Here's Who's On The Shortlist To Join Obama's Inner Circle

cathy zoi

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New clues about President Barack Obama’s Cabinet shuffle emerged Thursday, with United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice’s withdrawal from consideration for the Secretary of State post and reports that former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel is at the top of the list for defence Secretary.At least six Cabinet members are expected to depart over the next few month, leaving vacancies at several important posts, including Secretaries of State, defence, and the Treasury.

According to recent reports, Obama is first focused on rebuilding his national security team, and is expected to announce his picks for the Secretaries of State and defence posts as soon as next week. The President will also have to name replacements to head the CIA and the FBI, but it is not clear if he will announce the national security appointments individually, or as a package deal. 

The next step will be finding a replacement for Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, who is expected to depart once a deal is reached on the fiscal cliff. And additional openings are expected at the top of the departments of Commerce, Energy, Transportation, and the Interior. 

Here’s a breakdown of the top names on Obama’s shortlist — and who we think he will choose to join his inner circle.

Sen. John Kerry (D-MA)

Kerry has always been the most drama-free contender to replace Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The Massachusetts Democrat is relatively well-liked by the Senate, where he has chaired the Foreign Relations Committee since 2009. Top Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) have basically guaranteed a painless confirmation if Kerry is chosen for the job.

Now that Rice has withdrawn from consideration, insiders say Obama is almost certain to nominate Kerry. Although he is also rumoured to be under consideration for defence Secretary, it's no secret that Kerry has coveted the Secretary of State post ever since he lost his 2004 presidential bid. Kerry also has a strong relationship with Vice President Joe Biden, and proved his loyalty as a top campaign surrogate -- and debate partner -- for Obama during the 2012 race.

But Kerry's departure from the Senate will also cause problems for Democrats. The last thing the party wants is another special election in Massachusetts, especially if Republicans run outgoing Sen. Scott Brown. To add to the headache, Kerry's spot on the Foreign Relations Committee will likely go to Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), a combative Democrat who has been embroiled in several scandals this year.

Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE)

Bloomberg reported Thursday that Hagel is at the top of Obama's shortlist to replace Leon Panetta as Secretary of defence, and met with the President last week to discuss the position. According to the report, Hagel has passed the vetting test, and insiders say he is definitely the preferred pick over other contenders, including Deputy defence Secretary Ashton Carter, Panetta's low-key No. 2.

Hagel, a Vietnam combat veteran, would be the second Republican to head the Pentagon under Obama, an attractive prospect for an administration that has struggled to find GOP allies. Hagel's familiarity with the inner workings of Congress will also make him an asset as the Pentagon grapples with pending budget cuts.

Hagel's political affiliation should make his confirmation relatively smooth, although his moderate foreign policy positions -- and longstanding friendships with Obama and Biden -- has put him at odds with some of his former colleagues. In particular, Hagel could run into problems over his often critical stance toward Israel, and for his past support for open, unconditional negotiations with Iran.

White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew

Lew, a former White House budget director, is widely thought to be the frontrunner to replace Geither at the Treasury Department. The personality conflicts and management problems with Obama's first economic team have been well-documented, so it makes sense that the President would want to put a trusted advisor at the helm this time around.

Moreover, Lew is a veteran Washington budget aide with a deep understanding of the tax and spending issues dominating the White House's dealings with Congress, qualities that would make the Treasury transition relatively seamless.

There are a few reasons why Lew might not get the job, though. Reports have suggested that Lew's heavy-handed approach to the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations alienated Republicans and Democrats, and even rankled Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Nominating Lew would also mean Obama would have to find new chief of staff -- his fourth in almost as many years.

Still, Lew has definitely outpaced the other top contender for the Treasury post, former White House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, the co-chair of Obama's debt commission. While picking Bowles would send a strong signal about deficit reduction, Democrats are unlikely to go in for Bowles' plans for entitlement reform.

National Security Advisor Tom Donilon

One of Obama's most trusted advisors, Donilon has emerged as a possible candidate for Secretary of State, but his tenure as the top executive at Fannie Mae would make confirmation difficult, so Donilon's nomination is unlikely.

But Donilon is a leading contender to take over as Obama's chief of staff should Lew be appointed to lead the Treasury. Since taking over as NSA in 2010, Donilon has been credited with stabilizing the West Wing staff, which had been riven by infighting during the first half of Obama's first term. Moreover, as the guy who wakes up the president in a national security crises, Donilon already has a close relationship with the President and would likely slip easily into the chief of staff role.

But Donilon is also seen as a valuable asset in his current role as National Security Advisor, a position he has held for only two years.

United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice

Rice's withdrawal from consideration for the Secretary of State post was a major disappointment to the Obama White House, which had put the U.N. Ambassador at the top of the shortlist to replace Clinton.

For now, the Obama administration and Rice have said that she will remain in her post at the U.N. But the Huffington Post's Sam Stein reports that White House spokesman Tommy Vietor refused to rule out a future appointment for Rice, saying that 'down the road she could be Secretary of State, National Security Advisor, any number of things.'

At this point, the most likely option for Rice seems to be the NSA post, which does not require Senate confirmation but has weilded enormous influence under several administrations (Henry Kissinger, for example, directed foreign policy from the NSA post for most of the Nixon administration).

If Donilon moves into the chief of staff position, Rice would be the frontrunner to replace him. Former Under Secretary of defence Michele Flournoy has also been mentioned as a possible candidate to fill the NSA post.

Chief Counterterrorism Advisor John Brennan

To round out his national security team, Obama needs to appoint a permanent replacement to takeover for Gen. David Petraeus as head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

A 25-year CIA veteran, Brennan seems like the natural choice for the job, and insiders say he is Obama's top choice should he want the post. As Obama's chief counterterrorism and homeland security advisor, Brennan commands deep respect within the administration, and is revered for his non-ideological approach to counterterrorism and intimate understanding of the terror wars.

But Brennan is also the public face of the White House's expanded drone program and the central central architect of Obama's targeted-killing operations, or 'Kill List.' Nominating Brennan as CIA Director would effectively mean putting these policies under a public microscope -- a situation that the White House is probably eager to avoid. And Brennan opted out of the running for the top CIA job in 2008 because of his alleged ties to the agency's 'enhanced interrogation tactics,' an issue that would likely come up again should he get the nomination this time around.

In the end, the safer choice is probably Michael Morrell, the current acting director of the CIA.

OMB Director Jeffrey Zients

Politico's Ben White reports that the Washington buzz is that Zients, Obama's well-respected budget chief, is the administration's top pick to finally fill the Commerce Secretary post, which has been vacant since John Bryson's abrupt departure following a strange hit-and-run incident in June.

A multimillionaire and the former CEO of the Advisory Board Group, Zients is highly-regarded in the private sector, and his appointment at Commerce would be a signal to the business community that the White House is going to start taking the take the Commerce Department seriously in Obama's second term.

Other high-profile names -- including Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg and GE CEO Jeff Immelt -- have also been floated to fill the top post at the Commerce Department, but a celebrity CEO appointment seems unlikely at this point.

National Economic Council Director Gene Sperling

If Zients gets the Commerce job, then Obama will need to find another seasoned aide to take over as the permanent director of the Office of Management and Budget, the agency tasked with mapping out the White House budget.

As the director of Obama's National Economic Council and one of the the President's top economic advisors, Sperling is a natural fit for the OMB job. He's also a veteran of budget battles, having served as deputy director of the NEC during the Clinton administration.

It's long been rumoured that Sperling covets the OMB job, but he was passed over in favour of Lew when Peter Orzag stepped down in 2010. Geithner is also a big Sperling fan, and will likely make a push for him to get the appointment.

But Sperling has been involved in every major economic policy decision of the Obama administration, so his confirmation will likely be a drawn-out rehashing of old partisan fights. In the end, the White House could also decide that its best to just keep Zients in OMB.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa

Villaraigosa will be out of a job in 2013 due to term limits, and insiders say the Los Angeles Mayor is likely to get one of the open jobs in the administration. Villaraigosa had a prominent role during the 2012 campaign, as chairman of the Democratic National Convention and as a prominent surrogate for Obama, particularly among the Latino community.

At this point, its not clear where Villaraigosa will end up in the new Obama Cabinet. If Zients is passed over for Commerce Secretary, the L.A. Mayor has been named as a possible contender.

It's more likely, however, that Villaraigosa will get the Transportation Secretary position. Ray LaHood, who currently holds the post, has been coy about whether he plans to stay on in the second term, but it's probably safe to assume he'll be out by the end of Obama's fifth year in office.

Republicans will be loathe to confirm a deeply partisan appointment though, and Villaraigosa has some personal baggage that could make his Senate hearings uncomfortable. If his appointment doesn't work out, other options to fill the Transportation spot include former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, another big Obama campaign surrogate, and Rep. Steven LaTourette (R-OH), a LaHood ally in Congress.

Cathy Zoi

If you haven't noticed, Obama's future Cabinet appointees is disproportionately male, and the President is under a lot of pressure to appoint at least some women to his second-term Cabinet.

One female name that's been floated around is Cathy Zoi, Obama's former Assistant Secretary for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy who now runs a cleantech investment firm and was named one of Forbes Top 12 Women Of Cleantech in 2011. With Energy Secretary Steven Chu expected to step down soon, liberals will definitely be pushing for Zoi to take his spot, and her appointment would emphasise Obama's commitment to developing renewable energy sources.

But if you thought the Rice battle was bad, just wait until the Senate gets its hands on Zoi. During her time at DOE, she was at the centre of the controversy over the Obama administration's renewable energy funding programs, and was accused of using her position to benefit her and her husband's companies.

Plus, Zoi's resume is stacked with fodder for the conservative blogosphere: She was CEO of Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection, and she's currently running a joint partnership between George Soros' investment fund and the Silver Lake private equity firm.

Former Senator Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.)

If Obama decides to avoid a messy confirmation battle over Zoi, Dorgan would be a much easier option to replace Chu as Energy Secretary. The North Dakota Democrat is still well-liked among his Senate colleagues, and has long-standing relationships on both sides of the aisle.

Dorgan is also well-versed in energy policy and has an intimate understanding of the way that Congress and the DOE work, having served for many years on the enate Energy and National Resources Committee and chaired the Appropriations subcommittee that determines the DOE budget. It also helps that he's from North Dakota, the state at the centre of the domestic oil and gas shale boom.

Dorgan is also rumoured to be on the list to replace Ken Salazar as Obama's Secretary of the Interior, should he decide to step down.

Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.)

If Salazar does decide to leave the Cabinet -- and it seems likely he will -- Obama could tap retiring Sen. Kent Conrad, another North Dakota Democrat, to fill his spot.

Conrad, who is retiring from the Senate at the end of this year, would be an interesting pick to be Secretary of the Interior, a position that typically goes to someone from a Western state. But nominating a North Dakotan would signal the Obama administration's commitment to exploring U.S. natural gas and oil resources.

If Dorgan gets this position, however, there could be other still be a place for Conrad in Obama's second-term Cabinet. In fact, he's considered the sleeper candidate to head the OMB. As chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Conrad has a solid understanding of the ongoing fiscal negotiations, and has developed relationships in Congress, something that Obama's other budget directors have lacked.

Now here's who else to watch in Washington next year...

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