Come January, the Obama administration will begin again, and a number of people whose names and faces have grown familiar the past four years will leave the public realm for other livelihoods.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and press secretary Jay Carney are preparing for departure. Many also expect Attorney General Eric Holder to be considering an exit.
Clinton’s position is perhaps most visible. Her management of the department and leadership of America’s global diplomacy have won praise from Republicans and Democrats, and the former New York senator and first lady is thought by many to be the most popular member of Obama’s Cabinet.
Foreign policy experts see her departure as leaving a gap, because significant problems remain: Iran’s suspected ambitions to develop nuclear weapons; violent civil war in Syria; continued fallout from the “Arab spring”; and continuing conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan among them. New challenges include China’s slowing economy, coupled with its increasing aggressive response to territorial disputes.
So whose names are being talked about to take over State?
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., who leads the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has emerged as a favorite. Kerry’s major strength is deep and longstanding experience on most vital foreign policy issues; he would also likely win easy confirmation by colleagues. But unlike his predecessor, Kerry may struggle to be welcomed into Obama’s inner circle.
Kerry’s most-cited rival is Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, who, unlike Kerry, already has “inner circle” credentials. She has worked daily for years alongside diplomats from America’s allies and foes. However, her controversial role in explaining the Sept. 11 Benghazi attack to the public could prompt a difficult confirmation process. Some Republican aides are already saying privately she shouldn’t get the job.
It’s also possible a Republican might come forward. Former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman worked for Obama as ambassador to China before returning to make a failed bid for the presidency. One senior Republican foreign-policy hand describes his work in Beijing as “superb, top-rate.”
There’s always a chance of promotion from within, such as Deputy Secretary of State William Burns. But what about an outsider? Brookings Institution President Strobe Talbott held Burns’ job under President Bill Clinton.
Another possibility: Nick Burns, who managed policy on Iran’s nuclear ambitions under President George W. Bush. Burns publicly praised Obama’s handling of the issue.
It’s not known yet whether Defense Secretary Leon Panetta plans to leave. But if he does, two front-runners are being mentioned for the job: His deputy, Ashton Carter, and Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary at the Pentagon. Another possibility, though somewhat unlikely, might be retired independent Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut.
Speculation in Washington also suggested Director of National Intelligence James Clapper might be seeking an exit. He hasn’t said he will leave, but if he does, Flournoy is a possible replacement. CIA Director David Petraeus was also mentioned, but news on Friday of his resignation of his position due to an extramarital affair will likely take him off the list. Petraeus, in turn, will be replaced by acting director Michael Morell.
With the economy still lackadaisical, and in light of Obama’s campaign promises to hasten a more tangible recovery, picking a replacement for outgoing Treasury Secretary Geithner will be crucial.
So far those mentioned as potential successors include two Clinton administration veterans: Clinton chief of staff Erskine Bowles and current White House chief of staff Jack Lew. In the coming weeks, Lew will face a big test in talks with Republicans centered on the “fiscal cliff.” Bowles’ credentials, though, would send a message that debt reduction is a priority.
What about a Republican? Robert Zoellick has served as World Bank president, U.S. trade representative and deputy secretary of state. When he was appointed adviser to GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, the amount of backlash from hard-line conservatives reminded everyone that he might have had a bit more luck joining the other team.
Undersecretary of the Treasury for International Affairs Lael Brainard isn’t at the top of many lists, but some insiders say she would have a lot of heads nodding their approval on Capitol Hill and overseas.
Finally, a long-shot—but not out of the question: New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
With so many large-scale compromises to be reached on both foreign and domestic fronts, it remains to be seen how many Cabinet appointments may serve as gestures from the Obama administration to Republican opposition that still holds power in the House.
—With additional reporting from Brendan James in New York.