The US Cabinet

The cabinet is not mentioned in the Constitution. The Founders created a unitary executive — no councils or cabinets. However, the Constitution does state in Article II that the president: may require the opinion in writing of the principal officer in each of the executive departments upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.

The Cabinet includes the vice president and the heads of 15 executive departments, as well as cabinet-level officials such as the Chief of Staff and the Head of the Office of Management and Budget. Cabinet members can play an important role in helping the president to make and execute policy. Individual members of Cabinet can act as key policy advisers with senior cabinet positions such as the Secretaries of State and Treasury often having a major impact on policy. They can form part of a president's inner circle alongside other key advisers.

As a collective group the Cabinet has very limited power, however, with a limited number of meetings taking place each year. Its main influence lies with key individuals in the Cabinet. Under the Obama presidency, John Kerry as Secretary of State took a central role in developing foreign policy alongside the president. He worked on the Israeli-Palestine peace accords, having visited 11 times in just over a year in 2013/14 as well as taking a key role on approaches to Syria. The Cabinet has no constitutional status that would allow it to control policy and it cannot claim any kind of national mandate with a right to govern. As such the president has the final say on executive policy, with Cabinet members serving at the president's pleasure. Presidents may sideline individual members and seek advice and support from elsewhere. Often, advisers from EXOP (discussed below) who are closest to the president are the most influential figures. Much depends on the individual president, however. While Cabinet members have a great deal of authority, it is the president who can determine who to work with most closely.

The vice president's main power lies with their ability to influence presidential thinking. The last three Vice Presidents — Pence, Biden and Cheney — have all been seen as influential members of the president's inner circle. Biden said that he was 'the last guy in the room', suggesting a closeness to the president that others did not have. In addition, he was used to draft gun legislation, an issue that Obama felt strongly about. Like the cabinet and its members the vice president has no guarantee of political influence. There is no constitutional requirement for a president to listen. Arguably the most significant constitutional role of the vice president is to be next in line to the president. 'A heart beat away' from power.

'The words in the constitution which describe what the president can require from the heads of the executive departments show how little was expected-

Article II Section II

he may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any Subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices,'

■ First, the word ‘may’ is suggests that whether or not the president takes any advice or assistance is up to him.

■ Second, the president may require ‘opinions’ — they are there to provide advice not ‘decisions’

■ Third, he may require these opinions ‘in writing’. No cabinet meeting is expected. .

■ Finally, there is the restriction as to what these ‘opinions in writing’ may be about: not ‘upon any subject’, but rather ‘upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices’. In other words, the secretary of the treasury will offer opinions only on Treasury matters ; the secretary of state only on State Department matters. Again this suggests the founders did not imagine cabinet style decision making. This is very different from UK politics and. There is no concept of Collective Responsibility

Why, then, do presidents have a cabinet? In 1789, President Washington thought it would be helpful to have a meeting with the secretaries of War, the Treasury and State, plus the attorney general. The press called them ‘cabinet meetings’. Every president since then has had a cabinet and held cabinet meetings. According to presidential scholar Richard Fenno (1959), the cabinet is ‘institutionalised by usage alone’. In other words, it is used because it is used.

The US cabinet is 'Less than the sum of its parts!' i.e. more significant as individuals than a group.

It is also important to differentiate between the cabinet as individuals and the cabinet as a group. Failure to see these two different uses of the term can lead to misunderstandings. The answer to the question ‘Was President Obama’ s cabinet important?’ is impossible to answer until we have established in which sense the term is being used. As individuals, cabinet members were important: some, like first-term Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, were very important. On the other hand, cabinet meetings were hardly ever held, so, as a group, the cabinet was unimportant.

Pools of recruitment A new president needs to recruit a completely new cabinet. In a presidential system such as in the USA, there is no ‘shadow cabinet’ waiting to take office. Furthermore, in a ‘separated’ system, in which members of the legislature cannot at the same time serve in the executive, the president must cast his net more widely for potential cabinet members. There are four major pools of recruitment.

Congress. The president may try to recruit from Congress, but asking serving members of Congress to give up their seats to join the cabinet — where both prestige and job security are often in short supply — is usually a hard sell. It is therefore more likely that presidents will try to recruit retiring or former members of Congress. That said, Donald Trump persuaded three incumbent members of Congress — Senator Jeff Sessions and representatives Tom Price and Ryan Zinke — to join his cabinet in 2017.

Serving or former state governors. These are another pool of cabinet recruitment, and as such people have executive experience, they are usually much better suited to running a large federal bureaucracy than are former legislators. Two former governors joined the Trump cabinet in 2017 — Sonny Perdue of Georgia as secretary of agriculture, and Rick Perry of Texas as secretary of energy.

Big city mayors. City mayors bring executive experience. Obama’ s second-term cabinet included two former mayors — Anthony Foxx of Charlotte, North Carolina, as secretary of transportation, and Julian Castro of San Antonio, Texas, as secretary of housing and urban development.

■ Academia. America’ s top universities are another potential pool of recruitment for the president’ s cabinet. Steven Chu, appointed by President Obama as secretary of energy in 2009, was professor of physics at the University of California. When he departed in 2013, another physics professor, Ernest Moniz of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), replaced him. What the president is really looking for in cabinet officers is policy specialists.

In 2017, Trump appointed a retired Marine Corps General, John Kelly, as secretary of homeland security ; a former partner at investment bank Goldman Sachs, Steven Mnuchin, as secretary of the treasury ; and a former state attorney general, Jeff Sessions, to head up the Department of Justice — all policy specialists. However, one was left wondering what retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson knew about housing as he was appointed to head up the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD).

All the cabinet appointments are subject to confirmation by a simple majority vote in the Senate. It is highly unusual for the Senate to reject the president’ s nominees. The last time this occurred was in 1989 when the Senate rejected President George H. W. Bush’ s nomination of John Tower as secretary of defense. However, in February 2017, Vice President Mike Pence had to cast a 51st vote in order to break a 50 – 50 tie when the Senate voted to confirm Betsy DeVos as secretary of education — the first time this had occurred. Fifty Republicans had voted yes, but two had joined the 46 Democrats and two independents in voting no — hence the tie. A week later, Trump’ s nominee to be secretary of labor, Andrew Puzder, withdrew his name from consideration after it became clear that he lacked the necessary votes to be confirmed.

A Cabinet that 'looks like America' (Bill Clinton)

Presidents like to have a balanced cabinet — balanced in terms of gender, race, region, age and political ideology.

■ Gender. This is now an important factor in appointing cabinet members. Gone are the days when Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan could appoint allmale cabinets. In 2001, George W. Bush appointed three women as heads of executive departments. For Obama in 2009, that number increased to four, but the total was back to just two for the incoming Trump cabinet in 2017.

Race. Race is an equally important factor in cabinet appointments. Once Lyndon Johnson had appointed the first African-American to the cabinet in 1966, there were expectations that the president’ s cabinet would no longer be all white. In 2001, Bush’ s incoming cabinet included five members who were from ethnic minorities, at the time the most ethnically diverse cabinet ever appointed. Furthermore, Bush filled top-tier departments with people from ethnic minorities — Colin Powell as secretary of state in the first term and Condoleezza Rice in the second term. Barack Obama’ s 2009 cabinet included six members of ethnic minorities, such as Eric Holder at the department of justice. But Trump’ s 2017 cabinet had the ‘white male’ look about it with just three heads of departments being members of ethnic minorities — African-American Ben Carson at HUD, Asian-American Elaine Chao at Transportation and Hispanic Alexander Acosta at Labor. Chapter 4 The presidency Region. By appointing cabinet members from different regions of the country, presidents can reinforce a picture that they intend to govern for the whole country, not just segments of it where their support was strongest. That said, the president’ s home state and region tend to fare well in cabinet appointments.

Age. As a rule of thumb, the average age of the cabinet usually reflects the age of the president. The youngest ever cabinet was appointed by the youngest elected president — John F. Kennedy. Their average age was just 47. However, this rule was broken when George W. Bush appointed one of the oldest cabinets in modern times. Its average age was 58. The average age of Obama’ s first cabinet was also surprisingly old — at just over 55. But neither Bush nor Obama could match the ‘senior’ look of the first Trump cabinet with an average age of 63. Indeed, only four members were under 60 upon taking office, with three in their 70s — Jeff Sessions (70), Sonny Perdue (70) and Wilbur Ross (79). At least it matched Trump — the oldest person to be first elected president.

Ideology. Finally, whether it is a Democratic or Republican administration, the president will want to have the different ideological wings of their party represented: liberal Democrats, conservative Democrats and New Democrats ; conservative Republicans, moderate Republicans and Tea Party Republicans. It is also not unusual for a president to pick someone from the other party. In his second term, Democrat President Obama appointed former Republican senator Chuck Hagel as his secretary of defense. In 2017, President Trump appointed one of his predecessor’ s number twos at the Department of Veterans’ Affairs, David Shulkin, to be its new boss.

What role does the Cabinet fulfill?

Shared sense of purpose. The ability of cabinet meetings to create a shared direction and sense of purpose is particularly important at the beginning of an administration. Cabinets are not bound together by a shred ideology or mandate. Thet have not campaigned together. Many of the president’ s cabinet officers will be complete strangers to him. Cabinet meetings can help to weld them into his team to move forward his agenda.

Collegiality. It is important for presidents to appear collegial and consultative, especially since President Nixon. The Nixon administration was notorious for its lack of openness. A political novel written of the era was famously titled Washington: Behind Closed Doors. Cartoonists drew Nixon’ s Oval Office with guards outside dressed in Prussian-style military uniforms, holding ‘no entry’ signs. Cabinet meetings with a media photo opportunity either before or after the meeting are a good way for the president to send reassuring signals that he is running an open administration. To this extent, cabinet meetings can be a public relations exercise and an opportunity for the president to make some comments that will receive coverage in the media.

Exchanging information. Cabinet meetings provide opportunities for both information giving and information gathering. The president can make statements at a cabinet meeting knowing that every member has heard them, and he can go round the table asking cabinet officers what is going on in their departments. President Carter’ s cabinet meetings usually took the form of the president going clockwise — the next time, anticlockwise — round the cabinet table, asking each member to give a brief report on current departmental issues and activity. Cabinet meetings can be an efficient method by which the president keeps in touch with what is going on in the vast federal bureaucracy.

Policy debate. Some presidents have liked to use cabinet meetings as a forum in which to debate policy. Reagan’ s defense secretary, Frank Carlucci, remembered that ‘cabinet meetings were often vigorous, such as the one on the pros and cons of building the Russian oil pipeline — it was quite a shouting match’. Michael Jackson, a senior member of President George H. W. Bush’ s Office of Cabinet Affairs who attended meetings as an observer, stated: At the meeting prior to the Malta summit [with Soviet president Gorbachev in December 1989], the President engaged the cabinet in a very significant discussion of foreign policy. It allowed the President to broaden his consultations.

■ Presenting ‘big picture items’. At cabinet meetings the president can present so-called big picture items that affect all cabinet officers: the budget ; up-coming elections ; a major legislative initiative or foreign trip. For example, President Obama used his cabinet meeting on 30 September 2013 to discuss the likely implications of the upcoming partial shutdown of the federal government.

■ Monitoring Congress. Some presidents have used cabinet meetings to check up on legislation going through Congress in which they have a particular interest. Willard Wirtz, labor secretary to President Johnson, stated: If the Congress was in session, and you knew there was a cabinet meeting coming up in a day or two, you tried to make sure that there was some progress to report to the President. He knew the system so well. He could often embarrass you. Johnson would often pressurise you into making sure things moved quicker. President George W. Bush used his 24 September 2002 cabinet meeting to push for congressional action on three key issues: authorisation for military action against Iraq ; the passage of the Homeland Security Bill ; and the budget. On 3 February 2015 President Obama used a cabinet meeting to discuss his policy agenda in Congress for that year.

■ Prompting action. Presidents can use cabinet meetings to goad cabinet members into action. By July 2014, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel had — it appeared to President Obama — been dragging his feet over the release of prisoners from Guantánamo Bay. After the cabinet meeting on 1 July Obama confronted Hagel, seated in the chair next to him around the table. ‘I don’ t think you’ re moving fast enough, Chuck,’ said Obama. The President then instructed White House chief of staff Denis McDonough to ‘get together with [Hagel] and fix this’.

■ Personal contact. Finally, cabinet meetings provide an opportunity for the president to see cabinet members whom he would not otherwise be likely to see. Whereas the ‘first-tier’ cabinet officers — such as the secretary of state and the secretary of defense — are likely to have fairly frequent meetings with the president, this will not be the case for such ‘second-tier’ cabinet officers as the secretary of veterans’ affairs and the secretary of agriculture. Again, whereas the Treasury Department is only half a block from the White House, other departments are situated in far-flung parts of downtown Washington. There is no obvious reason for the president to see many cabinet officers except at a cabinet meeting. The president might even forget who is in the cabinet. HUD Secretary Sam Pierce never lived down the story of when President Reagan spotted him one day at a White House reception for visiting city mayors and mistook Pierce for a visitor: ‘How are you, Mr Mayor?’ asked the President of his housing secretary. ‘How are things in your city?’

In many ways attending cabinet meeting is more significant for the members of the cabinet.

■ Getting to know each other. Cabinet meetings provide initial get-to-know -you opportunities. Not only will the president not know many of the cabinet officers ; they will often not know each other.

■ Resolving disputes. Cabinet meetings can be used to resolve interdepartmental disputes. But this is mostly in theory while Cabinet meetings can serve as a forum for exchanging ideas, resolving interdepartmental disputes and maintaining administrative coherence. In actuality, however, it’s difficult to have a meaningful conversation with so many people in the room. “The Cabinet as a collective advisory body is a nonfactor in the modern presidency,” Richard J. Ellis, a politics professor at Willamette University said. “Cabinet meetings are infrequent, perfunctory and essentially meaningless.” Presidents often take office promising to hold regular Cabinet meetings, but “then they realize they hate them.” President John F. Kennedy, for example, once asked why the postmaster general should “sit there and listen to a discussion of the problems of Laos” whereas President Richard Nixon was even more blunt, telling his national security advisor, “Screw the Cabinet … I’m sick of the whole bunch.”

■ Speaking to cabinet colleagues. Meetings in many organisations are often as useful for what goes on before and after them as for what occurs during them. The same can be true for the president’ s cabinet meetings. They can prove a useful opportunity to speak with other cabinet officers, and as there are precious few other opportunities to run into one’ s cabinet colleagues — unlike in a parliamentary system.

■ Speaking to the president. It may even be possible to catch the president after the meeting, should he linger in the cabinet room. However, such situations can present danger for a president who agrees too readily to what may appear to be an innocent, off-the-cuff request from a cabinet officer. George W. Bush’ s secretary to the cabinet explained how he would be ‘hovering [around the President] at the end of a meeting, not exactly eavesdropping, but at a respectful distance’ to ensure that no cabinet officer took advantage of the President in such an unscheduled moment.

■ Increased status for cabinet officers. Finally, attendance at cabinet meetings gives cabinet officers increased standing back at their departments. They have just heard the president. They know what he wants, today, as opposed to what others might think he wanted, yesterday. President George H. W. Bush’ s agriculture secretary, Clayton Yeutter, summed up a number of these functions this way: [Cabinet meetings] were useful for being informative. You got an insight on the top stories. It was for some just the thrill to have a meeting with the President. The ‘second tier’ cabinet officers don’ t get to see him that often. They would go back to their departments and be able to say: ‘I just came from a cabinet meeting.’

How important is the president’ s cabinet? Individually, its members are very important — they all run large departments and spend large budgets. Some are more important than others. But as Robert Shrum wrote in late 2008: ‘No one in a cabinet outshines the president.’ Collectively, there are five structural reasons why the president’ s cabinet can never be of prime importance.

First, the Constitution grants ‘all executive power’ to the president. Cabinet officers have no executive power vested in them directly. ■ Second, there is no doctrine of collective responsibility. The president is not ‘first among equals’. He is simply ‘first’. As Professor Anthony King put it: ‘He doesn’ t sum up at the end of the meeting ; he is the meeting.’

There is a famous story of President Abraham Lincoln, taking a vote in a cabinet meeting on whether to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. All his cabinet secretaries vote nay, whereupon Lincoln raises his right hand and declares: "The ayes have it!" Thsi may not have happened but it illustrates the fact that the president is not 'Primus Inter Pares' and does not,in any sense, share power with the cabinet.

■ Third, cabinet officers are not the president’ s political rivals. The cabinet is not seen as a stepping stone to the presidency, as Hillary Clinton belatedly discovered in 2016. The last person to step from the cabinet directly to the presidency was Herbert Hoover in 1929. Hoover had served as commerce secretary to presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

■ Fourth, the members of the president’ s cabinet have loyalties other than to the president. Charles Dawes (vice president 1925 – 29) once remarked that members of the cabinet are ‘a president’ s natural enemies’! They also do not work in the White House. Some of them may see the president rarely.

■ One more significant limit to the cabinet’ s importance is the existence, since 1939, of the Executive Office of the President (EXOP). In the EXOP, the cabinet has something of a rival, and a rival with a number of key advantages.


The cabinet is ‘hand picked’ by the president and he can chose anyone. This means they are personally loyal to him-they may even be old friends. This also means they are more expert and experienced than UK cabinets- where the PM is limited to choosing members of Parliament.

Example: Steven Chu –Energy Secretary, has a Nobel Prize in Physics.

Because they are an eclectic group with a great variety of experience and expertise, they are a good ‘sounding board’ where the president can ‘test’ an idea. Obama said he wanted to create a ‘team of rivals’ to give hi brave and critical advice. This helps to prevent the president from becoming isolated (Nixon’s ‘Berlin Wall) Example: Hilary Clinton /Robert Gate who was in Bush’s cabinet as Defence Sec.

Cabinet reshuffles and new appointments can act as a lightening rod and carry away some blame for a failed policy. 2014 Katherine Sibelius resigned as Health Sec after the disastrous role out of Obama Care.

The cabinet is the ‘store front’ of the administration’ and act as the most visible representation of the president’s priorities. Example: Timothy Geithner Treasury Sec was previously president of New York Federal Reserve Bank- a sign that the economy and ‘jobs’ were important.

Clinton said he wanted a cabinet which ‘looked like America. Obama’s cabinet is the most diverse in history. Eric Holder was first black Attorney General. There were eight women in Obama’s first cabinet.

New presidents rely more on their cabinets because of their lack of experience. They also tend to have a domestic policy agenda in their first term. Therefore the cabinet will be needed to oversee an ambitious legislative programme. Obama’s priority was the economy and health.

Most presidents start with the objective of using the cabinet more. Obama was the first president to allow his Vice President to chair full cabinet meetings. This reflects the priority he gave to the recovery.

The cabinet provides an opportunity to give ‘team talks’ and present the ‘big picture’. This will help to counter the tendency for department heads to ‘go native’. The president tries to create a team spirit. This is important since they may not know each other. The president needs to ‘touch base’ with people he may otherwise not see much of.

Less important/useful

Most Cabinet positions are tough, short lived and not particularly prestigious. They may find a resistant department with career civil servants who know the new boss will not be there long. They also won’t see the president much. So it’s can be hard to persuade to CEOs and ambitious young politician to take on the role. E.g Eric Schmidt (Chairman of Google) turned down Obama’s offer of Treasury Secretary

They may be experts and experienced but this can mean they have little in common. Cabinet meetings can seem like an unnecessary distraction from their work in their departments. Unlike UK cabinet there is no doctrine of Collective Responsibility and they are not united by party loyalty or shared ideology.

Paul O’Neill Treasury Sec to GW Bush ‘ Cabinet meeting were ‘like a blind man in a room full of deaf people’ Kennedy described cabinet meetings as ‘boring’

The cabinet is not necessary for conferring legitimacy on a policy or decision. They are not elected and so have no individual mandates.

The president does not sum up the meeting, he is the meeting’ (Prof Anthony King)

Lincoln’s comment at a cabinet meeting ‘seven noes, one aye- the ayes have it’

The president’s main source of advice is the EXOP. They have greater proximity to the president and will provide him with daily advice. This can lead to cabinet secretaries being left out of the ‘loop’ E.g Colin Powell Sec of State and Condoleezza Rice National Security Adviser.

Katherine Sibelious Health Sec and Obama’s ‘Health Tsar’ Nancy-Ann DeParle.

Presidents see their cabinet on average 6 times per year, but they tend to have fewer as their agenda moves to foreign policy and as their legislative success becomes less likely.

Department heads can come to identify with their departments. This is called ‘going native’

This means they can bring problems and complaints to the president rather than ideas on how to fulfil his plans.