What Now? Choosing Your Cabinet

December 12, 2008

You have designed and staffed your White House, so you can now effectively move on to choosing your cabinet members and other key officials. You will need to consider the diversity, political and talent requirements that go into making these choices, including whether you want to reach out to the opposition party. Where are the best pools of talent available to you? What lessons can you learn from the failures of other presidents? And what must be done to get your nominees confirmed by the Senate? These are the questions to which I now turn.

##1##Talent Hunt
Now comes the moment when you must find the people to head the fifteen departments and the major agencies of the federal government.

Look at what you are asking executives to manage: the smallest department (in terms of budget) is Commerce, which will be authorized to spend nearly $9 billion a year during your presidency; the largest, Health and Human Services, will have budget authority of more than $765 billion. You have only a four-year contract, once renewable, so you will want leaders who can get things done in a hurry. Yet the Congress— from which your departments receive their money—also has ideas about how the departments should be run, as has the civil service, which can wait out the appointed officials. Meanwhile, the media are poised to enjoy any false step.

Almost everyone you ask to serve is making a lot more money than the $191,300 salary a cabinet officer gets. Yet you will usually get the people you want for the “inner cabinet”—State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice. Beyond that, it can be difficult: President Reagan was turned down by six of his first choices—five for “outer cabinet” jobs. President Nixon endured four rejections (Kissinger says there was a fifth). If your choices turn you down, don’t twist arms: those who say no usually have a good reason for not taking the job, even if it may not sound like a good reason to you.

As you proceed with your talent hunt, powerful groups will take a keen interest in which way you appear to be leaning. When it became known that President-elect Carter was weighing the merits of Harold Brown or James Schlesinger for secretary of defense, there was a sudden campaign for Paul Warnke. Its purpose was to position Brown, who had been deputy secretary of defense in the Johnson administration, as a moderate compromise between the liberal Warnke and conservative Schlesinger, who had held the secretary of defense position under Presidents Nixon and Ford. Washington games such as this can provide you with hints of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses.

Here are five suggestions on where to look for the kinds of officials who have been productive in the past.


University and College Presidents
The job of university president closely resembles that of running a government department. As with cabinet officers, these administrators have more responsibility than authority. (You might find a way of asking them and other candidates for your cabinet, “What have you accomplished without formal authority?”) They have learned how to deal with ambiguity, which corporate executives often find disquieting. They have also learned to deal with competing constituencies (trustees, faculty, students, administrators, alumni, the local community, and, in the case of public institutions, legislative bodies).

All incoming presidents since Eisenhower have picked at least one governor (Kennedy and Nixon each picked three), but hardly ever for the inner cabinet. Western governors have been popular choices for interior secretary. The record of governors as cabinet secretaries is a mixed bag: Orville Freeman of Minnesota, secretary of agriculture for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, and Richard Riley of South Carolina, Clinton’s secretary of education, were outstanding. Another South Carolina governor, James Edwards, barely lasted a year as Reagan’s secretary of energy; and Nixon had to fire Alaskan Walter Hickel, another western governor at interior.

Members of Congress
Watch out for members of Congress: management is rarely their forte. Although some may have had business experience before arriving in Washington, law is more likely their occupation. Their skill is in lobbying former colleagues (defense secretaries Mel Laird and Dick Cheney were notably effective in this manner). If you go with legislators, be sure to pair them with talented managers as their deputies. You will be much better off if you select the deputies yourself—as long as the cabinet officials feel they can live with your choices. This creates a sort of “double veto” system.

The size of government agencies might suggest that the natural choices for these executive positions reside in corporate America. The answer is yes and no, depending on factors such as whether the executives have spent their entire careers in one company (not good prospects), whether their type of company has extensive contact with or regulation by the government (useful prospects), and whether their résumés also show substantial community involvement, such as being a school board chair (very good prospects).

The safest place to look for good cabinet officials is among those who have already been good cabinet officials—the repeaters. There are people in both parties, as well as others who have served under presidents of both parties, who have already proved their worth. Take a look at a résumé like that of the late Elliot Richardson, the only person who ever held four cabinet-level positions: secretary of health, education, and welfare; secretary of defense; attorney general; and secretary of commerce. And for good measure, he had also been under secretary of state. Richardson was not an expert in welfare policy or commerce; his expertise was in running large government departments. You cannot go wrong with people like Richardson.