Where Obama Should Find Cabinet Members

November 6, 2008

The last senator to go directly from Capitol Hill to the White House, John F. Kennedy, exclaimed, “People, people, people. I don’t know any people; I only know voters.” The president-elect was worrying about how to fill the top jobs in his administration, according to transition expert Dick Neustadt, who was there with him in Palm Beach, Fla.

President-elect Barack Obama, your problem is more complicated. You have twice as many jobs to fill as Kennedy did. And when choosing your departmental secretaries and filling other Cabinet-level positions, you must factor in diversity as well as political and managerial talent. Kennedy’s Cabinet was all male and all white.

Here are some suggestions that may guide you to the deepest pools of talent.

Know what you’re asking

Look at what you are asking executives to manage: In terms of budget, the smallest department 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 Congress — from which your departments receive their money — also has ideas about how the departments should be run, as does 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.

Know where to look

So which candidates tend to succeed?

  • University and college presidents. A university president’s job closely resembles that of running a government department. As with Cabinet officers, these administrators have more responsibility than 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).
  • Governors. All incoming presidents since Eisenhower have picked at least one governor (Kennedy and Nixon each picked three) — but rarely for the inner Cabinet. Western governors have been popular choices for interior secretary. The overall record 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.
  • Business leaders. The size of government agencies might suggest that the natural choices for these executive positions reside in corporate America. That depends on factors such as whether the executives have spent their entire career 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 chairman (very good prospects).
  • Government hands. The safest place to look for good Cabinet officials is among those who have already succeeded — the repeaters. People in both parties, some who have served under presidents of both parties, have already proved their worth. Look for résumés 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.

Mr. Obama, good luck with the talent hunt. The Congress, the media and the public will judge you today on the wisdom of your choices. History will judge you on the results.