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All the President's Men

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How can President Obama make good on his campaign promises to strengthen the welfare state, invest in America's crumbling infrastructure and preserve American leadership in world affairs - all in a period of sluggish growth and continued economic uncertainty?

The president will have the first of two important opportunities to provide some answers at his inauguration this Sunday. The second will be the State of the Union Address scheduled for 12 February. Could it be that he's already tipped his hand? A string of cabinet nominations provides a pretty good indication of how he plans to resolve the predicaments created by his pre-election promises. Let's take a look at the list.

Foreign policy junkies no doubt are most interested in the nomination of Senator John Kerry for secretary of state. The long-serving member and current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee certainly is well prepared for the job. He not only knows his way around Washington but is also at home abroad. But he wasn't Obama's first choice for filling Hillary Clinton's shoes. That honour was reserved for Susan Rice (no relation to Condoleezza). The combative American ambassador to the United Nations and a favourite of the president took herself out of the running once it became clear that a series of conflicting and ultimately inaccurate statements about the terrorist attacks on the US Consulate in Benghazi, Libya would likely derail a nomination during Senate confirmation hearings. Should the president have fought harder for his first choice? State Department insiders are happy he didn't. It seems that just about everybody but the president prefers the straight shooting John Kerry to Susan Rice and her 'shoot from the hip' style of diplomacy.

On the big issues of the day, Kerry and Rice are probably closer to each other and to Obama than was Hillary Clinton. Whereas Clinton was an early and consistent supporter of the surge of US and allied troops in Afghanistan, Kerry has been a consistent skeptic. Not that he is opposed to the use of force. In Libya and Syria he has been ahead of the administration in advocating the arming of opposition fighters, the establishment of safe havens and the imposition of no-fly-zones.

In nominating the former Republican senator, Chuck Hagel, for the position of secretary of defense, Obama lifted a play from Bill Clinton's book. A month after his reelection in November 2006, Clinton reached across the aisle and picked a Republican Senator, William S. Cohen, to be his new defense secretary. It fell on Cohen to navigate the domestic politics of a massive defense restructuring while trying to extricate US forces from the Bosnian conflict. Given the early and fierce opposition of many Republicans to the Hagel nomination - largely resulting from his vocal criticism of US strategy during the Iraq War and his support for dialogue with the Iranians and the anti-Israeli Hamas - a repeat of Cohen's successes is far from certain.

Does it matter? Maybe not. For the real key to Obama's foreign policy lies not in the State Department and Pentagon but within the White House and the Treasury Department next door. From his first days in office, Obama has understood that the real challenge facing the United States is bringing foreign commitments into balance with the demands of domestic economic growth. And while Kerry and Hagel may be the public face of American foreign and defense policy, the limits to American leadership in the world will be determined by the budget. If treasury secretary Timothy Geithner's tenure was marked by herculean efforts to stabilise the international finance sector and forestall a global economic meltdown, it will fall to his likely successor, Jack Lew, to figure out how to pay the outstanding bill.

Of course paying off your credit card is easier when incomes are rising. So expect the foreign policy agenda of the second Obama administration to focus on measures likely to spur global growth.

A Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement? Sounds like a good topic for a presidential address.