WASHINGTON — Barely a week after winning re-election, President Barack Obama suddenly confronts a deepening challenge in assembling a new national security team, his task complicated by a scandal that has cost him a CIA chief and raised doubts about his Afghanistan war commander.
Hard questions from Congress, potentially bitter confirmation hearings and a scandal of infidelity and inappropriate emails are suddenly shaping the fight ahead. The White House portrayed a president focused on the economy and confident in his military and intelligence leadership, but clearly not thrilled.
When asked if the personnel troubles were an unwelcome distraction, presidential spokesman Jay Carney said: "I certainly wouldn't call it welcome."
Obama was already expecting to have to replace his chief diplomat, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, and perhaps his defense secretary, Leon Panetta. Those two alone — plus Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who is also leaving — help shape Obama's thinking and represent him before the world.
Now Obama is without his CIA director, David Petraeus, the once acclaimed military general in Iraq and Afghanistan who resigned in disgrace last week over an extramarital affair.
"It's a hard moment for the administration," said Joshua Rovner, an associate professor of strategy and policy at the U.S. Naval War College in Rhode Island. "It certainly wasn't expected, but if anything good comes out of it, they do have a chance to take a long, hard look at strategy."
Even beyond the surprise difficulties, Obama could have trouble with the rest of his high-stakes turnover.
When Clinton leaves, a favorite to replace her is Susan Rice, an Obama loyalist who is U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She could face a bruising confirmation hearing given that she was the first face of the administration's maligned explanation of the fatal attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya. "She's clearly going to have a little more difficult time than she would have if she hadn't gone out on all those talk shows," said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., the second-ranking Senate Republican.
Some of Rice's key advocates predict Republican lawmakers would not have the inclination or the votes to try to block Obama from appointing the State Department chief he wants.
The other top candidate for the State job is Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, who is expected to be confirmed easily by his chamber colleagues. His departure from the Senate, though, could potentially cost Obama's party a seat by creating an opening for the man who just lost the other Senate seat, Scott Brown.