WASHINGTON (AP) — Barely a week after winning re-election, President Barack Obama suddenly confronts a deepening challenge in assembling a new national security team, his task complicated by a scandal that has cost him a CIA chief and raised doubts about his Afghanistan war commander.
Hard questions from Congress, potentially bitter confirmation hearings and a scandal of infidelity and inappropriate emails are suddenly shaping the fight ahead. The White House portrayed a president focused on the economy and confident in his military and intelligence leadership, but clearly not thrilled.
When asked if the personnel troubles were an unwelcome distraction, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said: "I certainly wouldn't call it welcome."
Obama was already expecting to have to replace his chief diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and perhaps his defense secretary, Leon Panetta. Those two alone — plus Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is also leaving — help shape Obama's thinking and represent him before the world.
Now Obama is without his CIA director, David Petraeus, the once acclaimed military general in Iraq and Afghanistan who resigned in disgrace last week over an extramarital affair.
The details of that scandal keep expanding Tuesday, including the revelation that the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, is under investigation by the Pentagon for potentially inappropriate communications with another woman in the case. That, in turn, has frozen Allen's nomination to be the next commander of U.S. European Command and the commander of NATO forces in Europe, which casts more doubt about a military leadership in which each move affects another.
"It's a hard moment for the administration," said Joshua Rovner, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. "It certainly wasn't expected, but if anything good comes out of it, they do have a chance to take a long, hard look at strategy."
He noted that Petraeus had taken on such revered status for his military career that he won confirmation as CIA chief with little scrutiny.
Even beyond the surprise difficulties, Obama could have trouble with the rest of his high-stakes turnover.
When Clinton leaves, a favorite to replace her is Susan Rice, an Obama loyalist who serves as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She could face a bruising confirmation hearing given that she was the first face of the administration's maligned explanation of the fatal attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.
"She's clearly going to have a little more difficult time than she would have if she hadn't gone out on all those talk shows," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the second-ranking Senate Republican. Kyl is retiring at year's end and likely would not get a vote on Rice, but he said: "As of right now, I wouldn't support her."