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Doyle McManus: Obama needs to look outside box in Cabinet reshuffle

By Doyle McManus

Los angeles Times

Published: Sunday, Nov. 18 2012 12:00 a.m. MST

This June 7, 2012 file photo shows U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Susan Rice listening during a news conference at the UN.

Associated Press

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"Second terms are hard work," a veteran of the Bill Clinton White House said Tuesday. "It's a good idea to get some fresh blood."

But so far, President Barack Obama seems more inclined to simply shuffle the chairs as he reshapes his Cabinet for the new term.

Susan Rice, the ambassador to the United Nations, appears likely to get the marquee job as secretary of state. Other likely appointments of familiar faces to new jobs include Jacob Lew, the White House chief of staff, as treasury secretary; Janet Napolitano, secretary of homeland security, as attorney general; and John Brennan, Obama's adviser on counter-terrorism, as CIA director.

The only outsider who appears to be heading for the Cabinet at this point is Sen. John F. Kerry, D-Mass., who wanted secretary of state but is more likely to become secretary of defense. And Kerry's not far outside the current inner circle, having proved his loyalty by working closely with the White House on tough issues like Afghanistan.

There's no shortage of competence there. But the reshuffled team doesn't expand an insular administration's gene pool much, and that has some Democrats outside the White House worried.

"A president needs people around him he knows and trusts," another former Clinton aide said. "But he also needs people who are strong and assertive. They don't have to be his best friends."

What's missing from Obama's reported picks? For one thing, there are no Republicans. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., endorsed Obama over his own party's presidential nominee, but that hasn't gotten him anything more than polite speculation about a possible appointment to the Pentagon or CIA.

There are no people from the business world on the list either. Fans of the Simpson-Bowles debt reduction plan have been lobbying for Erskine Bowles, an investment banker who also worked for Clinton, as treasury secretary. But insiders say Bowles' chances haven't been good since last year, when he chewed out Obama for failing to endorse the plan.

It's still likely that someone from the private sector will be named secretary of commerce, with instructions to expand the job into "secretary of business," a slogan Republicans derided during the campaign. But even an expanded version of commerce isn't as good as treasury secretary.

There's always jockeying for Cabinet jobs, especially for secretary of state. But as demonstrated by the exodus of Cabinet members at the start of every second term, the work can be grueling.

For all their prestige, some of the jobs aren't much fun. The Energy Department is famously dysfunctional, even though its jurisdiction is a major national priority. Homeland security, cobbled together from 22 other agencies, is an organizational nightmare, although Napolitano has managed to emerge with her reputation intact.

And the most coveted job of all, secretary of state, is also one of the toughest. Yes, the job promises its tenant a place in history and even, with luck, a chance to negotiate peace somewhere. But it's also a punishing place, with almost nonstop travel, and it comes with frequent turf battles against other powerful players who want a share of the action, beginning with the national security adviser and the secretary of defense. Moreover, the State Department's budget is perennially starved; the secretary has to ascend Capitol Hill with a tin cup several times a year.

Those who have worked in Cabinet jobs generally say that treasury, defense and the CIA are the most rewarding. The secretary of the treasury gets to negotiate with foreign governments, too, but never has to travel to war zones. Besides, the next secretary of the treasury will probably get to preside over an economic recovery.

In the end, the effectiveness of a Cabinet job depends "on how much authority the president is willing to give them," a former White House aide noted. "Where has Obama's Cabinet gone? It's been hard to find most of them during the campaign."

Still, there's no shortage of talented people willing to take the toughest jobs, even in an administration with a reputation for top — down management. Obama would do well to look outside his bubble for some new faces. A second-term president could use new allies, new talent and new ideas.

Doyle McManus is a columnist for The Los Angeles Times. Readers may send him email at doyle.mcmanuslatimes.com.

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