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Obama's impending cabinet shuffle could stir controversy

CIA director Leon Panetta greets Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, at a joint session of Congress at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 8, 2011, before President Barack Obama spoke. J. Scott Applewhite

President Obama's team of cabinet members and high-ranking officials is sure to see some turnover in his second term as some of his most high profile figures have already indicated they would like to step down and speculation over replacements is rampant.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has indicated for several months that she is ready to step down from a grueling schedule that has kept her crossing the globe for most of the past four years. Most recently, she told the Wall Street Journal last month that it is "unlikely" that she'd stay on despite prodding to do so.

Mr. Obama has made no official announcement about Clinton's replacement, but CBS News has confirmed that U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice is the president's top choice. The Stanford alum and former secretary for African Affairs during the Clinton administration went on to be a trusted aide to Mr. Obama during his 2008 campaign when she served as his top foreign policy adviser.

Rice, however, would be in for a tough confirmation in the Senate if nominated for Secretary of State. She has already faced criticism from Republicans for her handling of the aftermath following the attacks at the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the killings of four Americans, including Ambassador Chris Stevens. Rice publicly proclaimed that the attacks were "spontaneous" and a result of an American-made, anti-Muslim film and not a terrorist act. Critics say her explanation was rooted in politics just weeks before the election.

"I think Susan Rice would have an incredibly difficult time to get through the Senate," Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said on "Face the Nation" Sunday. "I'm not going to promote somebody who I think has misled the country or is either incompetent," he added.

White House sources tell CBS News Senior White House Correspondent Bill Plante that Graham's objections are unfounded and that Rice had a minimal role.

Meantime, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta is another cabinet member that has indicated that he might not serve through President Obama's second term. "It's no secret that at some point I'd like to get back to California. It's my home," Panetta told reporters during a flight to Australia Monday.

In a surprising twist, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., is a top contender to replace Panetta. Kerry, who's chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was widely touted as likely contender for Secretary of State, but CBS News confirms that Kerry is in fact being considered for the top post at Defense.

He would have to seek approval from his current Senate colleagues in the nomination process. In addition to his chairmanship, Kerry has long served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. And his military service consists of four years of active duty in the Navy from 1966 until he was granted an early discharge in 1970; his time in the Navy included a tour in Vietnam in which he was awarded three Purple Hearts among other honors.

Kerry would be an interesting choice to head the Defense Department considering his post-Vietnam history.

After his Vietnam service, he became an outspoken critic of the war and in 1971 became the first Vietnam vet to testify at a congressional hearing about proposals to end the war. After his testimony, he led a group of protestors to the Capitol and they tossed their medals and ribbons over a fence, an action that was not only a flashpoint during the Vietnam War but also during his 2004 run for president, when he struggled to overcome attacks by the conservative group Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, which challenged his military honors and slammed his vocal opposition to the war after his return.

Bill Galston, senior fellow of governance at the Brookings Institution, said a president often enjoys the most deference to appoint whom he likes immediately after a successful election.

"If there was ever time to make a nomination he strongly believes that attacks some flack, that time is now," Galston told CBS News. "If not now, when?"

With the likely departure of Clinton and Panetta, many of the president's foreign policy-related leaders would be new heading into a second term. Mr. Obama will have to nominate a new director of the CIA after the abrupt resignation of David Petraeus last week after he admitted to an extramarital affair. His deputy, Michael Morell, became acting director effective immediately and the president could name him director.

Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, who was confirmed just days after Mr. Obama's inauguration in 2009, has also indicated that he would like to step down. White House spokesperson Jay Carney said last week that Geithner will serve through the president's second inauguration. "I don't have a specific day he'll depart," Carney told reporters.

Erskine Bowles, former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton and co-chair of Mr. Obama's now defunct Commission on Fiscal Responsibility is reportedly a possible replacement. Mr. Obama's current chief of staff and former director of the Office of Management and Budget, Jack Lew, has also been mentioned.

Other cabinet and top officials who have indicated they might not stay through a second term include Attorney General Eric Holder and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. The current Commerce Secretary, Rebecca Blank, was named acting secretary in June after John Bryson resigned following a hit-and-run car accident in California due to a seizure.This is her second bout as acting Commerce secretary and could very well be replaced with a Senate-confirmed appointee.

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