U.S. President Barack Obama, fresh from re-election and facing a new clash with Congress, got back to work Thursday, with an important item on his to-do list – stocking his new cabinet.
Mr. Obama is expected to lose heavyweights including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, for most if not all of his second four-year term.
The President will also likely have to make changes to his White House staff with some senior aides, exhausted by a crisis-strewn four years, expected to move on and others shifting to different jobs in the administration.
Speculation is already rife about who will replace Ms. Clinton, who has reiterated that she wants to reclaim a private life put on hold by decades in the spotlight.
Ms. Clinton has said she has no interest in another White House race, but the campaign blitz for Mr. Obama by her husband former president Bill Clinton, and the power couple’s passion for top-level politics, has sparked renewed speculation.
Until Ms. Clinton makes her final decision known, the Democratic Party’s other possible 2016 presidential candidates will likely hold their fire, as the former first lady would be a prohibitive favorite if she did run.
UN ambassador Susan Rice, who has been close to Mr. Obama for years, has long been seen as a likely replacement for Ms. Clinton at the State Department, despite being caught up in the furor over the raid in the U.S. consulate in Benghazi.
Another possible contender is John Kerry, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, whose stock rose with Mr. Obama after he played Republican nominee Mitt Romney in practice runs for the recent presidential debates.
Ms. Rice would be the second African American woman in the job after Condoleezza Rice, to whom she is not related. She is known at the United Nations for an assertive manner and is not shy about pounding home the U.S. point of view.
A report in Russia’s Kommersant newspaper Thursday said that Moscow, with whom Ms. Rice has clashed heatedly over Syria, would prefer to see Mr. Kerry get the job, at a sensitive time between Mr. Obama and restored President Vladimir Putin.
“It would be more difficult for Moscow to work with Washington” if Mr. Rice became Secretary of State, the unnamed Russian official was quoted as saying.
Mr. Kerry would have to step down from the Senate, however, and there is concern that his Massachusetts berth could fall prey to Republican Scott Brown, who lost a race with Democrat Elizabeth Warren for the state’s other Senate seat.
White House sources said that the usual timetable for replacing cabinet members – in plenty of time for confirmation by the Senate after the presidential inauguration in January – could slip this time.
Mr. Geithner and Mr. Panetta are key figures in the year-end budget and tax showdown looming with Republicans, and may not move on until the so called “fiscal cliff” drama is resolved.
Some insiders talk about White House chief of staff Jacob Lew, himself a budget specialist, as a possible successor for Mr. Geithner while others speculate that Mr. Obama may reach for someone with business credentials to improve his shaky standing with the corporate world.
Mr. Panetta is expected to leave the administration at some point, but he did not serve for the full four-year first term, having taken over just last year from Robert Gates, a holdover from the previous Bush administration.
Also known as a budget specialist, Mr. Panetta may stay in place until expected spending reductions are factored in to the Pentagon’s budgetary plan to return to his walnut farm in California’s Carmel Valley.
The current favorite to succeed him is Michele Flournoy, who served as under secretary of defense for policy early in Mr. Obama’s first term.
Her appointment may appeal to Mr. Obama’s sense of history as she would be the first woman to hold the role.
Should Ms. Flournoy not get the job, some defense analysts think the current deputy defense secretary Ashton Carter could be in the frame.
There may also be other cabinet departures. It is unclear whether Attorney General Eric Holder, a close associate of Mr. Obama who has had a bruising from Republicans, will stay on.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan is expected to remain in place to pilot through Congress Mr. Obama’s reform program, likely a highlight of his second-term agenda.
Mr. Obama may also have some shuffling to do at the White House, especially if Mr. Lew moves to Treasury. The President’s political guru David Plouffe is expected to leave and there may be other high profile departures.
It is unclear so far whether White House press secretary Jay Carney will stay. If he leaves, Mr. Obama’s campaign spokeswoman Jen Psaki has been mentioned as a possible replacement.
The President sparked speculation on Tuesday when he said he wanted to sit down with Mr. Romney to work out how they could take the country forward.
Mr. Obama’s first term “Team of Rivals” approach of choosing former political foes such as Ms. Clinton, modeled on that of his hero Abraham Lincoln, could apply in Mr. Romney’s case, perhaps in the Commerce Secretary job.
However, it is unclear whether Mr. Romney would be prepared to swallow his pride and work for the man who vanquished him in a bitter White House campaign.