Cabinet Officers and Public Policy

The gang at Reason is concerned about the appointment of Eric Holder as the Attorney General, with both Dave Weigel and Jacob Sullum noting that he’s been a big advocate of harsher penalties for drug offenders, including marijuana users.  Sullum’s right that the choice is “strikingly at odds not only with Obama’s signals regarding marijuana but with his opposition to long sentences for nonviolent drug offenders.”

That said, Holder, like all cabinet officers, serves at the pleasure of the president and is there to carry out his policies.  If Obama decides to de-emphasize drug enforcement — and here’s betting he won’t; he strikes me as a guy who’s not going to expend political capital on that sort of thing, at least in a first term — then Holder will de-emphasize drug enforcement.  If, on the other hand, Holder escalates the war on drugs, its’ because Obama thinks that’s the right call politically.

Cabinet officers are powerful and the Attorney General is one of the most powerful cabinet officers.  But it’s because of day-to-day decisions that fall below the president’s radar.  On the big issues, blame the Big Guy.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Dave Schuler says:

    I think the influence of cabinet officers is probably a little stronger than that, James. White House staffs are notoriously unable to walk and chew gum at the same time. While the president and his immediate, day to day advisors are looking one way the whole big federal bureaucracy may be looking another.

  2. James Joyner says:

    I think that’s largely right, Dave. My point is that on the truly high profile stuff — and drug policy qualifies — the president sets the agenda. On the day-to-day stuff, though, it’s set by appointees and even mid-level bureaucrats.