2011: New faces in Washington won't bring new US policies

Senior fellow at Center for American Progress: ‘Obama listens to other people, but it’s pretty much him making decisions.’

Obama hand in air, flag in background 311 (photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Obama hand in air, flag in background 311
(photo credit: AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
WASHINGTON – With the new year will come new faces in the Obama administration, as indications are intensifying that senior staff members will be leaving as the president’s term reaches the half-way mark.
Already Defense Secretary Robert Gates, a holdover from the George W. Bush administration, has announced that his time in office will soon be up.
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And with the expected heavy losses for Democrats in the mid-term elections on November 2, several White House figures are also expected to head out.
White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emmanuel has made it clear he’s interested in running for mayor of Chicago, a job now open since the incumbent Richard Daley said he wouldn’t be seeking re-election. Though he didn’t officially confirm the move, US President Barack Obama himself said on Thursday that Emanuel would be “a terrific mayor.”
Other figures widely speculated as on their way out are National Security Adviser Jim Jones and White House Senior Adviser David Axelrod. The latter is likely to be tapped to manage the 2012 campaign, or for some other political position that would keep him close to the president but out of the West Wing.
What impact these personnel changes would have on Obama’s policy toward Israel is an open question.
“This president is a very hands-on president when it comes to forming the direction if not the details of foreign policy,” said Morrie Amitay, a former executive director of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. “When it comes down to making decision, Obama’s definitely the decider.”
Amitay, who also serves as the vice chairman for The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, anticipated that whoever comes into the administration, “Obama will continue to take the lead.”
Lawrence Korb, a former assistant secretary of defense and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, agreed. “He gets personally involved. He listens to other people, but it’s pretty much him [making decisions], so I don’t expect you’ll see very major changes.”
As an example, he cited Obama’s own view that Israeli settlements must be stopped for the conflict to be resolved as responsible the US focus on the issue.
At the same time, Korb said that Gates’s departure would not have a major impact on Iran policy, because he was not alone in his thinking. According to Korb, Gates’s hesitance to use military force was reflected throughout the top echelons of the US military, a situation that would remain constant regardless of who was the top civilian defense official.
“The military leaders are opposed to it, and it’s pretty hard for a president to overrule them when he’s already got his hands full with Iraq and Afghanistan,” Korb said.
Other key personnel changes wouldn’t necessarily affect the approach toward Israel because of the type of role those people play.
“I’ve always felt that Rahm Emmanuel wasn’t making Middle East policy for the president,” Amitay said, disputing the popular notion that Emmanuel was crucial to shaping policy in that realm.
And, clearly, the outlook and personalities of those chosen to join the administration will make a difference in how much impact they have – whether they are assertive, ideologically rigid or consensus-oriented.
Korb predicted that one new denominator was likely to be a line-up of more “traditional Democrats” in the vacated positions.
He described appointments such as Gates and Jones as choices Obama made to fend off charges that he was inexperienced and too soft on international issues. Now, with two years in office under his belt, Obama would be less likely to consider such factors in his selections.
Still, Korb didn’t anticipate a significant policy shift on that basis either, since he characterized Democrats – as evidenced by those serving in Congress – as strongly supportive of the Jewish state.
“I don’t think it will have an impact on the relationship with Israel,” he said.