“A decade of war is now ending.”
-- President Obama in his second inaugural address.
The most we’ve heard from President Obama on national defense of late relates to his desire to avoid Pentagon cuts in order to keep those dollars flowing into the sluggish economy.
But aside from the Department of Defense as a vehicle for stimulus, we’ve mostly been hearing from his appointees and leaked documents what the president thinks about foreign policy and the ongoing war against Islamist militants.
Power Play notes that it was fitting for the justification for the summary execution of Americans deemed threats to the homeland was delivered in the form of a leaked memo. It’s appropriate for an administration that has been sieve-like when it comes to intelligence and national security information to announce it’s most-controversial policy in those arenas in a leak.
We’ll hear from a couple more appointees today, John Brennan, the man Obama wants to run the CIA and Leon Panetta, the outgoing secretary of Defense.
Senators will ask Panetta about the Sept. 11, 2012 raid by Islamist militiamen on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. Republicans largely whiffed when it came to questioning former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the subject and may have boned up since then. But few in the world have the experience in congressional testimony as Panetta. He knows a thing or two about how not to answer questions.
Brennan, on the other hand, is likely in for a rough day. Perhaps not as bad as Obama’s nominee to replace Panetta, former Sen. Chuck Hagel, but Brennan had still better wear a cup.
He’ll be taking shots left and right for the CIA’s most important and controversial program: the use of remote-controlled aircraft around the world to kill individuals, sometimes Americans, deemed part of the jihadist network.
Some on the left may resurrect Brennan’ role in the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” of Islamists during the Bush era, but Brennan has done a full about face on the subject and will mostly be able to apologize his way out of that.
The two issues, do, though have a nexus. Like the “enhanced interrogations” the president’s authority to keep a “kill list” and exercise that power in total secrecy rests on a memorandum from his own Justice Department that declares the whole world a battlefield and him the arbiter of a threat.
There’s political vindication here for Republicans who see Democrats embracing the same executive absolutism that they once denounced in Bush, but there’s also genuine alarm left and right about the precedents being set and the secrecy being employed.
This is a philosophical, legal argument that has generational consequences but most voters will likely look past those questions as long as they are certain that Obama is killing bad guys. As Bush proved, voters tend to be very forgiving in these areas as long as the end result is a would-be terrorist gets smoked.
And in order to prevent another debacle on a nomination, Team Obama has decided to share with Intelligence Committee members the actual memo it says authorizes the president to kill Americans rather than just the memo about the memo provided to NBC News.
But it is Hagel and the Defense Department that are posing the biggest problems for Obama.
Many on the left are deeply distrustful of the Pentagon, but when it comes to Keynesian stimulus there’s nothing quite like the Department of Defense. Almost all of the more than $900 billion Uncle Sam spends on Defense each year flows directly into the ailing domestic economy.
Having seen the sorry performance of the economy in the fourth quarter of last year as big military contractors trimmed their sails ahead of cuts, Obama is feeling greater urgency to keep up Defense spending.
But Obama is now confronting an unexpected challenge in this task. Republicans, given the choice between Obama’s offer of tax hikes to offset the cuts and the cuts themselves are choosing cuts. Worse still for Obama, there’s no chance of conservatives signing on to anything that avoids the cuts without getting equal cuts elsewhere.
Obama assumed that Republicans would do anything to protect Defense spending, but now finds them increasingly willing to let the axe fall. When the president created the automatic cuts as part of negotiations with Republicans in the 2011 debt-limit deal, he never imagined that the party associated with robust Defense budgets might not flinch.
Obama was a successful brinksman on the automatic tax hikes in the so-called “fiscal cliff,” knowing as he did that once all the rates went up he would be negotiating from better terrain.
The same is true of Republicans and these cuts. As the “sequester” slowly starts siphoning money out of budgets across the federal government, Republicans may find the president more amenable to doing a deal on entitlements or taxes than he is today.
In an economy kept afloat by government spending and cash pumping by the government’s central bank, Obama will feel great urgency to keep the spending up, up, up lest he become the president who presided over two recessions.
Which brings up back to Hagel, whose nomination is stalled in the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The ostensible reasons for the stall are that senators are waiting for the nominee to release the identities of those who paid him for speeches and for full disclosure on what happened with a sexual harassment claim brought against one of his subordinates while Hagel was a senator.
But the real reason for the slowdown is Hagel’s dreadful, dithering testimony on his own behalf. Democrats were appalled at how ill-prepared Obama’s star appointee of his second term turned out to be.
Hagel has already failed in one of his tasks, which was to show up his fellow Republicans – to be Obama’s model for the party the president is trying to change. Hagel’s botched testimony eliminates him from that role.
Hagel may ultimately fail if there is truth to allegations of non-disclosure or indifference to claims of workplace harassment, but if he succeeds in scraping by, it’s a very unfortunate moment to have a damaged secretary of Defense.
With cuts looming and controversies multiplying, Hagel hardly seems like the man for the moment. The prospects of him working with Congress on implementing or avoiding cuts look grim and grimmer.
Obama, though, is unlikely to yank Hagel’s nomination since the whole reason for the risky pick was to prove a point. Pulling down the nomination would be admitting the Republicans were right all along.
So here stands Obama, a president who is focused on domestic policy with a huge domestic agenda for his second term, forced to give over the launch of Obama 2.0 to foreign policy and national security.
And Now, A Word From Charles
“I'm not sure that the president really regrets this. I think his ultimate objective is what he always wanted, nationalized health care like you have in Britain or Canada. But he said you can't get there in one step. And this is system so complex and ultimately I think the only escape, the only way it can end up is going to be to nationalize the system.”
-- Charles Krauthammer on “Special Report with Bret Baier.”
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.