Democrats don't love the former Nebraska senator because he's a Republican. Republicans don't think he's a real Republican. And his past statements have at times angered two key Obama constituencies: Jewish groups and gay-rights activists.
But inside the White House, the choice makes sense. It appeals to Obama's bipartisan spirit -- and the optics aren't bad, either -- to have any Republican as Defense secretary when Obama is seeking to end the war in Afghanistan and dramatically reduce the Pentagon's budget. Hagel brings even more credibility to the task because he's a decorated Vietnam veteran and would be the first from that war to lead the Pentagon.
Hagel also has long-standing relationships with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden dating to their time in the Senate, and he's a particularly close friend of Biden's.
Defense isn't the first high-level post the White House has discussed with Hagel: An individual who speaks regularly with Hagel said the White House has spoken with him about becoming Commerce secretary and CIA director, among other jobs. During Obama's first term, Hagel has been in regular contact with the White House on foreign policy issues as co-chairman of Obama's Intelligence Advisory Board and a member of outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's Defense Policy Board.
And the White House thinks he will win confirmation.
There's still no evidence that any Democratic senators will vote against an Obama-nominated Hagel, and tradition holds that senators get an easy ride when up for Cabinet posts. Despite the vocal objections of a few GOP senators, only three have explicitly said they will vote against Hagel.
Hagel cost himself capital among Republicans for bucking party orthodoxy, but the White House is prepared for a fight over the GOP's past foreign policy positions.
"If at the end of the day these guys are frustrated that he had the courage to buck his party on the Iraq War, that's going to be a tough case to make to the American people," White House spokesman Tommy Vietor said.
Longtime Obama confidant and political adviser David Axelrod tweeted Sunday night that "Attacks on Hagel r bogus. He's tough, courageous, sensible & able to withstand political pressure to do what's right for USA. What we need!"
Mike Buttry, Hagel's former chief of staff, previewed how Hagel might defend himself against criticism by GOP senators during the confirmation process. Buttry said Hagel is "not blind" to the opposition to his nomination.
"He always just did what he thought was right. He always was trying to do what he thought was the right thing and never gave much thought into how it might be received," Buttry told POLITICO Sunday. "He's thinking about, 'What do I have to do to do this job the best way I can do it?'"
Both Obama and Biden have traveled to war zones with Hagel -- Obama during his summer 2008 Iraq and Afghanistan trips as the Democratic presidential nominee. But Hagel's relationship with Biden runs much deeper and is more personal, a result of their 12-year bond from serving together in the Senate, including on the Foreign Relations Committee, Buttry said.
"They're just friends, they're very close," Buttry said of Hagel and Biden. "They've traveled together, their families get along. There's just a closeness there. They've worked on legislation together. It's like any kind of friendship, they're just two guys who clicked together."
For the White House, the political dynamics surrounding the Hagel nomination are different than those for Susan Rice, another longtime friend of Obama who removed herself from consideration for secretary of state in December, she said, to spare the president. She was concerned Republican anger over her role in the Benghazi attacks would distract from his second-term agenda.
"It was clear from early on that many in Congress, especially Republicans, were going to make a witch hunt and an example out of Susan Rice," a person close to Obama said. "I think that the Rice case was obviously a case where it would seemingly have been an insurmountable challenge."
White House officials said Hagel has a clearer path toward confirmation. Still, a major fight over Hagel could lead to many of the same distractions Rice sought to avoid -- tripping up other major items on the president's agenda, including immigration, the economy and now gun control.
Obama has made the calculation that the long-term benefits are worth the immediate battle.
The White House believes Hagel's Senate record will overcome trouble about controversial statements Hagel has made, such as his 2006 reference to a "Jewish lobby." Talking points dated Dec. 19 -- written and being circulated in Washington by Hagel allies -- say he has "an unbroken record of substantive support for Israel."
Axelrod wrote Sunday that "supporters of Israel, of which I am one, also make a huge mistake by depicting Hagel as hostile. No such evidence in his record."
Democrats also are counting on a bipartisan tradition with regard to foreign policy. Obama's New START agreement, which reduced the number of nuclear missile launchers in the United States and Russia, won 71 votes during the 2010 lame duck session.
A Democratic official who believes Hagel will be confirmed stressed that once he is formally nominated, the Nebraskan will have enthusiastic support from veterans organizations. Hagel would be the first defense secretary who served as an enlisted man -- an idea that will be popular with the troops, the official said, and Hagel's defenders are sure to emphasize that he earned two Purple Hearts and still carries shrapnel in his chest.
That record, Obama's allies say, gives Hagel credibility as a leader who can cut Pentagon spending and bring home American troops from overseas.
"This is a challenging time in the world, and there are going to be tough cuts that need to be made," said Jen Psaki, Obama's campaign spokeswoman. "One of the tasks of the next secretary of defense is to see that through, and clearly Mr. Hagel is somebody who has been through it. He's been there on the front lines, he's been there in prominent positions in Congress on the Foreign Relations Committee, and he has the reputation of having the balance needed for this job."
White House officials said they are not concerned that Hagel's 1998 comments about James Hormel, an openly gay nominee to be President Bill Clinton's U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, will trouble Hagel's confirmation, given his recent apology for them. Human Rights Campaign President Chad Griffin said last month that he accepted Hagel's words of regret.
Vietor said Sunday that Hagel is not alone in having changed his position on gay issues.
"I think that a lot of people have had their views evolve on LGBT issues over the last 20 years," Vietor said. "At the time he made those comments, you had a Democratic president sign 'don't ask, don't tell' and [the Defense of Marriage Act] into law."
On Capitol Hill, both Democrats and Republicans questioned the Hagel strategy, asking why Obama would go to the wall for a Republican but allow momentum against Rice to build past the point of no return.
"It is a strange signal for the White House to send that they are willing to fight for Hagel but not Rice," one Senate Democratic aide said. "Democrats are not currently unified behind Hagel, and it will take some real work by the administration to get them there, if it's even possible."
Senior Republicans said there is no natural base for Hagel despite his years in the Senate.
"I can't imagine why [Obama] would choose to burn his political capital on this nomination. For what? There is no constituency for Chuck Hagel," one senior GOP aide said. "Obama will expend every ounce of political capital he has to get him across the finish line. Dems will hate this."
Allies of Obama and Hagel said Sunday that only a few GOP senators -- John Cornyn and Ted Cruz of Texas and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma -- have committed to voting against Hagel's confirmation, though Lindsey Graham of South Carolina also expressed strong reservations.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky pledged a "fair hearing" for Hagel, passing on opportunities to denounce his nomination or his past statements about Israel.
"I think he ought to be given a fair hearing like any other nominee, and he will be," McConnell said on ABC's "This Week.""I'm going to wait and see how the hearings go and whether Chuck's views square with the job he would be nominated to do."
Axelrod's Sunday posts on Twitter reminded McConnell of his own past comments.
"McConnell was right a few years [ago] when he called Hagel 'a great statesmen,'" Axelrod wrote.
Mike Allen, Scott Wong and Manu Raju contributed to this report.
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