to hold her position.

Return to top


Obama reappointed current Chairman Ben Bernanke once and could do so again when his term ends in January 2014. The move would provide stability; by now, Bernanke’s philosophy and leadership style are well-known in Washington and on Wall Street. If the economic recovery remains lackluster or takes a bad turn, however, folks could be looking for a change in leadership at the Fed (although the argument for stability would apply in this instance, too). Even if Obama asks him to stay, there’s no guarantee that Bernanke will say yes to a third term. The past six years have been busy, to say the least, and the former Princeton professor could be ready for a return to academia. He has been mum on the matter so far.

If Bernanke steps down, Janet Yellen, the Fed’s current vice chair, could be the first woman to head the central bank. She has serious economic and policy chops, having served as head of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and been a member of the Fed Board of Governors in the 1990s; she chaired the White House Council of Economic Advisers from 1997 to 1999. “I think Janet is the leading candidate, and, to me, she is a very good leading candidate,” said Stephen Oliner, a former Fed adviser who is now a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute; he added that her “deep expertise” makes Yellen well respected. She would be expected to bring an activist approach to Fed policy similar to Bernanke’s.

Currently a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Donald Kohn has a lot of experience with the Fed. His 40-year career in the Federal Reserve System concluded with a four-year stint as vice chairman, from 2006 to 2010. But Kohn will be 71 when Bernanke’s term expires, and he told The New York Times in a 2010 interview, “It’s time to move on, to do other things, to dial back the intensity a little bit.” A stint as Fed chairman would be doing precisely the opposite.

Former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers was mentioned as a possibility during the lead-up to Bernanke’s reappointment in 2009. He has the economic and policy background: Beyond Treasury, Summers has served at the World Bank and the National Economic Council. But his leadership history—important at a time when the Fed’s policy-setting committee is divided—could be a stumbling block; Summers resigned as president of Harvard University in 2006 amid disagreements with the faculty and controversy over remarks he made about innate gender differences.

Return to top

Caren Bohan, Coral Davenport, Chris Frates, Fawn Johnson, Major Garrett, Amy Harder, Catherine Hollander, Michael Hirsh, Stacy Kaper, James Kitfield, James Oliphant, Jim O’Sullivan, Margot Sanger-Katz, and Ben Terris contributed

NOTE: Updates were made to this article after the print deadline. A previous version appeared in the print edition as "Second Act."

What Would an Obama Cabinet Look Like?
See Complete Photo Essay

This article appears in the October 20, 2012 edition of National Journal Magazine.

comments powered by Disqus