Fresh from his victory over Congressional Republicans in the fiscal cliff showdown, President Obama is apparently itching for another fight on Capitol Hill.
In formally announcing the nominations of Chuck Hagel and John Brennan for Defense Secretary and CIA Director, respectively, Obama is reenergizing long-running debates over Iran’s nuclear program, torture, and targeted killing of terrorism suspects, all divisive issues that inspire a spectrum of emotions from discomfort to outrage in members of both parties, as well as among some of the most loyal members of the President’s base. The nomination hearings will give critics of Obama’s foreign policy a showcase opportunity to bash him as an international apologist. They could serve as a quasi-trial over the legality of drone strikes or the usefulness of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” And they will without doubt underscore all the ways that Obama, to the profound disappointment of liberals, progressives, and civil libertarians, has not only held fast to Bush-era security policies, but has expanded them, including the use of lethal, extrajudicial force against American citizens.
And apparently, none of this bothers the President.
In remarks at the White House today, attended by the current Defense Secretary, Leon Panetta, and the acting CIA Director, Mike Morell, Obama confidently put forward both his nominees by casting them as right men for the job the right time. Gone was the hesitation with which he approached nominating Brennan for CIA Director back in 2008, when the career intelligence officer’s connection to and support of harsh interrogations scuttled his chances. And not once did the President nod to the persistent digs against Hagel: that he’s soft on Iran, an insufficiently staunch defender of Israel, and insensitive to gays and lesbians in public service.
Obama praised Hagel as a citizen-solider. He extolled his service in the Vietnam War, said that he’d be the only Pentagon chief ever wounded in combat, and asserted that military service members will see him as “one of their own.” In announcing Brennan, Obama praised his 25-years of spy service, which included a tour as the CIA station chief in Riyadh, and spoke admiringly of Brennan’s travels in the Arabian Peninsula, when, the President noted, he once once bunked down with tribesmen in the desert. (If confirmed, Brennan will be the first CIA Director who speaks Arabic.) Morell, the acting director, who was also rumored to be on the President’s short list of candidates, cast Brennan’s nomination as a triumphant return to Langley. “This is a homecoming for John.”
Not that we should have expected a tepid launch party or anything less than fulsome endorsements. But Obama’s enthusiasm—particularly for Brennan—is a good barometer of his political mood. It’s nearly certain that Hagel will face a tougher reception when he appears before the Senate Armed Services Committee. (Diane Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, which will receive Breannan’s nomination, issued a statement that he was “clearly” qualified for the job.) But the odds appear in both men’s favor. The anti-Hagel camp already appears to be retreating. And the idea that the Senate, which a little more than a week ago overwhelmingly passed a reauthorization of broad intelligence surveillance that Brennan has unflinchingly supported, would reject his nomination now is not realistic.
It’s no wonder that Obama was smiling today.