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First Thoughts: The disorganized cabinet shuffle

The Obama White House’s disorganized cabinet shuffle… And some legitimate excuses for it… Obama to nominate Jack Lew for top Treasury job at 1:30 pm ET… Biden meets with the NRA and other gun-rights groups at the White House… More on 2016 and the State of the State addresses… Liberals backing Barney Frank for interim Senate appointment… And “there’s no crying in redistricting.”

*** The disorganized cabinet shuffle: There is no question that Team Obama’s campaign operation outgunned the Romney effort last year. And there’s little doubt that the Obama White House outmaneuvered (at least in the short term) congressional Republicans in the fiscal-cliff talks. But since November, where the White House has fallen short -- and seemed completely disorganized -- has been in its planning for staffing the second term. For starters, Susan Rice’s and Chuck Hagel’s potential nominations to top cabinet jobs were allowed to twist in the wind for weeks, with Rice eventually pulling out of consideration for secretary of state and Hagel now in real fight to win confirmation as defense secretary. In addition, the White House yesterday announced that Labor Secretary Hilda Solis was leaving the administration -- on the very day the New York Times ran a piece observing the lack of women in the administration. And also yesterday, the White House said Attorney General Eric Holder, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shineski are staying in a second term, but it didn’t announce what’s happening with the other cabinet secretaries, which then set off mini-feeding frenzies “are you staying, are you going?” for the cabinet secretaries not included on this seemingly arbitrary list.

Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama announces in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, that he is nominating former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, as the new Defense Secretary.

*** But some legitimate excuses for it: Bottom line: The second-term cabinet shuffle has been an unforced error so far. (The reason why the White House is receiving criticism for a lack of diversity is that it has nominated three consecutive white men for cabinet posts -- John Kerry, Chuck Hagel, and today Jack Lew -- but without a high-profile woman or minority thrown into the mix. And that doesn’t include John Brennan at CIA and a likely white male to be the next White House chief of staff.) Indeed, you could argue that the Romney folks thought a lot more about staffing a Romney administration over the next four years than Team Obama did about a second-term administration. In fairness to the White House, its top officials were so focused on the fiscal-cliff talks in the past two months. What’s more, this kind of disorganization isn’t unusual for a second term, especially after winning a hard-fought race for re-election. And finally, it’s a process story. At the end of the day, it’s likely that Obama’s second-term cabinet will have plenty of diversity and top-notch names. But the process hasn’t been pretty. Question for the White House: Why didn’t it have a second-term transition director? Someone whose full-time job was to keep an eye on the optics of how and when to announce, on the leaks etc.?

*** Obama to nomination Lew for Treasury: And today, as mentioned above, the White House rolls out its third nomination (and third-straight white male) for a top cabinet post. At the White House at 1:30 pm ET, President Obama will announce his intention to nominate White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew to succeed Tim Geithner as Treasury secretary; Geithner will be in attendance at the event. While some Republicans are already raising objections to Lew -- see Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions -- it’s a good bet he’ll win confirmation. After all, Lew has been confirmed by the Senate twice in the last four years (once as OMB director, once as deputy secretary of state). And the White House did NOT want a confirmation battle for this post. They wanted someone who was fairly squeaky clean (though look for some to bring up Lew’s days at Citigroup where he was the recipient of one of those gigantic bonuses). But he’ll get through easily even though many Republicans who have negotiated with Lew are not fans of him (see Boehner, McConnell in particular). And make no mistake: Lew’s confirmation will be all about the debt-ceiling debate, the platinum coin, the 14th Amendment, and the administration’s record over the past four years. So the hearings will serve as a preview of the March budget showdowns. 

*** Who succeeds Lew? As for Lew’s current chief-of-staff job in the West Wing, the leading contenders are former Biden chief of staff Ron Klain (who was in the mix for this post before) and Deputy NSA Denis McDonough. There are a lot of folks who know the president well who are absolutely convinced it’s Klain … and some are absolutely convinced he’ll pick McDonough. So the president hasn’t made a decision. We’re told a lot of folks are simply reading the tea leaves and making assumptions about what they THINK the president will do.

President Barack Obama will formally name Jack Lew to replace Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner – an acknowledgement that the White House expects the big economic battles of the president's second term to be fought over the federal budget. The Daily Rundown's Chuck Todd reports.

*** Biden meets with NRA: Also today, Vice President Biden continues his meetings on guns. Yesterday, it was with gun-safety and gun opponents; today, it’s with the National Rifle Association and Wal-Mart. The New York Times on yesterday’s meeting: “President Obama is planning a comprehensive effort to pass legislation and use executive orders to prevent gun violence, representatives of about a dozen gun control organizations were told Wednesday at a White House meeting. ‘The president and I are determined to take action. This is not an exercise in photo opportunities,’ Vice President Joseph R. Biden said as photographers were given a chance to take pictures before the closed-door meeting.”

*** More 2016 and the State of the States: In First Thoughts yesterday, we noted the potential 2016er governors -- like New Jersey’s Chris Christie, New York’s Andrew Cuomo, and Virginia’s Bob McDonnell -- giving State of the State addresses. And NBC’s Carrie Dann expands on it. “In his State of the State address Tuesday, Christie suggested little in the way of new proposals, but touted his own record as a reformer and offered a rhetorical pep rally for a state battered by last year's Superstorm Sandy… Cuomo, a popular New York governor and formidable fundraiser, grabbed headlines for his Wednesday afternoon address, during which he proposed a specific new gun policy that would ‘enact the toughest assault weapon ban in the nation, period.’… Virginia's McDonnell, whose fast-growing state suffers from a dearth of transportation funds, used part of his remarks to outline plans to overhaul the way roads and bridges are paid for by taxpayers. Per NBC’s Sarah Blackwill, another potential 2016er, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, will give his State of the State on Jan. 15. And Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal goes April 8. By the way, Cuomo truly made a pitch to the left with his speech yesterday.

*** Liberals backing Frank: Liberal organizations are beginning to coalesce around retired Rep. Barney Frank to serve as the interim appointment to fill John Kerry’s soon-to-be-vacated Senate seat. For starters, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee yesterday endorsed Frank for the post. And a MoveOn petition urging Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) to appoint Frank to the interim job has garnered 6,500-plus online signatures so far. By the way, it’s worth noting how Frank toned down his criticism of Chuck Hagel, and remember that Patrick is VERY CLOSE to the Obama White House.

*** “There’s no crying in redistricting”: Lastly, one of us wrote about this yesterday, but it bears repeating: Democrats won the House popular vote -- those who voted in House elections -- but only made modest gains and Republican retained control of the body. Why? Redistricting was a big reason. Republicans controlled key governorships and state legislatures, winning several of those important, but out-of-the-spotlight races over the past few cycles. And a Republican pollster says, “There’s no crying in redistricting.” That’s because this isn’t the first time this disparity has been seen. In fact, the tables were turned in the 1970s and 1980s. Bill McInturff, the Republican pollster who conducts the NBC/WSJ poll with Democrat Peter Hart, notes in an email and three-page memo: “Republicans captured 49.4% of the two-party vote for Congress in 2012, yet won 54% of the seats in the House. This gap between the Republican vote and the seats they won is on the high side, but certainly not without precedent over the past 40 years. If you began your career as a Republican trying to win the House in the 1970s and 1980s, you would adopt, as I do, the borrowed adage ‘there’s no crying in redistricting.’”

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