Now that his re-election is secured, US President Barack Obama has a freer hand to deal with a world of familiar problems in new ways, from toughening the US’ approach to Iran and Syria while potentially engaging other repressive countries such as Cuba and North Korea and refocusing on moribund Middle East peace efforts. The first tweaks in his Iran policy could come within weeks, officials said.
However, a pressing task for Obama will be to assign a new team to carry out his national security agenda. US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton has announced her plans to retire, but could stay a few weeks past January to help the administration as it reshuffles personnel. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is likely to depart shortly after her. CIA Director General David Petraeus is expected to stay on.
The favorite to succeed Clinton, UN Ambassador Susan Rice, would face a difficult Senate confirmation process after her much-maligned explanations of the attack on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, meaning she could land instead as Obama’s national security adviser. That job that doesn’t require the Senate’s approval. Tom Donilon, who currently holds that position, and Chuck Hagel, a former Republican senator, are among the other contenders.
The chances of another early favorite, Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry, are hampered by Democrats’ fear that Republican Senator Scott Brown, who lost his Massachusetts seat on Tuesday, could win Kerry’s seat in a race to replace him.
Officials, however, are pointing to Jon Huntsman, the former Utah governor, Obama’s ambassador to China and potential Republican presidential candidate, and the State Department’s current No. 2, William Burns.
Huntsman is still widely respected by the administration even if he’d hoped to unseat Obama. Choosing Huntsman would allow the president to claim bipartisanship while putting an Asia expert in the job at a time when the US is focusing more attention on the world’s most populous continent.
However, Burns would be an option as caretaker secretary until post-election passions in Congress subside and a permanent replacement might face smoother confirmation. He is a career diplomat who has no political baggage and would be unlikely to stir significant opposition among lawmakers.
At the Pentagon, speculation about successors has been limited. Panetta’s deputy, Ashton Carter, is seen as a possibility, along with Michele Flournoy, who served as Defense Department policy chief from 2009 to this year and would be the first woman in the top job.
New Cabinet members will enter at a time of various global security challenges, from the Arab Spring to China’s rapid economic and military expansion in Asia.
However, the president’s escape from any future campaigning also offers unique diplomatic opportunities, which Obama himself hinted at in March when he told then-Russian president and now Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev that he’d have “more flexibility” on thorny issues after the election.
Obama’s immediate predecessors, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, used their second terms to launch major, though ultimately unsuccessful initiatives for an Israeli-Palestinian accord, an elusive goal that Obama also deeply desires. This summer he listed the lack of progress toward peace among the biggest disappointments of his presidency so far, suggesting another US attempt in the offing.