Obama defends Hagel as ‘patriot’

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President Barack Obama on Sunday strongly defended former Senator Chuck Hagel as a patriot and outstanding intelligence advisor, but said he had still not decided who he would nominate to serve as his next Defense Secretary.

Obama, appearing on NBC’s Meet the Press Sunday for the first time since 2009, was asked by host David Gregory, “Is there anything about Chuck Hagel's record or statements that’s disqualifying to you, should you nominate him to run the Defense Department?”

“Not that I see,” Obama responded, after saying he had not made up his mind yet about his pick for Pentagon chief.

“I've served with Chuck Hagel,” the president continued. “I know him. He is a patriot. He is somebody who has done extraordinary work both in the United States Senate. Somebody who served this country with valor in Vietnam. And is somebody who's currently serving on my intelligence advisory board and doing an outstanding job.”

“So I haven’t made a decision on this,” Obama said.

Hagel, who served two terms as a Republican Senator from Nebraska, apologized earlier this month for comments he made in 1998 regarding an ambassador nominee who was gay. Former US ambassador to Luxembourg James Hormel subsequently wrote on Facebook that he accepts Hagel's apology.

“Senator Hagel's apology is significant–I can't remember a time when a potential presidential nominee apologized for anything,” Hormel reportedly wrote on Facebook Dec. 22, noting that over the past “fourteen years…public attitudes have shifted–perhaps Senator Hagel has progressed with the times, too.”

Obama made the same point to Gregory. “With respect to the particular comment that you quoted, he apologized for it. And I think it's a testimony to what has been a positive change over the last decade in terms of people's attitudes about gays and lesbians serving our country.  And that's something that I'm very proud to have led.”

Obama’s comments on the Sunday show gave no indication of when he might announce further cabinet nominations for his second term. To date since his reelection last month, Obama has nominated only Senator John Kerry (D-Mass.) to succeed Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State. The longtime chair of the Senate Foreign Relations panel and former Democratic presidential candidate is expected to be easily confirmed. Kerry and Hagel are both Vietnam veterans. Continue reading

Rice drops SecState bid, and other appointment RUMINT

UN envoy Susan Rice has decided to withdraw her name from consideration for Secretary of State after she came under bruising partisan attacks for her comments about the circumstances under which four US personnel were killed in Benghazi in September, the White House confirmed on Thursday, after an NBC report.

President Obama praised Rice in a statement saying he had accepted her decision, and expressed gratitude she’s agreed to stay on as his UN envoy and a key member of his national security cabinet.

With Obama huddling at the White House most of this week for fiscal cliff negotiations, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton out sick with a stomach bug, and Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta visiting US troops in Kuwait and Afghanistan, the White House is not expected to announce new cabinet secretary nominations this week, an unnamed senior White House official told NBC’s Chuck Todd Thursday.

That has hardly stopped the rumor mill from going on overdrive, though sources close to the White House said Obama had not finally decided on some posts as of last Friday (December 7). Continue reading

Latest appointment chatter

The Back Channel hears that Deputy Secretary of Defense Ash Carter may be tapped for Secretary of Defense. Former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Michele Flournoy, a top foreign policy advisor to the Obama campaign, may not be interested in the top Defense job at this time, sources close to the administration, speaking not for attribution, suggested. They also expected that UN envoy Susan Rice would probably be tapped for Secretary of State, but were not certain of it.

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Obama 2.0: Who’s leaving, staying, moving

With UN ambassador Susan Rice set to meet Republican Senators John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Kelly Ayotte on Tuesday, pieces seem to be falling in place for her nomination to become Secretary of State to proceed.

Administration officials offered The Back Chanel more tips on moves afoot in the Obama administration foreign policy team.

In the certain to go camp:

Assistant Secretary of State for Asia and Pacific Affairs Kurt Campbell is leaving, official told the Back Channel, to chair the board of the Center for New American Security (CNAS), the think tank he co-founded with Michele Flournoy, and do Asia consulting. (His spouse Lael Brainard, Under Secretary of Treasury for International Affairs, may leave the administration too, an official said. White House chief of staff Jack Lew is expected to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury Secretary.)

NSC Middle East senior advisor Steve Simon is due to leave shortly to become head of a think tank, officials told the Back Channel.

AfPak envoy Marc Grossman will leave, officials said. It is unclear who will succeed him.

In the likely to move camp:

Deputy Secretary of State William Burns may be nominated to succeed Rice as US ambassador to the UN, officials said.

Deputy Secretary of State Tom Nides is being mulled for a White House job, possibly White House chief of staff, which can put his knowledge of budgets to work, as well as his relationship with Congress and Wall Street.

NSC economics senior advisor Michael Froman is likely to move, possibly to become US Trade Rep. Continue reading

Obama campaign aides portray Romney foreign tour as lightweight

Obama campaign advisors set out Monday to cast GOP challenger Mitt Romney’s upcoming foreign tour as a series of offshore fundraisers that lack much in the way of substance.

“We in the United States, Britain and NATO have agreed to a plan to end the war in Afghanistan in 2014,” Michele Flournoy, the Obama campaign’s top foreign policy advisor and former Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, told journalists on a call arranged  by the Obama for America campaign Monday.  “The transition process is already underway.”

“Gov. Romney has articulated opposition to that timeline,” Flournoy continued. “So  he fundamentally disagrees with our British friends.”

Romney plans to depart this week for the UK, where he will attend the London Olympics, and meet with British Prime Minister David Cameron. Then he will travel to Israel and Poland, his campaign said. “He is really abroad to learn and to listen,” Romney policy director Lahnee Chen told reporters on a conference call, the AFP reported.

Robert Gibbs, Obama campaign senior advisor, portrayed the Romney itinerary as lightweight compared to candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s 2008 world tour in which he traveled to Iraq, Afghanistan, Kuwait, Jordan, Israel, as well as Germany, France and the UK. Obama “made it a priority to visit and talk with our troops in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait,” Gibbs said. “It was important during the trip to meet servicemen and women, as well as consult commanders in the region to get a sense of the situation on the ground.”

On Iran, which is expected to be a major focus of Romney’s discussions with Israeli leaders, “all we have gotten from Romney is tough talk,” said Colin Kahl, who served as Obama’s Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for the Middle East, on the campaign call. Continue reading