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What Obama's Cabinet Picks Say About His Second Term


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. President Obama has announced most of his Cabinet choices for his second term. There are no big surprises; all are pretty familiar faces in Washington, D.C. But Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry; former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel, of Nebraska; and the White House chief of staff, Jack Lew, still must get through Senate confirmation. We're joined now by NPR's national political correspondent Mara Liasson. Mara, thanks for being with us.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Happy to be here.

SIMON: And let's start with domestic policy. Jack Lew, President Obama's current chief of staff and former budget director - if confirmed he would, of course, succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury secretary. What does this mean? What does Mr. Lew bring to the assignment?

LIASSON: Well, what it means is that the financial crisis is no longer the top priority. That's what consumed Tim Geithner's term as Treasury secretary. He came from the Federal Reserve Bank Board, in New York. He was tied to Wall Street. Lew is a budget expert, and that's what's going to be on the president's plate for the next term; making budget and tax deals with Republicans, trying to find that ever elusive, grand bargain on entitlements and the deficit. That's Lew's expertise, and that's what he'll be working on.

SIMON: Now, Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions suggested - I guess - that Mr. Lew, because he wrote the White House budget, might essentially lack the proper perspective. Is this going to harm him politically?

LIASSON: Well, Jeff Sessions is going to vote against him. But significantly, Sessions has not said whether he would put a hold on Lew's nomination, or lead a filibuster. And I think most betting in Washington is that Lew will be confirmed. He will not face significant opposition. It seems that Sessions' main problem with him is that he represents President Obama's budget policies - as he should, because he's working for the president.

SIMON: Yeah. Of course, there's been a lot more objections voiced over the selection of Chuck Hagel, President Obama's choice for Defense secretary; questions raised about his depth of his commitment to Israel, policies towards containing Iran. Let's get an understanding - your understanding, at the moment, of where the opposition for that rests.

LIASSON: Well, first, the opposition is, obviously, with Republicans. They consider him an apostate. They think Hagel was a turncoat. He once talked about how the Jewish lobby intimidates people in Washington. They feel he's been squishy on Iran sanctions. He's said the Pentagon budget was bloated. He also was a loner, when he was in the Senate, so he doesn't have a lot of deep friendships. He has been going on the offensive; giving a lot of interviews, trying to clarify his remarks, explaining how he is as strong on Israel and Iran as anybody else.

So there will be Republican opposition. The more immediate problem, however, is that Hagel hasn't nailed down Democratic support; and particularly, New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, the most prominent Jewish Democrat in the Senate - a real leader, carries a lot of sway on matters of Israel policy with his colleagues - and he has very pointedly not said whether he will support Hagel. Now, if he doesn't, I think it would really be a death blow. And I can't imagine how Hagel could be confirmed, if he got that kind of Democratic opposition. However, if Schumer meets with Hagel one-on-one, his concerns are allayed, then I think that his endorsement of Hagel would be a very, very important boost for him. So it's going to be a knock-down, drag-out fight. The president and Chuck Hagel have a lot of work to do.

SIMON: I gather that Sen. Kerry of Massachusetts is supposed to essentially sail - I don't want to say windsurf, given that history - but sail through his nomination to be secretary of State.

LIASSON: That's right. Even before he was nominated, several Republicans said that he was their choice, that he would have no problem being confirmed. There is a kind of senatorial courtesy. He's well-liked among his colleagues, and nobody expects that he'll have a hard time at all. What we're waiting to find out, as we said, is will there be a filibuster against former Sen. Hagel, and will enough Republicans break to confirm him?

SIMON: And how much consternation is there over the fact that this is not so far a Cabinet that looks like America, if you please, in what's being called the Brooks Brothers wall - all-male appointees?

LIASSON: Well, so far, there have been all-male appointees, especially the replacement for Hillary Clinton at secretary of State. There are a couple more openings the president has to fill, and I would predict that he fills them with women.

SIMON: OK. Thanks very much, Mara.

LIASSON: Thank you.

SIMON: NPR's national political correspondent, Mara Liasson. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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