A Reading Guide on Obama’s Latest Appointments

Earlier this week, we detailed how President Obama has lagged his predecessors in making appointments. As we've noted, that's been a result of Republican resistance and also the challenge of filling many, many open slots. (Here are five obscure commissions Obama must fill.)

But as Obama continues into his second term, he's moved to fill a number of higher-profile positions: Chuck Hagel and Jack Lew were confirmed last week, and Obama announced three more cabinet-ranking nominations on Monday.

Here's our guide to some of the people that could be Obama's new right-hand men and women, and some of the best stories about them.

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Department of State: Secretary John Kerry

Status: confirmed

Biggest tasks: Most pressing for the new Secretary of State is negotiating with Iran and North Korea, and navigating the U.S.'s role in the escalating crisis in Syria.

Environmentalists are also hopeful that Kerry, a climate change advocate, might slow what seems like the current fast-track to presidential approval of the Keystone XL pipeline.

So far, Kerry has freed $250 million in aid to Egypt, agreed to provide $60 million in nonlethal assistance to the Syrian opposition, and cleared once and for all that basketball player Dennis Rodman is not a U.S. diplomat.

Background: Kerry's nomination was pretty uncontroversial in the Senate: Only three senators voted against him. He sailed to nomination after Republican senators struck down Obama's first pick: U.N. ambassador Susan Rice. Kerry is a military veteran, former head of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and even the child of a U.S. foreign service officer. Check out the New York Times magazine's 2011 profile that shadows Kerry's trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Department of the Treasury: Secretary Jacob (Jack) Lew

Status: confirmed

Biggest task: According to the Wall Street Journal, overhauling the corporate and individual tax codes are at the top of his to-do list. He'll be in the middle of the ongoing budget battle, advising on how to cut the cost of entitlement programs. International economic issues, like setting a market-based exchange rate with China, are also a priority.

Background: Lew has faced questions about his high-ranking positions at Citigroup, where he worked just before the bank was bailed out with $45 billion in taxpayer money. He was also under scrutiny for his unusually high compensation at New York University. He earned more than almost every university president (including NYU's) for his post as a VP of Operations, and received a $685,000 bonus when he left the post for Citigroup.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Department of Defense: Secretary Chuck Hagel

Status: confirmed

Biggest task: Hagel's immediate job will be navigating the $46 billion in sequester cuts to the Department of Defense, roughly nine percent of the Pentagon's budget. He'll also oversee the U.S. drawdown of the war in Afghanistan.

Background: On the right, senators led by Lindsey Graham said Hagel wasn't supportive enough of Israel, pointing to his previous use of the term "Jewish lobby" (which he later disavowed). Conservatives also feared he wouldn't be willing to take a hard stand against Iran or North Korea, after voting against unilateral sanctions in the past.

Every Democratic senator voted for Hagel's confirmation, despite his staunchly conservative record on issues like the Iraq War and the Patriot Act. He drew some ire from LGBT activists on both sides of the aisle for questioning in 1998 whether an "openly, aggressively gay" nominee should serve as a U.S. ambassador (Hagel later apologized for the remark).

Cliff Owen/AP Photo

Department of the Interior: Sally Jewell

Status: nominated

Biggest task: Jewell would oversee both conservation efforts and the development of federal land for energy production.

Background: Jewell's a D.C. outsider, never having served in government. Previously, she was the chief executive of the outdoor equipment company R.E.I.

Republican senators have said they're wary of her environmental advocacy, specifically her position as a board member for the National Parks Conservation Association. Jewell has said she supports Obama's "all of the above" approach to energy production.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Department of Energy: Ernest Moniz

Status: nominated

Biggest task: Moniz enters office at a time of escalating debate on the safety and environmental impact of fracking. It will also be his job to oversee Obama's "all of the above" energy policy, which includes renewable energy and increasing oil production.

Background: Moniz worked as a nuclear physicist and director of the Energy Initiative at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Environmental groups say the program received considerable funding from oil and gas companies. They're also unhappy with his support for fracking.

Charles Dharapak/AP Photo

Department of Commerce: Penny Pritzker

Status: potential nominee

Biggest task: The Commerce Department include a surprising a bit of a hodgepodge of US agencies, from the Bureau of the Census to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. There's been multiple proposals to abolish it — some more legitimate than others. The head of the Department also oversees all things trade.

Background: Hyatt Hotel heiress Pritzker served as Obama's chief fundraiser in his first election. In response to nomination rumors in 2008, Pritzker stated she would not put herself up for consideration.

Though she cited family obligations, many suspected a series of family financial scandals would make her confirmation difficult in the midst of an economic crisis. The Pritzker family, worth an estimated $15 billion, has been sued by the IRS for their holdings in overseas tax shelters. Some have also cast skepticism on their owning the now-collapsed Superior Bank, a mortgage bank that issued the kind of subprime loans feuling the foreclosure crisis.

Pritzker and her family have also been main targets of organized labor. The Hyatt chain is fighting a "Hyatt Hurts" boycott campaign that deems them "the worst hotel employer in America." Pritzker has also been a vocal advocate and funder of the charter school movement, leading the Chicago Teachers Union to protest Pritzkeroutside the Hyatt on Chicago's Michigan Avenue.

Secretary of the Departments of Labor and Transportation are also newly vacated. Multiple rumors remain about who Obama will nominate for both positions. Ed Montgomery has been said to be among top picks for labor secretary. For transportation, many have pointed to Deborah Hersman as a potential nominee.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Central Intelligence Agency: John Brennan

Status: confirmed

Biggest task: Brennan will take over the CIA's drone program and must navigate a potential fight over a classified Senate study that is critical of the the agency's use of torture during the Bush years.

Background: A 25-year CIA veteran, Brennan held positions at the agency including station chief in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the 1990s. After he advised Obama on intelligence during the 2008 campaign, his potential candidacy to lead the CIA drew intense opposition from human rights groups because of Brennan's role at the agency during the Bush administration. He withdrew his name from consideration the CIA job and Obama instead named Brennan the top counterterrorism adviser in the White House.

Brennan's nomination drew a 12-hour talking filibuster from Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., who demanded the administration answer whether drones could be used against U.S. citizens on American soil. Paul ultimately elicited a qualified "no" from the administration and Brennan was confirmed on a 63-34 vote.

During his confirmation hearing before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Brennan made two promises that are likely to come up during his tenure at the CIA. Asked about what the U.S. should do when drones killing civilians, Brennan said, "We need to acknowledge it publicly." He seemed to qualify that statement, adding that such acknowledgements would be "the ideal" and "the objective of the program." The U.S. has not previously acknowledged civilian deaths from specific drone strikes.

Brennan also pledged that he would take "under serious consideration" a request to declassify the Senate's report on CIA interrogation and detention. The agency recently missed a Feb. 15 deadline to respond to the Senate's report.

Justin Elliott contributed to this story.

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