Speculation rampant on second-term Obama Cabinet, but he may choose stability

Source: Elana Schor, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, May 10, 2012

If history is any guide, President Obama’s Cabinet is in line to lose at least one of its top energy and environmental members should he win a second term this fall.

Two of the 20 leaders at U.S. EPA, the Energy Department and the Interior Department under the nation’s three most recent two-term presidents hold the distinction of staying on board for all eight years. One question that looms while Obama gears up for a hard-fought re-election battle, then, is whether Lisa Jackson, Steven Chu and Ken Salazar will enter the history books as a Carol Browner or Bruce Babbitt — Clinton-era Cabinet officials who stayed the course — or join the 18 others who departed sometime before the end of the second term.

“None of those guys are coming back if he wins re-election,” GOP strategist Mike McKenna, who often counsels party leaders on energy issues, said of Obama’s Cabinet advisers in an interview. “Republicans, if they don’t control the Senate, are certainly going to be close to control … their gig for the next four years is going to be a defensive action. They’ve already taken all the land they’re going to take.”

Given the political head winds facing congressional Democrats, Jackson, Chu and Salazar are unlikely to face a friendlier Congress in 2013 than they have during the past 18 months of bitter combat between two divided chambers and a House GOP majority doggedly monitoring their agencies’ moves. But each agency chief would leave undone significant threads of ambitious agendas in the event of a departure from the administration.

Daniel Weiss, a senior fellow at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress Action Fund, pointed to Browner and Babbitt’s second-term accomplishments at EPA and Interior, respectively, in saying that “I would look for some of the Obama energy and environment Cabinet officials to stay on.”

For a Cabinet member, staying on can mean committing to long hours, enduring the stress of congressional oversight hearings and forgoing the potential for higher earnings in the private sector. But leaving office can mean subjecting the president’s team to the pressure cooker of a new confirmation battle in the Senate, which could motivate Obama advisers to retain as many of their energy and environmental officials as possible.

“There’s certainly some truth to the idea that given what’s happened with the nomination and confirmation process, the degree to which all kinds of nominees — including some who are widely respected — have been caught up in this meat grinder, it’s a whole lot easier to keep people in place than to replace them,” Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute and an expert on congressional history, said in an interview.

EPA air chief Gina McCarthy, talked about as a potential successor in the top job should Jackson step aside, was a key environmental aide to presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney during his time as Massachusetts governor. But that bipartisan imprimatur did not prevent her EPA nomination from stalling for a month amid a Senate hold (E&E Daily, May 13, 2009).

Weiss acknowledged that Republican antipathy toward Obama’s EPA would make a push to replace Jackson especially arduous. “If there is a new EPA administrator,” he said, “there would be a confirmation skirmish at minimum and war at worst.”

Ornstein, however, predicted that Obama would see an early “window” of more Senate Republican hospitality toward his energy and environmental picks should he prevail in November.

McKenna also described outright confirmation wars as the exception to the rule: “Unless a particular nominee develops a personal problem, like an ethical problem, they tend to get votes and tend to get confirmed.”

Still, even lower-level agency nominees have fallen victim to the weariness that can descend as confirmation delays persist. Rebecca Wodder withdrew her name from contention to become Interior’s assistant secretary for parks and wildlife in January, citing the Senate objections that had mired her appointment (Greenwire, Jan. 20).

Parsing Chu

The Energy secretary’s appetite for staying on if Obama remains in office has fueled speculation in Washington since the Nobel Prize-winning scientist, who had little experience with politics before his appointment, saw his decisionmaking and priorities harshly scrutinized by Republicans during the investigation of the Solyndra loan guarantee.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) described Chu as “a very smart man whom I don’t believe has been very good as administrator of this large organization,” adding that he would be unlikely to stay at DOE in a second term.

“I think he’s looking forward to going back to academia on his own terms,” Issa said, adding that if Chu does stay, “I expect him to be substantially better” at navigating the job thanks to the “lessons” he has learned from managing a multibillion-dollar influx of funding from the 2009 economic stimulus law.

If Chu opts to depart, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D) is seen as a strong contender for the post, having burnished her credentials on clean energy issues and won election in a swing state. Former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) once was seen as a top contender for the post — positioning Obama to reap the political benefits of nominating a Republican, in the vein of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood — but his messy pending divorce from Maria Shriver is very likely to prove too great a liability.

Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), who lamented his party’s resistance to discussing climate change after losing his re-election primary this week to conservative Richard Mourdock, “would be a guy who would be comfortable enough” to consider a potential Cabinet appointment by Obama, McKenna said.

Jackson and Salazar

The EPA administrator has stayed cordial with one influential Republican who otherwise disagrees with her agenda: Senate Environment and Public Works Committee ranking member James Inhofe of Oklahoma, who told MSNBC in March that he and Jackson “get along fine,” adding that the Gulf Coast native has a picture of his family on her wall.

Jackson’s standing with House Republicans is somewhat bleaker, according to Energy and Commerce Committee lieutenant Rep. Ed Whitfield (R-Ky.).

“If I were an adviser to President Obama, I’d advise him to get rid of her,” Whitfield said in an interview. “Whenever she comes up here, she always appears to be bored. … Her mindset is, ‘This is what I’m going to accomplish, I’m going forward, this is already decided.’”

If Jackson leaves the administration for a second term, McCarthy is not the only possible replacement waiting in the wings. Following the LaHood model could point the way to ex-Florida Gov. Charlie Crist, a former Republican who decamped from his party in 2010 when it became apparent that he would lose a GOP Senate primary race to Marco Rubio. Mary Nichols, chairwoman of California’s Air Resources Board, was reportedly on the shortlist for a first-term EPA appointment and knows the pitfalls of pursuing emissions cuts from her experience implementing the Golden State’s greenhouse gas law.

Replacing Salazar, should the Interior secretary not sign on for a second term, might entail a look at westerners such as Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) or Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.), whose father spent eight years as Interior secretary under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson — though the prospect of seeing a GOP governor name Udall’s Senate replacement could dampen his prospects.

Another lawmaker mentioned as an Interior prospect before Salazar took the job predicted that the agency would see a Babbitt-like continuity in leadership.

“If you look at [Salazar's] defense of his policies,” Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) said in an interview, “part of it is looking ahead.”