Can Joe Biden make the Cabinet great again? The influence of this marquee group of presidential advisers has been shrinking for generations compared to the power of White House staffers, but it may be time to flip the script. The tools are there to re-empower these key leaders and draw lessons from overseas to keep secretaries from their usual fate: powerless and grouchy. Today’s Daily Dose looks at what’s next.
Daniel Malloy, Senior Editor
new cabinet ideas
1. Power Up
Should Cabinet members have more power, making them governing partners with the president? Raymond Smith of the Progressive Policy Institute argues for this shared burden of the presidency, proposing that Cabinet members act as presidential proxies and work more directly with Congress on drafting laws. Journalist John Dickerson has similar thoughts, but for it to work, he says, the public will have to change its approach to where the buck stops. If a president gets blamed for every Cabinet screwup, as Dickerson writes in The Atlantic, “he’s liable to do as [Jimmy] Carter did and try to make every decision himself — an impossible task.”
2. New Posts
Expanding the Cabinet can elevate key priorities, and interest groups know this well — as they’re already putting the heat on Biden. The student gun control group March for Our Lives wants a Cabinet post dedicated to gun reform. The NAACP is pushing for a secretary for racial justice, equity and advancement. What about a secretary of the arts? Since our political-government scene has become such a joyless slog, perhaps it’s time to dedicate a Cabinet post to something more inspirational. Federal funding for the arts has plunged, but arts spending was one of the tools in the arsenal in FDR’s New Deal — and could be a creative way to juice an economy in need of recovery.
3. Global Models
What other departments around the world are worth emulating? The United Arab Emirates recently created a minister of happiness position, with the goal of promoting “social good and satisfaction.” On the flip side, the U.K. has a minister of loneliness to tackle the scourge of social isolation … though the position has had a lot of turnover and accomplished little. The Indian state of Madhya Pradesh has the world’s first “cow cabinet,” pulling six departments into one for the “conservation and welfare of cows.” GEIPAN, a part of the French space ministry, is tasked with tracking UFOs. And then there’s the world’s best tell-it-like-it-is Cabinet agency name: North Korea’s Propaganda and Agitation Department.
4. The Obama Model
Most of Biden’s Cabinet picks thus far have been drawn from the Obama administration, with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack resuming his old job. But the open question is whether the Cabinet secretaries will feel just as useless under Biden as they did under Obama. With power centralized in the White House, even junior West Wing aides lorded over Cabinet secretaries (Hillary Clinton being a notable exception), with one ex-Cabinet secretary telling Politico in 2013: “We are completely marginalized … until the shit hits the fan.”
5. Is a Cabinet Necessary?
Could it be eliminated? The Cabinet is not in the Constitution. Article II merely states that the president may require written reports from “the principal officer in each of the executive departments.” But George Washington created the Cabinet of close advisers by elevating Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, who famously squared off in rap battles over policy. But its advisory powers to the president have waned over the centuries, with an expanding White House staff in the 20th century taking over the role the Cabinet used to play, leaving secretaries often feeling underutilized. Bill Clinton–era Labor Secretary Robert Reich’s book about his tenure was called Locked in the Cabinet.
The Cabinet now features 15 formal posts, plus nine “Cabinet level” positions such as U.N. ambassador, CIA director and Biden’s newly created “special envoy for climate.” Eliminating entire departments has long been the policy of Republicans, such as former energy secretary (and onetime presidential candidate) Rick Perry, but there’s bipartisan interest in reshuffling the Cabinet deck. The left, for example, would love to eliminate the Department of Homeland Security, the post-9/11 agency that under Trump was used to quell riots in Portland, Oregon, and separate families at the Mexican border. But ...
7. Expansion Is the Rule
There have been efforts to reorganize the executive branch by Presidents Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama and Donald Trump. Trump even proposed merging the departments of Education and Labor. But these efforts have largely failed due to internal opposition: Once created, a government agency will fight to preserve itself. Even the archconservative Heritage Foundation’s blueprint to shrink the federal government doesn’t get rid of any Cabinet agencies (they go after programs, since that’s where the money is). Under Biden, we’re far more likely to see a new department than one killed off.
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During her tenure from 1969–74, Prime Minister Golda Meir started the practice of calling her closest advisers to her home the evening before a Cabinet meeting. Those meetings were the real power center. Meir, Israel's first — and so far only — female PM, would serve Turkish coffee and cake she made herself, refusing help. As news of the “kitchen cabinet” leaked, others demanded inclusion, but Meir said her kitchen could hold only so many. Bibi Netanyahu and Ariel Sharon continued the practice (though they aren't known to have served homemade cake).
The State Council, headed by the country’s premier (currently Li Keqiang) is the country’s official Cabinet. It formally oversees the 26 ministries, from China’s central bank to defense and beyond. But the real decisions are made by the standing committee of the Politburo, headed by the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party, who since the early 1990s has also been the country’s president. Currently, that’s Xi Jinping, who in 2018 gave himself the power to effectively rule for life.
Between 2004 and 2014, when Manmohan Singh was prime minister, the real power was wielded by Sonia Gandhi — the chairperson of the ruling Congress party who didn't take the top job herself because of criticism from the right-wing opposition over her Italian lineage. Gandhi set up a body called the National Advisory Council consisting of center-left experts — economists, educators, retired bureaucrats — who drafted many of the social welfare laws that the country introduced in that period, and were the effective power source.
4. The U.S.
Presidents have long relied on informal advice outside of traditional power structures, but Andrew Jackson’s “kitchen cabinet” invented the art form. The group was a mix of Cabinet secretaries, friends, even a newspaper editor — Francis Preston Blair, who lived in Blair House across the street from the White House, and whose Washington Globe served as a propaganda sheet for Jackson’s Democratic Party. The group grew to become highly influential as Jackson’s Cabinet was beset by infighting to the point of being essentially nonfunctional. The arrangement in some ways was a forerunner of today’s White House staff overriding the Cabinets.
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biden’s next moves
1. Attorney General
Late Friday, word emerged that Biden was considering New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo for AG, but it strikes us as the kind of thing Cuomo would leak to make himself look good. A real contender: Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general under Obama who became a martyr on the left after being fired by Donald Trump for declining to defend his travel ban in court. But our pick? Former Alabama Sen. Doug Jones, who has known Biden since the 1970s and would bring political acumen to the insanely difficult tasks of figuring out whether to prosecute both Trump and Hunter Biden.
This office, which took an active role in Trump’s trade war with China, would seem a potential home for Biden to place a Republican, a practice that screams Traditional Washington and thus will probably happen. So a lot of eyes are on Meg Whitman, the former Hewlett-Packard CEO who also ran the failed streaming service Quibi. Whitman ran for governor of California as a Republican in 2010 and endorsed Biden this year. But there’s also talk about Andrew Yang, the Democratic presidential primary hopeful, who this summer said on The Carlos Watson Show that he was in talks with Team Biden about a key administration role. This looks like his spot.
The polarizing Betsy DeVos spent all four Trump years in this post, and Biden’s pick here will be closely scrutinized for their approach to charter schools and for-profit colleges, as well as positioning on whether Biden should cancel student debt. The top two speculated picks are both closely tied to labor: Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers, and Lily Eskelsen García, former president of the National Education Association. García appears to have the inside track: It doesn’t hurt that Jill Biden is a longtime NEA member.
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Trump’s four years have seen a remarkable pace of naming conservative judges to the courts, tapping almost one-quarter of all current federal jurists — and one-third of the Supreme Court. This rapid pace was aided by Senate Republicans’ blockade of nominees in Obama’s final years, leaving Trump a bounty of openings. At the moment, there are 56 federal judiciary vacancies, including three coveted appeals court slots. But there are 33 nominees pending, including two of the appeals judges, and you can bet Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will be plowing through judges right up until the final bell. That will leave little room for Biden to maneuver if McConnell remains in control by the GOP winning at least one of the two Georgia runoffs. Looking for a wild card to join the judicial ranks? How about Anita Hill, the professor who accused Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing, and has a fraught history with Biden.
With Amy Coney Barrett replacing the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the most heated speculation turns to how much longer liberal Justice Stephen Breyer, 82, will stick around. (Among conservatives, Thomas, 72, and Samuel Alito, 70, are the oldest.) Biden has promised to nominate a Black woman to the role, with the leading contenders seen as federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson in Washington, D.C., and California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger. But Stacey Abrams’ name has also been thrown around as an outside-the-box pick. And even if Democrats take the Senate, don’t expect Biden to expand the number of justices on the court: The president-elect is punting on the idea, and West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin is against the idea.
There are two openings on the Federal Reserve Board, and the Senate will likely fill at least one by year’s end. (Trump’s controversial choice of Judy Shelton has hit a roadblock.) If Biden does have a pick, keep an eye on Raphael Bostic, the Atlanta Fed chief who is the first openly gay Black regional Fed leader. Biden has until 2022 to decide whether to keep or ditch Jerome Powell as Fed chairman. And early signs point to an extension for Powell, given his good past relationship with Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen.
4. FBI Director
What happens if Trump fires Chris Wray? Biden would reportedly keep the FBI director on, as his term does not technically expire until 2027, but if Trump dismisses Wray because of dissatisfaction over his handling of political investigations, it allows Biden to appoint whomever he wants. The best-placed contender would be David Bowdich, the agency’s current deputy director — and a New Mexico native who’s kept a low profile in contrast to his predecessor, Andrew McCabe, who was heavily involved in the investigation into the Trump campaign’s Russia ties.
This appointment is not Biden’s to make, but rather Gov. Gavin Newsom’s — and he’s in a pickle. The departure of Kamala Harris gives Newsom incredible power to name a replacement who would not face an election until 2022. Interest groups are pressing him to appoint California’s first Latino senator, which would make sense for a state where Latinos form a plurality of the population, at 39 percent. But Harris is the only Black woman in the Senate, and this powerful constituency is not keen on losing its foothold: Congresswoman and vice presidential short-lister Karen Bass is now openly pushing her own candidacy for the post.