“Picking Fights” In The Face Of Obstructionism

President Obama is busily nominating replacements for the various Cabinet officers and Cabinet-level officials who aren't sticking around for his second term. The emerging consensus in the media is that in doing so, the president is “picking fights” with the Senate GOP minority that will have to vote for or against the nominees. Former Republican senator Chuck Hagel's nomination for Defense Secretary has been cast as an especially provocative move by the White House. It's a curious way to frame the story -- if indeed Obama can be said to be “picking fights” with Cabinet nominees, that's only because Senate Republicans have made clear they'll fight anyone Obama picks. And casting Obama as the disruptive force masks the Republican obstructionism underlying the confirmation fights.

Here's The Hill from January 7:

Obama nominates Hagel for Pentagon, picking fight with Senate Republicans

President Obama on Monday nominated former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to be the nation's next Defense secretary despite warnings of a tough confirmation fight from some Senate Republicans.

Here's the Washington Post, also from January 7:

President Obama picks a confirmation fight. Can he win it?

When President Obama formally nominates Chuck Hagel to be the next Secretary of Defense later today, he can be certain of one thing: The former Nebraska Republican Senator will face a major fight to win confirmation.

And here's Politico from this morning:

Why President Obama is picking fights with Congress

Barack Obama is looking for a few good fights.

Obama, the same president who campaigned twice on breaking the cycle of conflict in Washington, sees the utility -- even the necessity -- of rattling Republican cages as he plunges into a succession of upcoming battles over the nomination of Chuck Hagel as secretary of defense, the debt ceiling, $1 trillion in automatic budget cuts, immigration reform and gun control.

So fights are a-comin'. But is Obama really picking them? Consider the specifically cited case of Chuck Hagel, who has suddenly become a controversial figure among the people he once called colleagues. It wasn't that long ago that Senate Republicans were tossing laurels at Hagel's feet as “one of the premier foreign policy voices” [Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-KY), 2007], someone who “understands the world better than almost anyone” [Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN), 2008], and a would-be “great Secretary of State” [Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), 2006]. Now McCain is leading the opposition to Hagel's nomination, saying he has “serious concerns about positions Senator Hagel has taken on a range of critical national security issues in recent years.” McCain's “biggest concern,” he told CNN on January 8, is Hagel's “overall attitude about the United States, our role in the world, particularly in the Middle East.”

It was also McCain who led the charge, with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), to derail the potential nomination of U.N. ambassador Susan Rice as Secretary of State, going so far as to say he would oppose any nominee to the position until the White House answered to his satisfaction questions about the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. That exact same tactic is now being employed by Graham, who wants to delay Obama's nomination of deputy national security advisor John Brennan as CIA chief until more Benghazi questions are answered. Graham even acknowledges that his opposition to Brennan's nomination has nothing to do with Brennan himself: “My support for a delay in confirmation is not directed at Mr. Brennan, but is an unfortunate, yet necessary, action to get information from this administration.”

When news broke today that the President plans to nominate current White House chief of staff Jack Lew to run the Treasury Department, Senate Republicans were quick to dig in their heels: “I just think there are economic policies in this administration that haven't been well received, and Jack Lew is in the middle of that,” said Sen. Mike Johanns (R-NB), according to Politico. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine mockingly condensed Johanns' reaction: “Obama can't have a Treasury secretary who agrees with Obama's policy agenda!”

The Senate GOP has thus far opposed nearly every person nominated -- or even mentioned -- for a Cabinet-level position by Obama, and their reasons have been: a) the nominee agrees with the president; b) “serious concerns” that are belied by prior praise of the nominee; c) issues that they freely acknowledge have nothing to do with the nominee; or d) they're going to oppose everyone.

This is the environment in which Obama is “picking fights,” per the political press. In practice, however, it's the Senate GOP that seems to be spoiling for a scrape.