12.03.11

The Next D.C. Power Brokers: Who’ll Replace This Obama Team?

With the 2012 elections already hovering, it’s time to make new friends and renew friendships with old enemies who have prospects for power positions, advises Leslie H. Gelb.

It’s not too soon to start cozying up to the future stars who will hold the glamour power positions in Washington after next November’s elections. It’s time to stop saying unkind things about those with prospects, even in private. All this good behavior and restraint makes for boring conversations. But business is business. Already, speculations are whispered about the next bunch of winners and losers, all below the radar to be sure. Yes, it is necessary to pay attention to the obvious choices who sometimes, only sometimes, land the predicted jobs. But turn on the radar for the over-the-horizon surprises that inevitably materialize. Be creative, starting at the top of the ladder.

Sure, it’s almost certain Barack Obama will run again and maybe even win. But what if the economy really takes another dip, despite Friday’s announcement that unemployment has come down? And what if he starts to do really terribly in the polls against one of the powerhouse Republican candidates like Mitt Romney or mighty Newt Gingrich? He might just decide to go back to Chicago Law School, in which case, the Democrats have a terrific candidate staring them in the face: Joseph Biden.

Biden has done a magnificent job as the veep. He’s probably handled the negotiations with Republicans over the economy and federal budget better than the president himself. He certainly talks more plainly and effectively to the public than Obama. On foreign policy, Obama would have saved himself a lot of grief had he followed Biden’s advice on many occasions. In particular, a year ago, Biden urged the president to adopt an antiterrorist strategy in Afghanistan rather than pursuing the fruitless and high-troop-level counterinsurgency strategy. Biden would be a very strong candidate against any Republican and wouldn’t carry much of Obama’s baggage.

Whether it’s an Obama or Biden administration in 2013, look for many new faces in key places. If Tom Donilon, whose position is strong, decides to leave his post as national security adviser, the line of likely successors would be long: Denis McDonough, the present deputy, also known as the Lord High Executioner for Obama; Jim Steinberg, recently retired as deputy secretary of state and now at Syracuse; or Harvard’s Joe Nye. Two insiders with the strongest reputations and the most talent are Mike Froman, currently Obama’s international economics adviser in the White House; and Tony Blinken, Biden’s national security chief. Support is also building for Stephen Colbert.

Hillary Clinton is almost certainly leaving the State Department. The three most-talked-about replacements are Sen. John Kerry, who has already undertaken many diplomatic missions for Obama and is chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee; Susan Rice, the U.N. ambassador; and Brookings president Strobe Talbott. Stephen Colbert is a long shot.

Almost everybody I know is deserving of at least a cabinet position in Washington. If anyone feels left out, he or she should write me directly.

Leon Panetta could keep his post at defense, since the military already loves him for protecting their budget. Other possibles are Ashton Carter; the current No. 2 at the Pentagon; and Center for Strategic and International Studies president John Hamre; or former Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

Tim Geithner will be leaving the Treasury to return to dreamy Larchmont, N.Y. Two of the strongest contenders to replace him are Vincent Mai, one of Wall Street’s finest, former head of AEA Investors and a Democrat; and David Rubenstein, cofounder of the Carlyle Group. Another possibility is Kenneth Chenault, who runs American Express. Never count out Roger Altman, financial success and former Treasury No. 2.

Other foreign policy and national security stars to watch: Heather Hurlburt, who runs the National Security Network; Suzanne Nossel, who recently left a key post at the State Department; Daniel Feldman of the State Department; foreign-policy expert Nina Hachigian; and defense expert Brian Katulis; and Diamond Derek Chollet, now of the NSC staff. There are also three standouts at the Council on Foreign Relations: Elizabeth Economy on China, Isobel Coleman on international economics, and Julia Sweig on Latin America. The stars from this pack certain to haul in high posts are Jake Sullivan, now director of the State Department Policy Planning staff; and Mathew Spence, formerly special assistant to Tom Donilon.

For a Republican president, the national security adviser job might go to Richard Haass, now president of the Council on Foreign Relations; Richard Burt, former ambassador to Germany; Dov Zakheim, former senior official in the Pentagon; and a number of senior military officers who have worked closely with Republicans over the years. Good money is also being placed on Nick Burns, the former super diplomat now at Harvard. Burns could serve the Democrats as well.

Foggy Bottom could turn out to be home to Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.); Richard Armitage, former No. 2 at state to Colin Powell; and Jon Huntsman, former ambassador to China and a Republican candidate for president. And if she seeks a return to State Department haunts, Paula Dobriansky will land a top position. Then, of course, there’s Michele Bachmann’s husband, Marcus, who can bring his “pray the gay away” philosophy to American diplomacy.

At the Department of Defense, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina is bound to be high on the list. Mike Mullen, the retired former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, would be a leading candidate along with former four-star Army Gen. David Petraeus, now hidden away at the CIA. Bill Kristol might accept the job if the Department of Defense returns to its old and glorious name, the War Department.

At Treasury, a Republican president might well turn to Robert Zoellick, now president of the World Bank and formerly a senior official in several Republican administrations. Jamie Dimon, now chairman of JPMorgan Chase and an amateur boxer when he was unemployed for two years, might be another name discussed. Paul Ryan, the Tea Party congressman of draconian budget fame, also will be part of the Treasury mix. A long shot may be former IBM chief Louis Gerstner.

Upcoming foreign-policy stars for the Republicans don’t have a substantial presence in the op-ed pages and journals and at foreign-policy conferences. One name that keeps popping up is Peter Schweizer of the Hoover Institution and someone who helped out half-Gov. Sarah Palin. Former George W. Bush national security adviser on Iraq Brett McGurk, emerging whiz, is also a contender, as is Danielle Pletka of the American Enterprise Institute. And someone named Hannah Montana.

Keep in mind that the inside track for most high-level positions often goes to those most closely advising the successful presidential candidate. They get to work with the big dog intimately and often, dump on the competition, and thus develop the necessary mutual confidence and trust. Look for those names most of all as the funny season begins next spring and summer. And save those lunch dates accordingly.

Without doubt, deserving names have been omitted here. The explanation in every case is oversight and forgetfulness, not malice. Almost everybody I know is deserving of at least a cabinet position in Washington. If anyone feels left out, he or she should write me directly. I will not forsake this very important subject.