The Buzz

Obama's Second-Term Team: Divided by Design?

The big news today is that Susan Rice is slated to replace Tom Donilon as the national-security adviser to President Obama. Meanwhile, Samantha Power will be nominated to take Rice’s place as ambassador to the United Nations. Here at TNI, Jacob Heilbrunn calls this the “return of the liberal hawks.” Heilbrunn notes that after having chosen the more realist or pragmatic Chuck Hagel and John Kerry as secretary of defense and state, respectively, Obama appears to be “balancing his foreign policy team” and “attempting to create competing power centers in his administration.”

With this in mind, it’s worth revisiting a brief passage from David Remnick’s biography of the president, The Bridge. Remnick describes how, during his brief stint in the Senate, Obama occasionally met to discuss ideas with prominent journalists like Fareed Zakaria, David Brooks and Thomas Friedman. He writes:

He could talk Reagan and Burke with Brooks and foreign policy with Zakaria and Friedman, all with the politician’s gift of making his guest feel that he agrees with him. They were all struck by his charm and lack of neediness, his intelligence and what one called “his gargantuan self-confidence”—a freshman senator who was convinced he could get in a room with foreign-policy realists and idealists and somehow transcend the battle and reconcile the two sides. [Emphasis added.]

This attribute—Obama’s long-held desire to draw from both the realist and liberal-internationalist camps and synthesize them in some way—has been present throughout his time in the White House. Indeed, you can paint two entirely different pictures of his foreign policy depending on which events you choose to emphasize. On one hand, he’s the president who led a humanitarian military intervention in Libya and expanded the Afghan war in 2009. On the other, he has since drawn down two major wars and shown a deep reluctance to get involved in the ongoing, tragic civil war in Syria. The truth would seem to be that as Remnick suggests, he doesn’t identify wholly with either camp and is committed to trying to “reconcile” the divide.

Obama’s choice of Rice and Power, then, along with his attempt to “balance” his team (if that is in fact the true aim), is fully consistent with both the mentality that Remnick describes and this record from his first term. The strongest argument for this approach is that it allows one to draw from the best insights of multiple points of view. But, as Paul Saunders points out, the converse risk is that it can result in a sort of incoherent, split-the-difference policy in situations that demand a larger strategic vision.