(Vanity Fair) – Just four years ago, when it was clear that he would be the Democratic presidential nominee, Barack Obama famously declared that, if elected, he would want “a team of rivals” in his Cabinet, telling Joe Klein, of Time magazine, “I don’t want to have people who just agree with me. I want people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zone.” His inspiration was Doris Kearns Goodwin’s best-selling book about Abraham Lincoln, who appointed three men who had been his chief competitors for the presidency in 1860—and who held him, at that point, in varying degrees of contempt—to help him keep the Union together during the Civil War. To say that things haven’t worked out that way for Obama is the mildest understatement. “No! God, no!” one former senior Obama adviser told me when I asked if the president had lived up to this goal. There’s nothing sacred about the team-of-rivals idea—for one thing, it depends on who the rivals were. Obama does have one former rival, Hillary Clinton, in his Cabinet, and another, Joe Biden, is vice president. Mitt Romney would have fewer options. Can anyone really imagine Romney making Rick Santorum his secretary of health and human services, or Herman Cain his commerce secretary, or Newt Gingrich the administrator of nasa? Well, maybe the last, if only so Romney could have the satisfaction of sending the former Speaker—bang! zoom!—to the moon! For the record, Gingrich has said he’d be unlikely to accept any position in a Romney administration, and Romney himself has given almost no real hints about whom he might appoint. In light of his propensity to bow to prevailing political pressures, his Cabinet might well be, as he described himself, “severely conservative.” But the way presidents use their Cabinets says a lot about their style of governing. Richard Nixon created a deliberately weak Cabinet (he ignored his secretary of state William Rogers to the point of humiliation, in favor of his national-security adviser, Henry Kissinger), and he rewarded their loyalty by demanding all their resignations on the morning after his landslide re-election, in 1972. John F. Kennedy, having won a whisker-close election against Nixon, in 1960, wanted Republicans such as Douglas Dillon at Treasury and Robert McNamara at Defense to lend an air of bipartisan authority and competence. George W. Bush had a very powerful Cabinet, especially in the persons of Donald Rumsfeld, Robert Gates, and Condoleezza Rice, if only to compensate for his pronounced lack of experience in foreign policy and military affairs.
Obama’s own approach falls somewhere in the middle. With a few prominent exceptions—Gates, whom he held over at the Pentagon, to broad acclaim; Clinton, who has become a highly effective secretary of state; Timothy Geithner, who left the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to become the influential Treasury secretary and part of the president’s inner circle (but also a lightning rod for criticism that the administration is too deferential to Wall Street); and Leon Panetta, an old Washington hand who first ran the C.I.A. and is now secretary of defense—Obama has surrounded himself mostly with a team of loyalists. They range from the very competent (Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security) to the perennially controversial (Eric Holder at Justice) to the underwhelmingly anonymous (could anyone but a union leader pick Labor Secretary Hilda Solis out of a lineup?). In the main, Obama relates to his Cabinet the way he relates to the rest of the world. “He’s a total introvert,” the former adviser told me. “He doesn’t need people.” So it hardly matters that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, is widely seen as quietly capable; she was not front and center in Obama’s public push for health-care reform, a topic that another former senior administration aide now calls the Lord Voldemort of policy questions, the issue that must not be named. Arne Duncan gets high enough marks as education secretary (and is a friend and basketball teammate of the president’s), but his profile is comparatively low. As executive director of the Colorado Department of Natural Resources in the cabinet of Governor Roy Romer, 20 years ago, Ken Salazar played a key political advisory role; he plays no comparable role as interior secretary today. None of the domestic Cabinet officers are reliable regulars on the Sunday talk-show circuit (nor were they in the second Bush administration). The administration prefers to offer up senior White House aides, over whom it has tighter control, and who may actually know more about the president’s real agenda. Obama’s Cabinet secretary, Christopher Lu, has been known to say that it’s his job to tell Cabinet members they can’t do things, one former colleague recalls, adding that there is a feeling in the White House that people in the Cabinet “are creating headaches for the president,” whether it’s Lisa Jackson promulgating a new rule at E.P.A. or Ray LaHood floating the idea of a mileage-based tax to pay for highway projects at Transportation or Eric Holder filing a reply brief—never mind the reality that it is the job of the E.P.A. administrator to promulgate rules, and of the attorney general to involve himself in court proceedings. The good news, administration veterans tell me, is that Obama’s Cabinet is remarkably free of internal bickering and infighting, even if the White House keeps Cabinet secretaries on a shorter leash than Bill Clinton did.
The days when presidential Cabinets contained the likes of Thomas Jefferson as secretary of state, or Alexander Hamilton as secretary of the Treasury, are long since gone (and those early Cabinets displayed a fractiousness that no modern president would be likely to tolerate), though Cabinet officers retain symbols of office—from flags to drivers to, in some cases, chefs—befitting grander figures. The lingering public image of Cabinet meetings as the scene of important action is largely a myth. “They are not meetings where policy is determined or decisions are made,” the late Nicholas Katzenbach, who served Lyndon Johnson as attorney general, recalled in his memoirs. Nevertheless, Katzenbach attended them faithfully, “not because they were particularly interesting or important, but simply because”—remembering L.B.J.’s awful relationship with the previous attorney general, Bobby Kennedy—“I did not want the president to feel I was not on his team.” Even as recently as the 1930s, Cabinet figures such as Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes, and Postmaster General James A. Farley were important advisers to Franklin D. Roosevelt (and, in the cases of Perkins and Ickes, priceless diarists and chroniclers) in areas beyond their lanes of departmental responsibility, just as Robert F. Kennedy was his brother’s all-purpose sounding board and McNamara provided J.F.K. with advice on business and economics well outside his purview at the Pentagon. “Cabinet posts are great posts,” says Dan Glickman, who was Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary. “But you realize that the days of Harry Hopkins and others who were in the Cabinet and were key advisers to the president—that really isn’t true anymore.” “In the case of Clinton,” Glickman went on, “it was a joy to work for him, because, in large part, he gave each of us lots of discretion. He said, ‘If it’s bad news, don’t call me. If it’s good news, call me. If it’s exceptionally good news, call me quicker.’ ” The way Cabinet officers relate personally to the president is—no surprise—often the crucial factor in their success or failure. Colin Powell had a worldwide profile and a higher approval rating than George W. Bush, and partly for those very reasons had trouble building a close rapport with a president who had lots to be modest about. Obama’s energy secretary, Steven Chu, may have a Nobel Prize in physics, but that counted for little when he once tried to make a too elaborate visual presentation to the president. Obama said to him after the third slide, as one witness recalls, “O.K., I got it. I’m done, Steve. Turn it off.” Attorney General Eric Holder has been particularly long-suffering, although he and his wife, Dr. Sharon Malone, are socially close to the Obamas. Set aside the controversy that surrounded his failure, as deputy attorney general at the end of the Clinton administration, to oppose a pardon for Marc Rich, the fugitive financier whose ex-wife was a Clinton donor. Holder, the first black attorney general, has taken a political beating more recently for musing that the country is a “nation of cowards” when it comes to talking about race, and for following through on what seemed to be the president’s own wishes on such matters as proposing to try the 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in an American courtroom (in the middle of Manhattan, no less). The sharp growth in the White House staff in the years since World War II has also meant that policy functions once reserved for Cabinet officers are now performed by top aides inside the White House itself. Obama meets regularly and privately with Tim Geithner and Hillary Clinton, but almost certainly sees his national-security adviser, Tom Donilon, and his economic adviser, Gene Sperling, even more often. The relentless media cycle now moves so swiftly that any president, even one less inclined toward centralized discipline than Obama, might naturally rely on the White House’s quick-on-the-draw internal-messaging machine instead of bucking things through the bureaucratic channels of the executive departments. In dealing with a Cabinet, as with life itself, there is no substitute for experience. Clinton-administration veterans told me that their boss made better, fuller use of the Cabinet in his second term than he did in his first, when officials such as Les Aspin at the Pentagon and Warren Christopher at the State Department sometimes struggled to build a cohesive team. Lincoln’s choice of William H. Seward at State, Salmon P. Chase at Treasury, and Edward Bates as attorney general were far from universally applauded. “The construction of a Cabinet,” one editorial admonished at the time, “like the courting of a shrewd girl, belongs to a branch of the fine arts with which the new Executive is not acquainted.” Lincoln’s Cabinet did solve one political problem but it created others—Lincoln had to fight not one but two civil wars.