Who'll Be in Obama's Second-Term Cabinet

Several key appointments will provide the president with fresh advice.

As President Obama enters his second term, he'll see new faces sitting around the table in the Cabinet Room. At least seven of the 15 Cabinet posts will turn over in the course of the next few years as sitting members opt for other pursuits. An eighth, the already-vacant slot at the Commerce Department, will also be filled.

Second-term turnover is not unusual; most presidents see top aides leave after reelection. But for Obama, it will come after a remarkably steady Cabinet in his first term, which saw turnover in only two Cabinet posts -- secretaries of defense and commerce.

So who'll be out? In? Here's a scorecard:

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State Department. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton will leave her post, as she has already announced, although she says she will remain until a replacement is confirmed to allow for an orderly transition amid challenging work in the Middle East and elsewhere. There's still a fair chance Obama will tap U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice for the spot, even given the firestorm created by her preliminary assessment and subsequent explanation of the deadly consulate bombing in Benghazi, Libya.

But if Obama decides that pushing Rice would expend too much political capital in a rocky confirmation fight -- especially with fiscal cliff and other issues looming large at the start of his second term -- look for him to turn to Sen. John Kerry (D-MA), chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004. Kerry would be a shoo-in for confirmation.

Defense Department. Secretary Leon Panetta is expected to remain only until the planned removal of forces in Afghanistan is well under way and looming defense spending cuts are negotiated. Among top candidates to replace Panetta: Sen. Jack Reed (D-RI), a West Point graduate and close adviser to Obama on defense and foreign policy. Former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE), a moderate and often maverick Republican during his Senate career, who specialized in defense and foreign policy. Ashton Carter, current deputy defense secretary with lengthy Pentagon service under his belt. And Michèle Flournoy, under secretary of defense for policy in the Clinton administration. If tapped, she'd be the first female secretary of defense.

Treasury Department. Secretary Timothy Geithner will leave in a couple of months, although he may be asked to stay a bit longer to help negotiate key planks of a deficit reduction deal with Congress if one is not reached in December. Among top contenders for the top spot at Treasury are Jack Lew, current White House chief of staff and former Obama budget director, and Erskine Bowles, cochairman of the bipartisan Simpson-Bowles deficit reduction commission, which called for spending cuts and revenue hikes to tackle the long-term deficit. Two other possibilities: Gene Sperling, director of the administration's National Economic Council, and Roger Altman, a former deputy Treasury secretary with strong ties to Wall Street.

Justice Department. Attorney General Eric Holder will stay on for a year or so, then leave. Sure to be eyed by the White House as his replacement is Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D), a former corporate lawyer for Texaco and Coca-Cola and a top Justice official during the Clinton administration. Patrick's term as governor ends in 2014, and he may be considering a 2016 presidential bid. But he could be lured away for the high-profile post if Obama calls on him.

Other top possibilities to head the Justice Department are Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), a former state attorney general, as well as Lisa Madigan, current Illinois state attorney general, who developed close working ties with Obama when both were in the Illinois state Senate.

Commerce Department. The open position of secretary of commerce may be filled by U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk or Karen Mills, head of the Small Business Administration. Kirk would push for ratification of more trade agreements and for more U.S. business opportunities in Asia, two top priorities for Obama. Mills would bring a small business mindset to an agency that has typically worked with large corporations to improve U.S. business markets and exports.

Energy. Secretary Steven Chu, a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, is widely expected to leave his post next year in part over his frustration with the lack of movement on climate change legislation and also over the agency's handling of the Solyndra solar company subsidy fiasco. Senate confirmation could be tricky for this position, especially if a nominee championed sweeping climate change and energy cap-and-trade legislation, which was essentially shelved in Obama's first term. Among names that will be considered is former Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND), a mild-mannered lawmaker respected by Senate colleagues.

Agriculture. Current Secretary Tom Vilsack is likely to stay on about a year, largely to help shepherd the major farm reauthorization bill through Congress and to direct drought assistance. A top possible replacement is former Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-AR), who headed the Agriculture Committee and who has strong relations with House and Senate leaders. Dorgan and his colleague, retiring Sen. Kent Conrad (D-ND), are also being talked up for this spot.

Transportation. Secretary Ray LaHood, a former Republican congressman, is hinting at leaving next year. The front-runner to set federal transportation policy after LaHood leaves is Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (D), who already is a de facto transportation expert managing one of the busiest road, rail and shipping areas in the world. He’d be a high-profile Hispanic on Obama's team.

Another big name on the short list for transportation secretary is former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell (D), who has been a staunch supporter of Obama and advocate for national infrastructure modernization. But since Rendell is currently a lobbyist, the White House would have to ease its general policy of not naming lobbyists to the administration if it wanted to choose him.

Richard Sammon
Senior Associate Editor, The Kiplinger Letter