Hagel Pick Shows Obama Ready for a Fight With GOP

Obama shows new willingness to pick a fight with Republican foes.

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President Barack Obama speaks during a new conference in the East Room of the White House, Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, in Washington, to announce his nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, as the new Defense Secretary as Current Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, stands left.
President Barack Obama announces his nomination of former Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, center, as the new Defense Secretary on Jan. 7.

President Obama's decision to nominate former Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska as defense secretary is a sign that he will take a tougher line in dealing with conservative adversaries during his second term.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, complains that Obama's choice of Hagel was an "in your face" moment. This seems to be true, as Obama is demonstrating a new willingness to pick a fight over his prerogatives.

Obama advisers argue that he is entitled to populate his administration with people who will carry out his policies, even if the GOP disagrees.

[READ: Who Is For and Against Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense]

The advisers say Obama's victory in the November election should have earned him wide latitude from the Senate in selecting his team.

Obama could have taken a safer path in choosing his Pentagon chief, as he did in selecting Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts as secretary of state. His apparent first choice at State, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice, proved so controversial and generated so much GOP opposition that Obama backed down.

But that didn't happen with Hagel, indicating that there are limits to Obama's patience with his critics, who often expect him to retreat under pressure.

"In the Senate," Obama said Monday in announcing his choice of Hagel, "I came to admire his courage and his judgment, his willingness to speak his mind—even if it wasn't popular, even if it defied the conventional wisdom. And that's exactly the spirit I want on my national security team—a recognition that when it comes to the defense of our country, we are not Democrats or Republicans, we are Americans."

[READ: McChrystal Endorses Hagel for Defense Secretary]

Obama added that Hagel still bears the scars and his body contains shrapnel from combat in Vietnam as an enlisted man. "Maybe most importantly, Chuck knows that war is not an abstraction," Obama said. "He understands that sending young Americans to fight and bleed in the dirt and mud, that's something we only do when it's absolutely necessary."

In some ways, the upcoming battle over Hagel's nomination could reopen many old wounds. It could become another debate over the war in Iraq, which was opposed by Obama when he was a U.S. senator from Illinois. Hagel also became a strong critic of President George W. Bush's unilateralist policies and conduct of the Iraq war. Many conservatives still argue that the conflict was justified, even though most Americans long ago turned against it. And influential conservatives see Hagel as a maverick who defied the orthodoxy of the right.

Another issue will be support for Israel. Hagel has made remarks underscoring what he considered to be excessive influence on U.S. policy by Israel's supporters.

[BROWSE: Political Cartoons on the Middle East]

He also once said an openly gay ambassador was too aggressive about his sexual orientation, comments for which Hagel apologized.

But in the end, Obama aides say none of this should disqualify him. The president wants Hagel on his team, and White House officials say that should be enough to justify and win Senate confirmation.

Ken Walsh covers the White House and politics for U.S. News. He writes the daily blog "Ken Walsh's Washington" for usnews.com, and is the author of "The Presidency" column for the U.S. News Weekly. He can be reached at kwalsh@usnews.com and followed on Facebook and Twitter.