GWEN IFILL: President Obama made his latest Cabinet selection today, but the senior ranks of his administration are still depleted as his second term begins.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Sally spent the majority of her career outside of Washington, where, I might add, the majority of our interior is located.
She is an expert on the energy and climate issues that are going to shape our future.
GWEN IFILL: Sally Jewell, CEO of the outdoor recreation company REI, is President Obama’s pick for interior secretary, succeeding former Colorado Senator Ken Salazar.
Unlike other members of the president’s Cabinet, Jewell comes to the job entirely without Washington experience, with a background in business and as an oil industry engineer. She said she is humbled by the opportunity.
SALLY JEWELL, Interior Secretary-Designate: I have a great job at REI today, but there’s no role that compares than the call to serve my country as secretary of the Department of Interior.
GWEN IFILL: Jewell is only the fourth publicly announced nominee to fill 11 second-term Cabinet-level vacancies — the major departures so far: Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Only Clinton’s replacement, John Kerry, has won Senate confirmation and taken up his new post. The national security team moves one step closer to completion with tomorrow’s hearing for CIA nominee John Brennan.
The president’s environmental and energy team will be completely remade. In addition to Salazar’s exit at Interior, Lisa Jackson is leaving as Environmental Protection Agency chief, as is energy Secretary Steven Chu, with no replacements announced yet. And Mr. Obama’s economic team will also have new faces, as he moves to replace Labor Secretary Hilda Solis, Trade Representative Ron Kirk and Rebecca Blank, the interim commerce secretary.
Critical issues await them, from action on climate change, to the Keystone XL oil pipeline, to negotiations on new trade agreements with a dozen nations and the European Union.
The president set the tone for the selections to come with his description of Jewell today.
PRESIDENT OBAMA: She knows the link between conservation and good jobs. She knows that there’s no contradiction between being good stewards of the land and our economic progress, that, in fact, those two things need to go hand-in-hand.
GWEN IFILL: The immediate response to Jewell’s nomination was positive from business and environmental groups alike.
We get more now on the president’s second-term Cabinet and the issues they will face from Coral Davenport, energy and environment correspondent for National Journal, Greg Ip, U.S. economics editor for The Economist, and Julie Rovner, health policy correspondent for National Public Radio.
You each cover different parts of this administration, different parts of the government.
Starting with you and with the selection today of Sally Jewell, Coral, what are the big issues which await the new nominee or the new secretary?
CORAL DAVENPORT, National Journal: So the secretary of interior is a really important position in terms of the administration’s energy plan going forward.
The Interior Department is in charge of the nation’s public lands and also offshore. So whatever happens going forward on energy development on public lands, on oil and gas developments, on offshore oil development, on conservation, and something that this administration has started was the first administration to do renewable energy development on public lands.
The interior secretary is going to oversee all of that, and it’s going to be a big piece of the environmental agenda, but also the economic agenda, in terms of how energy development is going to be a part of the economy going forward.
GWEN IFILL: Well, let’s talk about the economic agenda. What awaits there, Greg?
GREG IP, The Economist: Well, it’s pretty much going to be all budget, all fiscal all the time, at least for the first year.
You know, presidents choose treasury secretaries, and indeed their economic team, to suit the circumstances of the time. So, Tim Geithner was the pick four years ago in part because he was so well suited to deal with the financial crisis.
So, now Obama goes with Jack Lew, a guy whose background is heavily steeped in the minutia of budget-making and of negotiating with the Hill. He has got the confidence of the president. He knows his way in and out of these issues. He shares the president’s philosophical preferences — protect the social safety net, deal with the deficit, but not sacrificing that safety net.
The big challenge for Mr. Obama and for Mr. Lew is that getting something done will require coming to agreement with Congress, and there, the philosophical divide is so wide, that that makes getting something done very challenging.
GWEN IFILL: Well, part of the philosophical divide that is widest is health care. This is the time when the rubber hits the road in terms of implementation. This is a Cabinet member who is not leaving, Kathleen Sebelius, Julie.
JULIE ROVNER, National Public Radio: That’s right.
And I think one of the reasons she has job security is because we have seen with some of these Cabinet members who — prospective Cabinet members who have been appointed difficulties in getting confirmed. Can you just imagine the idea of trying to confirm a new health and human services secretary?
There has not been a head of the — one of the sub-Cabinet appointments in HHS, the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, since 2006, in the middle of the — Bush’s second term, because it is so difficult to get that through the Senate. So, it would be hard to imagine trying to replace Kathleen Sebelius, which is probably a good thing, because she has so much to do this year, getting the Affordable Care Act up and running, most of it, in time for Jan. 1, 2014, plus all of these budget debates that are going on to inevitably have to do with Medicare and Medicaid.
So, she’s going to have a very busy year.
GWEN IFILL: Let me start with you, Julie, and ask you all this — another key question, which is, does the Cabinet matter? We talk about the closeness, for instance, that Jack Lew or Tim Geithner have with the president, the closeness that the president has with Kathleen Sebelius.
And, today, the president practically — there were like three hugs between Ken Salazar and the president as he announced. But does it matter that you have this closeness? Is anything getting done in these departments, or does it all get done at the White House?
JULIE ROVNER: Well, you know, I think the biggest decisions do get made at the White House and then they get sort of told to the departments. But there is still an enormous amount that these department heads do, that these Cabinet members do.
Remember, they’re running huge, huge bureaucracies, if you will, for better or worse. Just HHS, the FDA is under HHS. The NIH is under HHS. These are agencies that are in charge of billions and billions and billions of dollars, and so I think these Cabinet members do have a lot of responsibility, even if the most important political decisions are being made at the White House.
GWEN IFILL: All right, the most important political economic decisions being made out of White House?
GREG IP: They’re certainly at the White House, but you do have situations — and you have had them in the past — where the Treasury Department was very much a junior partner in that process and the big decisions were made at the White House.
That was the case, for example, for the first two treasury secretaries under George Bush. It has not been the case under President Obama. Tim Geithner was very much a key player in those decisions. And don’t forget where Jack Lew is coming from. He’s the outgoing chief of staff of Barack Obama. He has been central to all the thinking on that process.
So to your question, does the Cabinet appointment matter, Well, it does in the sense that especially when, for example, Congress or another country is negotiating with the administration, they want to know that the person across from — the table from them speaks for the president.
GWEN IFILL: So, which was also the case for U.S. trade representative, who is also leaving and has to be replaced.
GREG IP: That’s right.
GWEN IFILL: Coral, I’m curious about what happened today in the dining room at the White House with this appointment, because the president talked about climate change at his inauguration speech, kind of surprised people. But, on the to hand, it’s not just the Interior Department. It’s not just federal lands. It’s also EPA. It’s also energy.
CORAL DAVENPORT: When it comes to climate change, the number one department to watch, the department that’s going to be at the center of the whole story is the EPA.
I think it’s clear that, in his second term, the president is not going to have cooperation from Congress on his climate change agenda. He tried to do that in the first term. He tried to do it when he had Democrats in both the House and Senate. He still couldn’t get that bill through.
He’s made it clear that he’s going to flex his executive muscle, his executive authority, and use the Cabinet agencies to move through everything he can on climate change. And so he’s got a big rule that he — sort of a big lever that he can pull in the EPA. We will probably see the first steps on it coming later this year, a major rule that would require coal-fired power plants to cut their greenhouse gas pollution, existing coal-fired power plants.
This will be a huge economic rule. It will have huge environmental impact, and it will be very politically controversial. So, the EPA is going to be at the center of the climate change firestorm in this term.
GWEN IFILL: Does it matter if the Cabinet member you’re talking about, Jack Lew, can get along with Congress?
CORAL DAVENPORT: I think it really does.
In this case, Congress probably won’t be acting on a climate change bill, but they will be — if they don’t like what the EPA is doing, you can guarantee that the Republican majority Congress is going to do everything they can to push back on that rule. They’re going to try to gut it. They’re going to try to block it. They’re going to try to strip the EPA’s authority to do everything it can on climate change.
If you have a secretary who — or an EPA chief, an agency chief, who can get along can Congress, who can make a case for the rule, who has alliances on the Hill, that can smooth the way. That can keep it from blowing up as much as it might.
GWEN IFILL: Greg, if the big issue is climate change or if the big issue is health care implementation, and we know the big issue is the budget, how do you get all of that done? How does any — why would any Cabinet member want that job?
GREG IP: Look, when the president calls and asks you to serve, it’s awfully hard to say no to that. It’s a big challenge.
And a lot of these people want a challenge. But you’re absolutely right. This is a very, very tough second term. You have huge issues. And, again, you’re in a situation where it’s not enough for the president to have people that he trusts around him. He’s got to have people on the other side where you can actually close the distance and get deals done, not just with Congress, but on the international sphere with trading partners.
The president would love to have a trans-Pacific partnership deal wrapped up. He would love to have a free trade deal with Europe, but you’re talking about just incredibly complex sensitivities, not just with those countries, but with domestic constituencies, with Congress who may — members of Congress who may have particular sensitivities on this product or that product. So, having the best of intentions is not always enough.
GWEN IFILL: What does it matter that someone like Nancy-Ann DeParle, who is one of the president’s chief health care advisers, is leaving? Is that more or less important than a Cabinet secretary at times like this?
JULIE ROVNER: I think, in some ways, it can be. Remember, she was the deputy chief of staff. She was one of the people who put together this entire law.
And so to have someone of that sort of depth of knowledge and experience in the White House, you know, just outside the Oval Office with the president’s ear is important. I know Cecilia Munoz, who is the domestic policy adviser, has this as part of her portfolio. But I think she’s going to be awfully busy with immigration this year. So, it’s going to be really that much more important.
It may leave that much more running room for the Secretary Sebelius to go forward, but…
GWEN IFILL: And the first thing, though, that has to be implemented, the first thing on the plate?
JULIE ROVNER: Well, it’s — everything is coming down to next Jan. 1. These are the exchanges and the Medicaid expansion. Secretary Sebelius has been meeting with governors and talking with people. She has got an awful lot to do. The department has an awful lot to do.
It’s sort of all coming down, and, obviously, what else going on with the budget at the same time.
GWEN IFILL: Yes. I have this vision of all these new Cabinet secretaries all competing to get into the door at the same time, saying, me, me, me.
Julie Rovner of NPR, Greg Ip from The Economist, Coral Davenport, National Journal, thank you all for filling us in.
GREG IP: Thank you.
CORAL DAVENPORT: Thank you.