This has made it difficult for President Obama to actualize candidate Obama’s foreign policy, and explains why he has not been able to sever himself more cleanly from the Bush era. Installing Hagel gives him a powerful ally in this fight, and four years to maneuver without the political massaging (i.e., timely pivoting toward pro-Israel groups) necessitated by a reelection campaign. That Hagel is nominally a Republican, and thus can coat the policies in a patina of bipartisanship, doesn’t hurt either.
What other nominee has more materially aided the president in effecting his vision than Hagel could? To be sure, there have been plenty of appointees who are to the left of Hagel and arguably more in line ideologically with the amorphous collection of shifting postures and extrinsically constrained positions that we call the president’s agenda. But have any of them had the actual impact Hagel could, if everything proceeds according to plan?
The obvious name here is Eric Holder. But any hopes that Holder would prove a transformative attorney general have surely been dashed. He was thwarted first and most definitively in precisely those areas where Obama’s foreign-policy constraints have intersected with DoJ policy: questions of status and jurisdiction related to the prosecution of the War on Terror. What little change he has been able to effect — in concert with the Department of Homeland Security — on selective enforcement of immigration laws are largely delimited by the powers of executive order, and will last only as long as Democratic control of the executive. And any minor victories for progressive causes achieved under his watch — say, the Pigford settlement and a more activist civil-rights division — have been offset by the persistent hectoring of Darrell Issa and the likes of “Fast and Furious.”
What about Kathleen Sebelius? The Affordable Care Act is surely the signature achievement of the Obama administration and the closest the president has come to the transformation of Washington he long ago promised. The structure of that bill gives the HHS secretary broad powers to shape the national health-insurance market. But has the person of Kathleen Sebelius made much of a difference? Is she any more able an administrator of this piece of the welfare state than a dozen others might have been? Do her views on the scope and role of her department distinguish her from her immediate predecessors, and from the relevant bureaucratic and policymaking centers of mass, in the way that Hagel’s views distinguish him?
Much the same could be said about President Obama’s two appointees to the Supreme Court, associate justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor. Both are young, activist, and liberal, and could well prove to be decisive presences on the Court at some point beyond the horizon. But Sotomayor sits in a seat that was David Souter’s before her, and William Brennan’s before that. Kagan sits in John Paul Stevens’s seat, and William O. Douglas’s. Neither appointment tipped the Court or made the world hew more closely to Obama’s vision.
Who else is there? Elizabeth Warren and Van Jones are progressive heroes, but both were minor functionaries in the Obama administration, whose potential significance died on the vine, again thanks to the president’s being outmaneuvered by his opponents. In fact, the fates of Warren and Jones, like the fate of Holder, suggest that to say Hagel would be Obama’s most momentous nominee is not to say much. That the bar is set fairly low. That President Obama has been more or less unsuccessful in effecting his vision.
That may well be true. But Hagel’s nomination is interesting because it’s probably not the kind of move Obama could have or would have made in his first term. He retained Republican Bob Gates and nominated Leon Panetta, arguably the Washington Democrat best loved by Washington Republicans, as secretaries of defense. He muzzled Holder and distanced himself from him. He let Jones go. He stashed Warren in a “special assistant” position and surrendered on her nomination to the CFPB without firing a shot. But in the face of lukewarm support in his own party and a determined opposition from outside groups, he fights for Hagel, who will occupy a position more constitutionally and structurally central to the course of events than those others. If this portends that, when and if this nominee is confirmed, Obama will give Hagel a mandate to be Hagel, the president’s second-term defense policy could look a lot more like Obama being Obama.
— Daniel Foster is news editor of National Review Online.