As it’s evolved in the American system, a president’s Cabinet comprises secretaries who run their departments as a sort of viceroy for the president, who has overall responsibility for the operations of the Executive branch. Ideally, the president sets the broad policy and the secretaries see that it’s implemented. They also render advice to the president as need on matters within their purview and report to Congress when required.
That’s the theory, at any rate. In practice, the Cabinet has become less important as a body as it’s grown larger (the original Cabinet comprised just five secretaries, six, if one includes Vice-President Adams) and more unwieldy: today there are 22 Cabinet secretaries and Cabinet-level officials. And, as the bureaucracy has grown, president have come to rely more on White House staff to get around bureaucratic inertia and those pesky congressional reporting requirements.
Also, Cabinet secretaries are rarely disinterested technocrats, but power-players in their own right, often representing major factions of the president’s coalition, a practice that goes back to Washington. They can even be the president’s political rivals, brought into government to buy their loyalty — for example, Lincoln’s famous “Team of Rivals.”
The functioning of the Cabinet is news today because, as the Washington Post relates, it isn’t functioning; many members feel ignored and slighted by the White House in the last two years, and the president now has to spend time mending his team of malcontents:
News this week of the first departure of a Cabinet secretary from the Obama administration comes amid a wide-ranging effort under the new chief of staff, William M. Daley, to repair badly frayed relations between the White House and the Cabinet.
During the first two years of President Obama’s term, the administration fully embraced just a few of his superstar picks – people such as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates and Education Secretary Arne Duncan. But many more agency chiefs conducted their business in relative anonymity, sometimes after running afoul of White House officials.
Both sides were deeply disgruntled. Agency heads privately complained that the White House was a “fortress” that was unwilling to accept input and that micromanaged their departments. Senior administration advisers rolled their eyes in staff meetings at the mention of certain Cabinet members, participants said.
Obama himself said his advisers were relying on him too frequently as a messenger, rather than letting his appointees carry important themes to the country, senior administration officials said. And the president felt isolated. “One of the first things he said to me was, ‘I want to see these people more often,’ ” Daley said in an interview.
Cabinet members also registered their grievances with Daley shortly after he arrived in January. “You hear the same thing: ‘I don’t think we’re used well.I don’t think we’re consulted enough,’ ” Daley said. “Whether it’s true or not, perception becomes reality, and I think there’s a desire to feel more part of a team.”
Halfway through one’s term is a heckuva time to start building one’s team.
This isn’t a new problem, of course; other presidents of both parties have sidelined Cabinet members by relying on Executive Office staff. Nixon’s Secretary of State, William Rogers, was often bypassed by the National Security Adviser, Henry Kissinger.
But in Obama’s administration, it’s apparently reached new levels with the centralization of control in the White House through the unprecedented number of appointed (and not subject to Senate confirmation) “czars.” And the White House’s disappointment in several Cabinet officials, such as Interior’s Ken Salazar and Lisa Jackson at the EPA, reflects poor personnel choices. That, and the fact that Obama complains he doesn’t see them often enough, speaks to his own mediocre management skills and apparent passivity. (How hard is it to call up Labor, for example, and arrange a meeting with Secretary Solis?)
Another problem that I see is symbolic of Big Government: the Cabinet is simply too large with too many departments, indicative of a federal government that tries to do too much. The growth of White House staff is a response to the expansion of government departments and their bureaucracies, making the whole structure unwieldy. Rather than appoint a “Cabinet communications director” —yet another “czar”— the White House and Congress should look seriously at eliminating several of the departments*, downgrading others to sub-cabinet level, and leaving a core than can truly advise the president on those matters that genuinely are part of his job.
Yeah, I don’t expect that to happen any time soon, either, especially with the current crowd in charge.
*Starting with Commerce (the Census Office should be a separate agency subject to confirmation), Labor, HUD, Transportation, Education, HHS, and Homeland Security, which was a poor response to the weaknesses revealed by 9/11. Each may have a salvageable function or two (such as providing statistics), but, in general, they’re just money-sinks and corruption-attractors. Get rid of them.
PS. You’re right. It is a slow news day.
(Crossposted at Sister Toldjah)