Power Play

Obama Antagonizes with Hagel Pick

"…the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."

-- Then-Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., in 2007 speaking in opposition to the troop surge in Iraq.

His time in Hawaii has apparently not put President Obama in a mellower mood.

This lack of aloha spirit will be on display today when Obama announces the appointment of Chuck Hagel, former Republican senator from Nebraska, to be his third secretary of Defense.

It’s an antagonistic selection, to be sure.

Hagel is disliked by Republicans for his foreign policy attacks on the party during the Bush years and strongly opposed by pro-Israel groups for his seemingly neutral stance on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Hagel’s swaggering talk in a post-Senate interview about the “Jewish lobby” and its undue influence on American foreign policy is a huge red flag for Jewish Americans who work very hard to make the U.S. alliance with Israel something beyond the reach of culture and religion.

With Republicans still resentful of Hagel’s ostentatious opposition of Bush-era policies and support for Obama’s two presidential runs, confirmation would have been tricky enough. But the queasy feelings of pro-Israel Democrats on the tough-talking Vietnam vet will make it so much worse.

Maryland Sen. Ben Cardin, a dutiful Democrat if ever there was one, told the soon-to-be-former cable news network Current TV on Sunday that there are “some statements that [Hagel] needs to clarify” and called the nomination “controversial.”

Coming from Cardin, ranked in the 10 most liberal senators by National Journal, that’s the equivalent of a cannon shot across Obama’s bow.

It will take lots of time and effort to drag Hagel, opinionated and confrontational, across the finish line. The president can get it done, but the ordeal will be frightful and expend plenty of political capital.

The president is already staring down a double-barreled battle over government spending on the debt ceiling and the expiry of the law funding the government in lieu of a budget. Plus, Obama’s pick to lead the CIA, counterterrorism chief John Brennan, will face plenty of thorny questions from the left about his role in “enhanced interrogation techniques” and from the right about the Islamist raid on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

So what’s so great about Hagel that he is worth this much aggravation at such a difficult moment for the president?

To Obama, the aggravation is a plus, not a minus.

As he began his second term, President Bill Clinton also picked a former Republican senator to be his secretary of Defense. William Cohen, a moderate from Maine, had just retired when Clinton tapped him to lead the Pentagon.

Unanimously confirmed, Cohen helped implement the post-Cold War budget cuts that helped balance the budget in Clinton’s second term. While he was certainly on the left side of his party, Cohen left the Senate as a Republican in good standing and with the respect of his former GOP colleagues.

Hagel, as an apostate Republican who publicly feuded with his Senate colleagues is sort of the anti-Cohen. The selection of Hagel is designed to antagonize and goad Republicans into opposition.

That’s all the more remarkable given the looming battles over pending Defense cuts. While one could see former Sen. Olympia Snowe or another moderate Republican easing the pain of cuts and seeking consensus, it’s hard to imagine the polarizing Hagel doing the same, especially once he gets through with what promises to be a dreadful confirmation process.

Part of Obama’s confrontational appointment has to do with the president’s longstanding desire to remake the Republican Party.

The president has paid little attention to the ideological and philosophical structure of the Democratic Party and will not leave the kind of legacy in the party that the Clintons and other Democratic presidents have. But Obama is seemingly preoccupied with what the Republicans think and say and do, finding almost all of it unacceptable.

Obama is hoping to force Republicans back to their pre-Reagan and pre-George W. Bush posture as a moderate party that exists mostly as a check on Democratic excesses – the loyal opposition. Obama envisions the GOP as American Tories, in agreement with Democrats on the role of the government as an instrument of social justice and on an interventionist, internationalist foreign policy but quibbling over expense and execution.

And Hagel is what Obama would like to see Republicans revert to when it comes to defense policy: internationalist and interventionist, not the growing movement toward a strong but isolated America.

But another part of this is about Obama’s personal desire to impose his will on Washington. The president apparently believes his liberal critics who say that he was too conciliatory in his first term and is getting ready to begin round two by throwing haymakers.

The Obama we saw on the “fiscal cliff” – ideologically intransigent on tax rates and publicly goading conservatives into opposition – will be on display today with Hagel’s nomination. While there are many others who share Obama’s views who could sail through confirmation and build bridges once in office, Hagel is a dare.


Chris Stirewalt is digital politics editor for Fox News, and his POWER PLAY column appears Monday-Friday on FoxNews.com. Catch Chris Live online daily at 11:30amET  at  http:live.foxnews.com.

Chris Stirewalt joined Fox News Channel (FNC) in July of 2010 and serves as politics editor based in Washington, D.C. Additionally, he authors the daily Fox News Halftime Report political news note and co-hosts the hit podcast, Perino & Stirewalt: I'll Tell You What. He also is the host of Power Play, a feature video series on FoxNews.com. Stirewalt makes frequent appearances on network programs, including America’s Newsroom, Special Report with Bret Baier and Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace. He also provides expert political analysis for FNC’s coverage of state, congressional and presidential elections.