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Why The Cabinet Doesn't Matter

Tuesday, December 02, 2008
Raise your hands if you've watched the show West Wing. Good. Now I ask you - how many cabinet officials from that program can you name? None, right? The only times they appear is when the White House staff is pushing them around. I may not be an expert on the executive branch, but I do know that in any administration the best indicator of a person's influence is their proximity to the President (or Prime Minister, or Decider, or whatever). That would be the White House staff, wouldn't it?

Cabinet positions are ones of great prestige but very contingent power, and they don't tend to last very long. Some Secretaries have been quite influential, particularly the ones who are permitted to appoint their own under-, deputy-, and assistant- secretaries, but that influence is entirely dependent on the will of the chief executive. Most of them don't matter much at all when it comes to policy-making. If I could choose between being White House Chief of Staff and Secretary of State, I wouldn't hesitate for a moment.

The political press has to know that White House staff appointments are like 10,000% more important than cabinet appointments, but you'd never know that from following the news. There's been a lot of heartburn in the liberal blogosphere over the centrist credentials of Obama's cabinet picks, but there is a better than equal chance that those selections are "look at the funny monkey" politics - Obama is sending signals to Washington that he's a moderate while anesthetizing his opposition. Obama's White House picks paint a very different picture, with the mix of liberal and moderate (and even a couple of conservative) voices you'd expect from a president-elect who clearly likes internal debate.

None of this is to say that Obama won't end up pursuing incremental, middle-of-the-road policies. He very well may, although I think he'd be foolish to do so. But he's just as likely to do what he's been saying he would, that is go for dramatic structural changes in the face of dramatic structural problems. The fact is that we just don't know. In the end, Cabinet and staff selections aren't going to give us very much information about Obama's intentions. We're going to have to wait and see, while applying as much external pressure as we can so he moves in the right (that is, left) direction.

My suspicion is that Obama going to reveal as little as possible about his moves until he makes them, while trying to get everybody else to tip their hand first. He is a poker player, after all.

Having said all this, I still think the Congress should take the lead on domestic policy and force Obama to react to them. I know that sounds crazy, but I swear I read something along those lines in the Constitution.
Posted by Arbitrista @ 8:54 AM
  • I think we should go with "Decider." It's sounds so official.

    By Blogger Anastasia, at 1:35 PM  
  • loving this post. And I fondly watch West Wing most mornings on Bravo

    By Blogger Weezy, at 8:24 AM  
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