WASHINGTON — During President Obama's first term, there was hidden friction between powerful Cabinet secretaries and a White House that wanted control over the foreign-policy process. Now Obama has assembled a new team that, for better or worse, seems more likely to follow the White House lead.
The first term featured the famous “team of rivals,” people with heavyweight egos and ambitions who could buck the White House and get away with it. Hillary Clinton and Bob Gates were strong secretaries of state and defense, respectively, because of this independent power. Leon Panetta had similar stature as CIA director, as did David Petraeus, who became CIA director when Panetta moved to the Pentagon.
The new team has prominent players, too, but they're likely to be more deferential to the White House. Secretary of State John Kerry has the heft of a former presidential candidate, but he has been a loyal and discreet emissary for Obama, and is likely to remain so. Chuck Hagel, who will probably be confirmed this week as secretary of defense, is a feisty combat veteran with a sometimes sharp temper, but he has been damaged by the confirmation process and will need White House cover. John Brennan, the nominee for CIA director, made a reputation throughout his career as a loyal deputy.
It's a Washington truism that every White House likes Cabinet consensus and hates dissent. But that's especially so with Obama's team, which has centralized national security policy to an unusual extent. This starts with national security adviser Tom Donilon, who runs what his fans and critics agree is a “tight process” at the National Security Council.
This centralizing ethos will be bolstered by White House team headed by Denis McDonough, the new chief of staff, who's close to Obama in age and temperament. Tony Blinken, who was Vice President Biden's top aide, has replaced McDonough as NSC deputy director, and State Department wunderkind Jacob Sullivan, who was Clinton's most influential adviser, is expected to replace Blinken. That's lot of intellectual firepower for enforcing a top-down consensus.
The real driver, obviously, will be Obama, and he has assembled a team with some common understandings. They share his commitment to ending the war in Afghanistan and avoiding new foreign military interventions, as well as his corresponding belief in diplomatic engagement. None has much experience managing large bureaucracies. They have independent views, to be sure, but they owe an abiding loyalty to Obama.