The Obama Administration Takes Shape

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As happens every four years in Washington, the city is fixated on the parlor game of guessing cabinet appointments. But if you want to gauge the direction of the Obama Administration, pay closer attention to who the President-elect chooses to staff his White House. New Presidents often begin by thinking that they can delegate policymaking to their cabinets. It rarely works out that way. As the Brookings Institution noted in looking at the early days of the Bush Administration:

President Bush’s reputation as one who likes to delegate authority, along with the impressive resumes of some cabinet members, led observers to expect the cabinet to play an enhanced role in the administration. According to one early forecast,

With their golden resumes, long years of public service, strong personalities and close ties to Mr. Bush, Vice President-elect Cheney, and the Republican establishment-in-waiting, the men and women of the emerging Cabinet can be expected to exert just as much influence over the administration as the staff in the White House exerts, if not more. (Kahn, 2000, 1)

The supposition was that these department heads would need little direction from the White House, particularly on day-to-day matters. But students of American politics remembered Jimmy Carter’s failed attempt to form a “cabinet government” and how his White House staff rejected this approach in favor of centralizing control, maintaining the authority to rein in cabinet members when necessary.

What seems to be different about the Obama Administration is that it is signaling from the start where true power will be. That began with the pick of Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff. And at yesterday’s transition news conference, transition co-chairman John Podesta confirmed it further:

The policy direction process, particularly at the beginning of the Admnistraiton, needs to be well-coordinated at the White House level, through the National Economic Council, which is a creature of the White House staff that the Clinton Administration began. President-elect Obama intends to continue the Domestic Policy Council and the National Economic Council. The important policy coordination role will be maintained in the White House. … There’s a central function of policy development coordination that takes place at the White House in conjunction with OMB. What he’s looking for in a cabinet is people who are very strong, who can carry out the mandate, the missions of those agencies, and do it across the priorities that he’s laid out to get the economy moving again, to get jobs moving again, to get wages growing again.

UPDATE: (After the jump) A dissenting point of view from Podesta’s Center for American Progress colleague Scott Lilly:

As recently as the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations, Cabinet members were strong, independent forces in setting policies within the realm of the departments they oversaw. But since then, their power and independence has been steadily marginalized. In the current administration, few Cabinet members have meaningful input on their own budgets, and most are aware that public expression of their views about how OMB decisions will affect the agencies they supervise could easily result in their termination. Increasingly over the last 25 years, Cabinet members have seen their activities directed by White House staff, whose members are often less than half their age and with little life experience other than working in political campaigns. In some instances, the real work of the department is actually handled by deputy or assistant secretaries who are directed by the White House without consultation with the actual Cabinet member.

The Obama transition needs to think very carefully about how much power it is willing to invest in Cabinet officials and, conversely, how much power the White House will be willing to relinquish. In my mind, the current distribution of power in our executive branch makes it difficult to recruit qualified people to key positions and squanders Cabinet members’ talents once they are recruited. Hopefully, the Obama administration will strike a better balance, but I will be surprised if it is willing to transfer enough authority out of the White House to make a Cabinet post attractive to people with the position and standing of either Schwarzenegger or Clinton.