Does A President’s Cabinet Even Matter Anymore?

The President's Cabinet is less a Team Of Rivals and more a Team Of Managers.

Todd Purdum has an interesting piece in the upcoming issue of Vanity Fair in which he argues that, at least under President Obama, the President’s cabinet has become more of a “Team Of Mascots” than the “Team Of Rivals” that the President said he was building when he won the election forty three months ago:

 With a few prominent exceptions—Gates, whom he held over at the Pentagon, to broad acclaim; Clinton, who has become a highly effective secretary of state; Timothy Geithner, who left the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to become the influential Treasury secretary and part of the president’s inner circle (but also a lightning rod for criticism that the administration is too deferential to Wall Street); and Leon Panetta, an old Washington hand who first ran the C.I.A. and is now secretary of defense—Obama has surrounded himself mostly with a team of loyalists. They range from the very competent (Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security) to the perennially controversial (Eric Holder at Justice) to the underwhelmingly anonymous (could anyone but a union leader pick Labor Secretary Hilda Solis out of a lineup?). In the main, Obama relates to his Cabinet the way he relates to the rest of the world. “He’s a total introvert,” the former adviser told me. “He doesn’t need people.” So it hardly matters that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, is widely seen as quietly capable; she was not front and center in Obama’s public push for health-care reform, a topic that another former senior administration aide now calls the Lord Voldemort of policy questions, the issue that must not be named. Arne Duncan gets high enough marks as education secretary (and is a friend and basketball teammate of the president’s), but his profile is comparatively low. As executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in the cabinet of Governor Roy Romer, 20 years ago, Ken Salazar played a key political advisory role; he plays no comparable role as interior secretary today. None of the domestic Cabinet officers are reliable regulars on the Sunday talk-show circuit (nor were they in the second Bush administration). The administration prefers to offer up senior White House aides, over whom it has tighter control, and who may actually know more about the president’s real agenda. Obama’s Cabinet secretary, Christopher Lu, has been known to say that it’s his job to tell Cabinet members they can’t do things, one former colleague recalls, adding that there is a feeling in the White House that people in the Cabinet “are creating headaches for the president,” whether it’s Lisa Jackson promulgating a new rule at E.P.A. or Ray LaHood floating the idea of a mileage-based tax to pay for highway projects at Transportation or Eric Holder filing a reply brief—never mind the reality that it is the job of the E.P.A. administrator to promulgate rules, and of the attorney general to involve himself in court proceedings.

As Purdum goes on to note, the role of the President’s Cabinet has changed significantly from those days when Washington held forth with Jefferson and Hamilton, when Lincoln used his “Team Of Rivals” as a means of keeping political forces in check as he desperately tried to reunite a nation that had come apart at the seams, or when Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet worked together during the Great Depression and World War II. Once World War II gave way to the Cold War, though, the relevance of the Cabinet as a team of advisers to the President declined significantly. Today, President’s rely far more upon their political advisers for advice in this regard, or indeed on whatever informal “kitchen cabinet” that may have formed around them even before they entered office. Especially when you’re talking about Departments like Labor, Commerce, Energy, and Health And Human Services, Cabinet Secretaries today are more managers of one of the many divisions of the Executive Branch than they are front line advisers to the President.

There are, to be sure, exceptions. As Purdum notes in the excerpt above, President Obama maintains close ties with the heads of the “core” Cabinet Departments — State, Treasury, and Defense — which also happen to be three of the four original Cabinet Departments. This has been true of all recent Presidents and is likely to remain the case for the foreseeable future. The reasons for this are completely understandable, though. The economy, diplomacy, and military affairs constitute the three most important areas of Presidential concern, indeed the ones in which the Presidency has the most discretion and power. It makes sense that any President would maintain close ties to the heads of these departments, and that the people he appoints to them would be the ones most scrutinized for qualifications and fitness for office. Even in these policy areas, though, it’s worth noting that the President has other advisers that he can consult with that are often more powerful than their Cabinet equivalents. In addition to the President’s political advisers, on the economy he can consult the head of the Council of Economic Advisers. In the areas of diplomacy and defense, there’s the National Security Adviser (indeed there have often been conflicts between the Presidents NSA and his or her counterparts at State and Defense). Attorneys General have also enjoyed historically close relationships with the White House, but that has changed significantly since Watergate and President’s tend to rely on the Office Of White House Counsel for legal advice today. But, how often, really, does a President need to meet with the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, or the Secretary of Veterans Affairs? Surely, if there’s a major policy initiative or a crisis that concerns their area of responsibility, they will be involved. For the most part, though, contact with these officials will be through the President’s staff, especially the Chief of Staff and his or her Deputies. Add into this mix the fact that cabinet meetings are by no means common events, and it’s really quite understandable why President Reagan might not have recognized his Secretary of Housing and Urban Development as the two passed each other in a White House hallway after a meeting a of big city Mayors.

There is, of course, a danger in this relatively recent phenomenon of President’s becoming more and more reliant on personal staff while keeping Cabinet Secretaries out of the loop. Unlike members of the White House Staff and the President’s personal advisers, Cabinet Secretaries must be confirmed by the Senate and are subject to Congressional oversight. The ability of Congress to bring members of the President’s staff in to testify before a Committee are far more constrained thanks to the bounds of Executive Privilege and the principles of Separation Of Powers. To the extent the President relies more and more on these advisers, it enables him to shield his decision making processes from Congressional review, and that’s not a good thing. Unfortunately, the modern Cabinet has evolved into what it has become, and it’s unlikely to change any time soon.

H/T: Andrew Sullivan

FILED UNDER: Political Theory, The Presidency, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Racehorse says:

    I have always thought that the Kennedy cabinet was one of the best: these were bright leaders who guided this country in dangerous times.
    Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson
    Secretary of State Dean Rusk (1961–1963)
    Secretary of the Treasury C. Douglas Dillon (1961–1963)
    Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara (1961–1963)
    Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy (1961–1963)
    Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall (1961–1963)
    Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman (1961–1963)
    Secretary of Commerce Luther H. Hodges (1961–1963)
    Secretary of Labor Arthur Goldberg (1961–1962) ·W. Willard Wirtz (1962–1963)
    Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare Abraham A. Ribicoff (1961–1962)
    I would also include General Maxwell Taylor in this group as he was the military advisor.
    Real statesmen!

  2. As Purdum notes in the article, Kennedy selected a somewhat bipartisan cabinet largely because of how close the 1960 election was.

    How that turned out is another question. Remember, Robert McNamara (along with JFK) was one of the people that set us down the road toward the Vietnam war.

  3. Racehorse says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I don’t know if there are any good books that cover the various cabinets and compare them. I would also say that the Lincoln cabinet is probably the most interesting.

  4. Racehorse,

    The Kerns-Goodwin book on Lincoln’s cabinet is good, although I do think it has been overhyped and that DKG’s own insights as a historian are somewhat dubious, especially when it comes to her inherently and inevitably biased opinions about Lyndon Johnson

  5. Dave Schuler says:

    The present cabinet secretaries aren’t suited by training, experience, or temperament to manage their departments. I don’t think that “mascots” quite covers it. I think they’re well-suited to act as advocates for their various departments and that’s what they’re doing.

  6. @Dave Schuler:

    “Team Of Lobbyists” then?

  7. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Speaking of Obama’s cabinet, can you fathom where we’d be without Panetta? Yikes.

    In any case, obviously the cabinet as a whole matters a great deal, especially the big four heads of State, Defense, Justice and the Treasury. DHS also is quite critical and is not a place for a cement head. The NSA needs to be a lot like Condi Rice and as far away as possible from Sandy Berger. With Energy you need something other than a loopy sort. Same for HHS. The rest? Meh. Not too critical. Do we really care who runs Interior or Agriculture? Hell, I’d want to cut most of those lesser departments in half. I’d put a mannequin in charge of Labor. No, seriously, I’d actually put a mannequin in charge of DOL. That’s how much that department would be worth to me. HUD would get an empty chair. Commerce would get a paperweight. Education (I know, oxymoronic) would get a CD of Pink Floyd’s “The Wall.”

  8. Blue Shark says:

    Do they Matter?

    …Only if you are interested in getting things done right.

    …Look no further than “Heck-of-a-job-Brownie”, Alberto Gonzales, and Rumsfeld among others to see what no talent hacks in top political positions do for you.

  9. Tillman says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Didn’t we just have a post on OTB about businesses complaining to Republicans about defunding information agencies like the Bureau of Labor Statistics, an agency of the Department of Labor?

  10. legion says:

    While the article points out how Obama appears to run things, calling it a “trend” of any sort just doesn’t make sense. GWB’s White House ran largely without any influence from the President at all… Nobody was ever going to tell Rumsfeld anything about how to do his job (even when he was clearly f*cking up by the numbers)… Ditto for Powell and Ashcroft. Rice and Gonzales always seemed (at least to me) to function more as personal advisors to Bush than Cabinet Secretaries. And everything else of any importance went through Cheney before Bush ever touched it. The rest was all left to incompetent/corrupt sinecures like Brownie, Tom Ridge, Whitman, etc.

  11. WR says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: Yes, we need another NSA like Condi Rice. She kept America safe and secure. Except for missing the entire 9/11 thing, even when the entire national security apparatus was screaming about an upcoming plot.

    Next up: New head of the secret service — Lee Harvey Oswald.

  12. al-Ameda says:

    It’s a completely different environment now, it’s non-stop 24/7 scrutiny of government actions, policies, pronouncements, and add to that the noise of partisan media outlets and you now have cabinet members drawn into the political fray with regularity.

    Since Clinton’s presidency I’ve often wondered why many of the cabinet members even WANTED those jobs. For example, Leon Panetta is a very competent and capable politician/administrator and is well-respected by sane people of both parties – even so, why he wants to be in the current meat grinder is beyond me.

  13. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    I find it interesting that you identify the three core federal government responsibilities as where the President and his Secretaries seem to have closer ties but fail to see that the difference with the other departments might reflect a natural consequence of the evolution of government as micromanagement writ large. Beyond the three close ties people, how many of the other “Cabinet Officials” actually have real jobs that could not be distributed back to the Congress and the States?

  14. superdestroyer says:

    Most Departments are really ran by the senior SES that were there before the political appointees arrived and will be there after they are gone.

    Why can a political appointee that will be in a position for a year or two really capable of doing. The budgets are already set, policy takes longer than two years. About all a political appointee can do is try to reorganized the wiring diagram and give smaller order on businesses processes.