Has anyone seen the secretary of defense? Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Has anyone seen the secretary of defense? Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

The big four in the cabinet look more like the big three with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel being nearly invisible.

Hagel, the former Republican Senator from Nebraska, who won confirmation after a bitter battle a year ago, has kept a surprisingly low profile in what is usually a high-visibility job. Along with the secretaries of state and Treasury and the attorney general, Hagel's is considered the most prominent cabinet post.

Hagel attended the Munich Security Conference in Germany earlier this month, but participants say he took a backseat to Secretary of State John Kerry. That isn’t the first time this has occurred.

On the major foreign policy issues, such as Afghanistan, Iran and Syria, Hagel doesn't appear to have a major voice. The Vietnam veteran is personally popular with much of the military but is often seen as lacking clout within President Barack Obama's administration.

Hagel inherited an exceedingly difficult hand -- budget sequestration, the winding-down of wars and sexual assault controversies would be messy for any Pentagon chief. On Capitol Hill, he hasn’t fully recovered from a brutal confirmation process where even critics say he was unfairly maligned. And when the Pentagon's budget is released this month, the unavoidable cuts are likely to produce new outcries.

Hagel's visibility in Washington, other than at required or perfunctory events, remains minimal. He was supposed to go to the high-powered Alfalfa Dinner on Jan. 25 but cancelled.

(Albert R. Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.)

To contact the writer of this article: Al Hunt at ahunt1@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Alex Bruns at abruns@bloomberg.net.