Is President Obama’s Cabinet a “Team of Rivals”—or Just a Bunch of Figureheads?


My biggest knock on President Obama has always been the voices he surrounded himself with. As an inexperienced executive, he needed the “right” input and all he got instead was discord and too many chefs destroying the kitchen. Time to “hope” and “change” for a new cabinet.

Todd Purdum does a great job breaking down the President’s Cabinet and why it’s killed his presidency.


A Team of Mascots

 Todd S. Purdum

Originally posted on

Just four years ago, when it was clear that he would be the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama famously declared that, if elected, he would want “a team of rivals” in his Cabinet, telling Joe Klein, of Timemagazine, “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me. I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.” His inspiration was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book about Abraham Lincoln, who appointed three men who had been his chief competitors for the presidency in 1860—and who held him, at that point, in varying degrees of contempt—to help him keep the Union together during the Civil War. To say that things haven’t worked out that way for Obama is the mildest understatement. “No! God, no!” one former senior Obama adviser told me when I asked if the president had lived up to this goal.

There’s nothing sacred about the team-of-rivals idea—for one thing, it depends on who the rivals were. Obama does have one former rival, Hillary Clinton, in his Cabinet, and another, Joe Biden, is vice president. Mitt Romney would have fewer options. Can anyone really imagine Romney making Rick Santorum his secretary of health and human services, or Herman Cain his commerce secretary, or Newt Gingrich the administrator of nasa? Well, maybe the last, if only so Romney could have the satisfaction of sending the former Speaker—bang! zoom!—to the moon! For the record, Gingrich has said he’d be unlikely to accept any position in a Romney administration, and Romney himself has given almost no real hints about whom he might appoint. In light of his propensity to bow to prevailing political pressures, his Cabinet might well be, as he described himself, “severely conservative.”

But the way presidents use their Cabinets says a lot about their style of governing. Richard Nixon created a deliberately weak Cabinet (he ignored his secretary of state William Rogers to the point of humiliation, in favor of his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger), and he rewarded their loyalty by demanding all their resignations on the morning after his landslide re-election, in 1972. John F. Kennedy, having won a whisker-close election against Nixon, in 1960, wanted Republicans such as Douglas Dillon at Treasury and Robert McNamara at Defense to lend an air of bipartisan authority and competence. George W. Bush had a very powerful Cabinet, especially in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, and Condoleezza Rice, if only to compensate for his pronounced lack of experience in foreign policy and military affairs.

Obama’s own approach falls somewhere in the middle. 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. The good news, administration veterans tell me, is that Obama’s Cabinet is remarkably free of internal bickering and infighting, even if the White House keeps Cabinet secretaries on a shorter leash than Bill Clinton did….

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