Tag Archives: Cabinet

The Transition Race

One of the truly distinctive features of American politics is the massive turnover of top officials following the inauguration of a new president. In no other advanced democracy is the personnel turnover associated with a transition of executive power as extensive.

Given the domestic, international, and economic challenges the country faces, the need for a quick and orderly transition is more imperative than in any time since perhaps 1932. But back then the federal government was smaller and the appointments process was far less contentious and politicized compared to now.

Given how crucial and challenging President Obama’s transition will be, I thought it might be interesting to track how quickly he fills key positions compared with his predecessor. To construct a rough gauge, I have collected information on the confirmation dates of department secretaries, deputy secretaries, and under secretaries (and the Justice Department equivalents) for the Obama and George W. Bush administrations. I’ve narrowed the list to positions that both presidents had to fill (thus ignoring positions that were created or eliminated between 2001 and 2009). This leaves me with a list of 64 positions. Obviously, this list has some limitations. First, it omits the White House staff. This is necessitated by the fact that each president organizes the White House in different ways so that I could not make position by position comparisons. Second, there are important positions in the departments that have titles other than deputy or undersecretary. Nevertheless, comparison across presidents for positions on the list is useful.

In aggregate, the record for Obama is slightly better. By February 20, 2001, Bush had filled 15 of the 64 positions by obtain Senate confirmation or keeping the incumbent from the Clinton administration (one undersecretary of Agriculture). Over the same period, President Obama had filled 17 of the positions. But the aggregate number is a little misleading, Obama filled three of the positions in the Department of Defense with Bush holdovers (Secretary Gates and two undersecretaries). And of course, Obama still has three cabinet openings. Health and Human Services and Commerce lack nominees, and Hilda Solis will not be confirmed at Labor until next week at the earliest. Conversely, Bush had his cabinet secretaries in place by January 29, 2001.

It probably is too early for any definitive assessment. During Bush’s first term, the bulk of the positions on my list were filled in May (24 of 64). So I’ll continue to track this and report back as interesting patterns emerge.

Progressives in the Cabinet

David Lewis offers a very insightful response to my post on the composition of Obama’s cabinet. So insightful, in fact, that I want to re-post and respond here rather than the comments section.

One thing to remember here is that there arguably aren’t that many progressives with resumes to easily qualify them for a top spot after 8 years of Bush and 8 years of Clinton. I suspect where you will initially see lots of progressives, if at all, will be in the White House and in the sub-cabinet. The appointments of the science advisor and the NOAA head yesterday were both progressives. You bring them in, you credential them, and then you elevate them later.

Another thing to consider here is that most of the people who have been pre-vetted are Clinton people who tended to be more moderate.

  • The point about the pipeline is good one, but not entirely persuasive since Obama went heavily to the legislative and gubernatorial wells and overwhelmingly chose moderates. There are certainly progressives in the academic and think tank worlds who are sufficiently credentialed.

  • One of the striking things about Obama’s appointments is that each time he appointed a progressive he tended to balance him/her with a moderate. Stephen Chu gets Energy, but Ken Salazar gets Interior. Hilda Solis gets Labor, but free-trading Ron Kirk will be the U.S. Trade Representative. But moderates aren’t balanced off. Where is the Joe Stiglitz to the Larry Summers?

  • I agree that there may be more progessives in the sub-cabinet. Clearly, the strategy of the Bush adminstration was to get movement conservatives into sub-cabinet positions and then coordinate them from the White House. But I question whether, Obama could pursue a similar strategy. After all, such high profile picks are not likely to be so keen to have appointments dictated to them from the White House.

  • I also agree that climate and the environment is one area where the new adminstration appears the most willing to push to the left.

Let me just conclude by saying that I think Obama’s cabinet is one incredibly impressive group of individuals. My only doubt is whether his “Dream Team” can function in such a way that most effectively pursues his agenda.

The Cabinet

That Obama is set to nominate so many former legislators to his Cabinet and senior White House staff provides a rare opportunity for comparing the ideological make-up of the new administration to that of Congress.

With the nomination of Hilda Solis to be Labor Secretary and Ray LaHood to be Transportation Secretary, there will be six former House and Senate members in the cabinet (including Clinton, Daschle, Salazar, and Richardson). Throw in Obama himself, Joe Biden, and Rahm Emanuel, we have a pretty good sample of former legislators to compare to the current composition House and Senate Democratic caucuses.

To gauge the differences between the administration and Congressional democrats, I use Keith Poole’s “common space” measurement of conservatism. This measure is an adjustment of DW-NOMINATE scores designed to facilitate comparison of the House and Senate. Each legislator is given a single conservatism score for her entire career ranging from around -1 (very liberal) to 1 (very conservative). One drawback is that these scores are only available up through the 109th Congress (2005-2006). So I can only compare the cabinet to the Democratic caucuses of that term. Another is that Bill Richardson’s score more than a decade old (but the rest continued to serve through the 110th Congress).

The following table list the conservatism scores for the administration as well as the House and Senate leaders and the medians of the caucuses.

Pelosi -.455
Solis -.451
Clinton -.359
Obama -.343
House Democratic Median -.329
Biden -.326
Emanuel -.323
Senate Democratic Median -.316
Daschle -.278
Richardson -.255
Reid -.251
Salazar -.220
LaHood .265

The evidence is pretty strong that the administration lies considerably to the right of the Democrats in the House, but is reasonably representative of Senate Democrats. But only Solis comes from the most liberal wing of the party. The center of the party is well represented in powerful positions by the president, vice-president, secretary of state, and WH chief of staff while the lower cabinet is filled with more moderate Democrats and a Republican. No wonder Nancy Pelosi is worried about being triangulated.

Of course, maybe the table is misleading because it only includes cabinet-designates who served in Congress. Maybe liberals and progressives are better represented in the other positions. Doubtful. Gates is a Republican. Teachers unions were disappointed with Duncan. Geitner is a Robert Rubin/Larry Summers protégé. Napolitano and Vilsack are red state governors. Shinseki is a hero to the left, but probably not of the left. Donovan appears to be a centrist who worked in both the Clinton and Bloomberg administrations. Holder is a corporate lawyer. So think I that leaves Stephen Chu as the only remaining cabinet member with views consonant with the progressive wing of the Democratic party.

There has been a fair amount of grumbling just below the surface about how poorly progressives have fared. Rick Warren’s invitation didn’t help matters. It will be interesting to see how long Obama can keep the lid on it before it boils over.

Politicians in the Cabinet

With the announcement that Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, will be nominated to be Secretary of Agriculture and that Colorado Senator Ken Salazar will be nominated to be Secretary of the Interior, six of the fifteen cabinet departments are likely be headed by individuals who have reached the top rungs of electoral politics by serving either as governor or senator (the others in this category are, of course, Hillary Clinton, Tom Daschle, Janet Napolitano, and Bill Richardson). This seemed like a large number to me, so I thought it would be worthwhile to compare to recent presidents. For comparability purposes, I’ll focus only on the first appointments to each position.

George Bush’s initial cabinet had only three former governors or senators — John Ashcroft (Gov & Sen, MO), Tommy Thompson (Gov, WI), and Spencer Abraham (Sen, MI) — in the 14 departments that existed when he came to office. Former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge was added when Homeland Security was created.

Bill Clinton also appointed three high-flying politicians to his cabinet — Lloyd Bentsen (Sen, TX), Richard Riley (Gov, SC), Bruce Babbitt (Gov-AZ) — while George H.W. Bush held over Dick Thornburgh (Gov, PA) from the end of the Reagan administration but didn’t appoint any of his own. Ronald Reagan appointed Richard Schweiker (Sen-PA) and James Edwards (Gov-SC) to head departments he didn’t care much for (HHS and Energy).

So six is a big number. Moreover, big-name politicians will be running many of the departments that will be crucial in developing and implementing President Obama’s agenda and may determine the success of his presidency (e.g. State, Health and Human Services, Homeland Security).

So what are the pros and cons of so many politicians in the cabinet? One argument in favor is that cabinet appointments are useful for building and maintaining coalitions and avoiding party factionalism. This may explain the Clinton appointment, but it is not so obvious that this can account for the others most of whom supported Obama in the primaries. It is also curious as to why avoiding party factionalism is so much more important to Obama than it was for the other presidents of the past 30 years. The second benefit is that senators and governors bring strong ties to Congress and the states. Legislative relations will be obviously important to Obama as he tries to ensure that the “most liberal Congress in history” does not get too far out in front of him. Harmony with the states will be crucial on health care, the environment, and a host of other issues.

But politicians in the cabinet create problems as well. Unlike the career civil servant who ascends to the position or the Washington newcomer, former senators and governors have power bases and networks that are independent of the White House. So it will be considerably harder for the administration to control and manage what happens in the agencies. Second, senators and governors are usually generalists without deep expertise about the policy jurisdiction or culture of the departments that they are to lead. Such a lack of expertise may lead to policy failures or to capture by careerists or both. My former colleague David Lewis has produced ample evidence that careerists do a much better job running sub-cabinet agencies than do political appointees. It would be troubling indeed if his findings were to apply to cabinet departments as well.