To understand what’s at stake in this election, think of it this way: Depending on the results, Ben Bernanke could be forced to turn over the podium at the Federal Reserve to Glenn Hubbard, the conservative economic advisor to Mitt Romney’s two presidential campaigns.
The State Department could be led either by the Democrats’ 2004 presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry \(D-Mass.\), or former World Bank president Robert Zoellick.
In a phrase: Elections matter.
Here’s a cheat sheet of which names are mentioned most often as getting three of the most important jobs that will also be up for grabs on Nov. 6, alongside that other big job, commander in chief.
If President Barack Obama wins, many in Washington think Kerry pushed himself to the head of the list with a well-received speech at this summer’s Democratic National Convention.
“For Mitt Romney, an overseas trip is what you call it when you trip all over yourself overseas,” Kerry said in his remarks. “You know, it wasn’t a goodwill mission…it was a blooper reel.”
While Kerry has been almost openly campaigning for the job — typically a Washington no-no — his biggest rival for the post, U.S. Representative to the U.N. Susan Rice, may have suffered irreparable harm in her handling on national television of the attacks on U.S. personnel in Libya.
Rice has gotten most of the blame for the administration's shifting account of just what led to the death of the U.S. ambassador there, and coming just over a month before the election, the political damage has been done at a bad time for her. (Read More: Kudlow: Ambassador Susan Rice Must Resign.)
If Romney wins, Foggy Bottom could see former World Bank President Robert Zoellick take charge. But Romney aides will want to scrutinize his views on China — as Deputy Secretary of State under George W. Bush, Zoellick said that he wanted that nation to become a "responsible stakeholder in world affairs."
Portraying China as a potential future partner of the United States, Zoellick said, “China would be more than just a member — it would work with us to sustain the international system that has enabled its success.”
Are comments like those too dovish for a Romney team that has made being tough on China a central theme of its campaign?
Also in the running is Richard Haas, an ultimate Washington insider who heads the Council on Foreign Relations. A question for vetters of Haas will be whether time working for Colin Powell will be seen as a positive or a negative under a President Romney.
If Obama wins, Ben Bernanke stays for the foreseeable future — pushing any decision to replace him deep into a second term. \(Read More: Bernanke Pushes Back: Fed Not Enabling Big Deficits.\)
Romney has promised to replace Bernanke, but many Washington insiders expect that would not take place until the end of 2013 when Bernanke’s current term expires. There’s always the possibility that Romney could ask for Bernanke’s resignation early, but it’s not clear that a president has the authority to fire a Fed chief — remember that the Federal Reserve is not a cabinet position.
In either case, Romney economic advisor and Columbia Business School dean Glenn Hubbard is viewed as having the inside track here. But also mentioned is Stanford professor John B. Taylor, who served in the Treasury Department under Bush.
At Treasury, Romney’s likely picks are the aforementioned Hubbard and Zoellick.
Also in the mix could be Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), who was on the shortlist for Romney’s vice presidential running mate. Portman was ultimately seen as too boring for the vice presidency — but those same character traits could be seen as steady sobriety as Treasury secretary.
Plus, Portman’s experience as Bush’s director of Office of Management and Budget would be solid experience for a treasury chief whose first task will be wrangling with the fiscal cliff and America’s swelling national deficit. (Read More: Corporate America Sweats as US Nears 'Fiscal Cliff.')
A reelected Barack Obama would need to move quickly to replace outgoing Secretary Tim Geithner, who began Obama’s first term as one of the most politically vulnerable figures in the administration but came to be so valued that Obama rebuffed his earlier requests to be allowed to resign.
Washington wise-persons say current White House Chief of Staff Jack Lew, who previously served at the Office of Management and Budget, has the inside track because of his relationship with the president and his suspected ease of Senate confirmation.
But another candidate often mentioned is former Clinton Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, whose deficit reduction plan with former GOP Sen. Alan Simpson has become the main jumping off point for Washington schemes to deal with the looming fiscal cliff.
Obama didn’t embrace Simpson-Bowles when the report came out — but if he picks Bowles for Treasury, it’s a sign he’s ready to deal. (Read More: How US Can Avert Fiscal Cliff: 'We've Got Some Hope'—Bowles.)
There’s one wild card for Treasury under Obama — billionaire Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, whose early career stint as Treasury chief of staff during the Clinton Administration make some think she could be a logical pick to preside over Hamilton Place.
This week, Sandberg gave a classic non-denial denial to CNBC’s Julia Boorstin when asked about the prospects of a Washington job. (Read More: Where Facebook Is Looking to Grow: COO Sheryl Sandberg.)
“I’m really love my job at Facebook,” Sandberg said. “I mean, I really think we’re doing something that’s super important, right? Nine hundred and fifty million people, largest community anywhere in the world. I love what I’m doing, and I plan to keep doing it.”
That’s what she said — but that’s what they all say.
—By CNBC's Eamon Javers