Based on interviews with Obama administration officials and policy experts, the president is said to be focused on several major agenda items right now: stepping up nuclear nonproliferation; forcing nuclear surrender by Iran; making China a fair trader; transforming America's energy profile; and laying down long-term rules of the road for covert war. And despite the eagerness to leave the Mideast behind somewhat, the administration is likely to get dragged back in, which could mean a harder line with Israel, one that might also be in accord with past views expressed by Hagel especially. (Hagel has already been criticized by Jewish groups for his restrained view of Iran sanctions and his typically blunt statement, in a 2006 interview, that "the political reality is that the Jewish lobby intimidates a lot of people up here" on Capitol Hill.)
Kerry, meanwhile, has been carrying Obama's water on foreign policy for four years, marshaling votes on the START pact;, leading a valiant, if failed, effort on climate change; mediating in Sudan; and negotiating with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Mideast peace and Lebanon in the years before the latter engaged in a civil war with rebel forces.
Hovering over all of this is the presence of Biden who, to an extent little acknowledged, has been guiding Obama on foreign policy since the latter was a junior member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee . At a critical hearing with the then-Iraq commander, Gen. David Petraeus, in the spring of 2008, it was Biden who counseled Obama to lower expectations for what Iraq might look like after the U.S. withdrawal--a policy that later shaped both of their approaches to the debate on Afghanistan. Obama, by then a presidential candidate, earned plaudits by telling Petraeus: "When you have finite resources, you've got to define your goals tightly and modestly. I'm not suggesting that we yank all our troops out all the way. I'm trying to get to an endpoint." Biden said that exact language was suggested, behind the scenes, by him: "He asked for my advice."
Kerry, another old Senate hand--and Obama's predecessor as presidential nominee--has also lent his advice to Obama. In February of 2008 Kerry, Biden, and Hagel traveled to Afghanistan together for a now-famous dinner with Karzai at his palace. The three Senate heavyweights were upset about the corruption in Karzai's government, including runaway graft and alleged narcotics connections. Biden ultimately walked out, declaring, "This dinner is over." After Biden was elected vice president, relations between Karzai and the Obama administration fell into an even worse temper, and Biden counseled for a quick pullout. But Kerry's intervention helped Obama settle on a middle course, including a troop surge. After Karzai fixed the elections, it was Kerry who rescued things, persuading the Afghan president to hold a second round of voting. In 2010, shortly before his death, Holbrooke, described Kerry's role as "extraordinary." "He worked Karzai over the elections very effectively, talking to him very personally from the gut," Holbrooke told National Journal. "He talked about his own acceptance of the outcome in Ohio in 2004, in order to get Karzai to understand there was nothing wrong with getting a second round."
Now Obama is about to offer up a second round of foreign-policy decisions, with four years of hard-won experience under his belt. To some extent, it bespeaks enormous self-confidence that he would rely on a group of men whom he once regarded as mentors. (Hagel, who is anathema to many Republicans because of his brave stand against President Bush's Iraq invasion and general approach to the "war on terror," is expected to face a tough confirmation process; Kerry's will be far smoother. But both will likely be confirmed.) Now the eager student has become president. But clearly he is still seeking their advice, and he’ll no doubt get earfuls of it.