As President Obama begins his second term, and his agenda for the next four years begins to unfold, the men and women who make up his cabinet will have the unenviable task of running a massive agency in the face of falling budgets, and increased Congressional scrutiny.
Given the president’s performance and inability to work with Republicans, it is not surprising that controversy will befall some of his bigger decisions. However, the continuing drama over the nomination of Chuck Hagel to replace Secretary Panetta as Defense Secretary represents an unjustifiable opposition based less on fact, and more on personality.
Since news of the nomination, lawmakers from both parties were quick to weigh in and air their objections.
Certainly his inarticulate way of describing our relationship with Israel was a mistake, but being allied with a nation does not mean an automatic rubber stamp of its agenda. Friends can disagree, and a healthy degree of skepticism – even toward an ally as important as Israel - should be welcomed in any policy debate.
Are his statements worthy of examination? Yes, but from what has been uncovered so far, no way disqualifies him from service. Republican opposition is overblown for the following reasons.
First, even Mr. Hagel’s most vocal critics are quick to admit that the President is entitled to a Cabinet of his choosing. However, if a retired Republican Senator from Nebraska is such an unacceptable choice, these critics have an obligation to work with the White House to identify a credible alternative. If they are not willing to identify an alternative, do they think this White House will choose someone more to their liking?
Next, while the secretary of Defense does wield an enormous amount of power by the very nature of the job, it is still beyond the capacity of the office to set foreign policy. The secretary is chiefly responsible for running the day-to-day operations of the military and preparing for the next generation of threats that face our war-fighters. And while skeptics compile sound bites and other statements as proof of his inability to lead our troops, to say that Chuck Hagel does not understand Israel is our ally, and Iran poses a threat, is rhetorical blather and intellectually dishonest.
As an aside, the president, who goes out of his way to avoid retail politics, deserves some blame for the lukewarm response to Hagel. In unveiling his pick, the president is overplaying Hagel’s role as enlisted man during the Vietnam War. While notable and meritorious, this fact neither qualifies nor disqualifies him from holding the office.
Conversely, in making the case for Hagel as secretary, the president has underplayed his business acumen – which would be put to good use, particularly in an organization that would benefit from fresh thinking and a no-nonsense approach to building an efficient organization.
In terms of politics, theories about Obama wanting to dismantle the GOP may come to fruition if the party plays into Obama’s hands and flatly rejects a perfectly legitimate candidate. At the end of the process, the public will only remember that the President offered an olive branch to his opponents by nominating a fellow Republican to a key post.
Considering these issues, the heart of the problem has to do more with personality than substance. While it’s clear that Mr. Hagel did himself no favors with his former colleagues by failing to endorse McCain 2008, and supporting Bob Kerry over Deb Fischer, you can be sure that many Senators simply do not like Chuck Hagel. He is blunt, outspoken, and confident of his opinions – a tragic irony, particularly in a town where big egos are the norm, and having a bad bedside manner is never a disqualifier for a promotion.
Senator Hagel deserves a fair and candid nomination process. Like him or not, this soldier, businessman, and public servant is a qualified choice who deserves to be heard.
He undoubtedly loves this country and cares for its future. If the Senate hears what he has to say, likes it and confirms him, so be it. If not, the process starts anew.
Either way the ‘party of no’, would be well served to weigh the merits of the choice, consider who the president could have picked, and battle him on issues of substance, not personality.
Keelen is founder and president of the Keelen Group, a full service lobbying firm located in Washington D.C. DeFlaviis serves as the organization’s account manager and communications director.