As news outlets the world over published reports claiming the 2012 presidential race is "even," President Obama proposed that he would appoint a "Secretary of Business," in an effort to placate Wall Street and bolster his job-creating credentials.
Mitt Romney immediately fired back, claiming Obama's "solution to everything is to add another bureaucrat." The back-and-forth represented the closing silo of a decidedly negative campaign for president. But it also raised a significant question: If, as state polls suggest, Obama wins the election, who will he appoint to his second term cabinet? And more importantly: What do personnel appointments suggest about the direction that a second Obama administration will take?
Choosing cabinet secretaries is a crucial point of departure, even for this notoriously self-reliant President. As Eleanor Clift recently observed in The Daily Beast, "Personnel decisions will telegraph his [President Obama's] policy priorities." And observers are grappling for any hints to the future, since Obama remains general about his goals for the next four years. Will, as moderates hope, Obama tack hard to the middle and look to cut deals with the Republicans on issues like welfare and deficit reduction? Or will his true "left-wing" spirit manifest itself in a more ambitious liberal agenda like conservatives fear? Here is a look at some of the potential appointments being rumored in Washington, and what they might mean for the final four years of President Obama's political career:
Chief of Staff
Mr. Obama was praised for assembling a Lincoln-like "Team of Rivals" in 2008, but he quickly became the manager of what Todd Purnam at Vanity Fair has called a "Team of Mascots." The President likes working with people he knows. White House officials — and by most accounts the President himself — wants the current Chief, Jack Lew, to stay on, even though Lew has expressed a desire to leave government and return home to New York. Lew has earned respect in the sometimes insular White House, even as he used his many congressional contacts and economic acumen to communicate the President's message beyond the West Wing. Lew's continued presence in the White House would foreshadow a stable transition and an eagerness to work with an intransigent Congress to get things done. Some suspect however that perennial Obama insider Valerie Jarrett will move on the office of Chief of Staff. Jarrett's hiring would refocus Obama on his brand as a politician of historic proportions and could begin an ambitious — or overreaching — second term.
Others Mentioned: Ron Klain
Obama may be ambitious, but combative he is not. At Treasury, (and with his pick for the National Economic Council), Obama will want to send a fig leaf to a business community that has abandoned him in this election. That being said, different variations on the business-friendly theme will foreshadow different paths Obama could take. Gene Sperling, current head of the National Economic Council, would provide continuity and a stay-the-course mentality. Jack Lew has also been floated as a possible replacement for Secretary Geithner for all of the reasons listed above. But the name that has received the most attention is Erskine Bowles, President Clinton's former Chief of Staff and cochair of the Simpson-Bowles bipartisan panel on deficit reduction. Bowles, a deficit hawk, would suggest an abandonment of the left and a push to reach a grand compromise with the House on the budget. Two other names that deserve mention: Sheila Blair and Sheryl Sandberg. Both have impressive experience in government — and would fit into the administration's broader goal of promoting women the role of women in the national spotlight.
Others Mentioned: Larry Fink
Secretary of Defense/State
On the same theme, one of the most exciting possibilities of Obama's new cabinet would be two women leading the nation in foreign policy for the first time. UN Ambassador Susan Rice is among a few leading candidates at State, and having been confirmed once before, she could be quickly approved by the Senate (although the recent Benghazi controversy could prove problematic.) At the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy, the former Defense undersecretary for policy and a loyal defender of Obama foreign policy on the campaign trail, could rise to the top. She would be the first women to take the job, and at a time when the Defense budget faces cuts and new threats. Obama's foreign policy will stay mostly the same in his second term, but appointing two women to the two most important jobs in foreign policy would be an ambitious and historic achievement for a President intent on leaving a mark but frustrated by a stubborn Congress.
Others Mentioned: Jim Webb, Jack Reed, Ashton Carter (Defense); John Kerry, Tom Donilon (State)
What will President Obama do in a second term? Beyond continuing to move the country "forward," no specifics have been given. Look to his cabinet picks to see if the President will confront or compromise, lead from in front or behind, move forward unilaterally or by concensus.