Commentary Magazine


The Empty Cabinet

The Cabinet’s members — the top officials of the Executive Branch — are, in theory, the closest advisors to the president. They not only control large swaths of the government, they also collectively can remove the president from power.

Over the years, though, the role of the Cabinet in advising the president has diminished, as presidents have chosen to have a “kitchen cabinet” of subservient advisors. President Obama is moving a step further in this direction.

The Secretary of State is the preeminent Cabinet officer (arguably ahead of the Vice President), in charge of managing America’s relations with the rest of the world. Hillary Clinton is viewed by some as Obama’s most successful pick so far.

Yet one of the conditions for Clinton’s nomination seems to have been her acquiescence to the stripping away of much of the traditional powers of her office. Obama has appointed “special envoys” to manage the Israeli-Palestine situation, Iraq, and Afghanistan, and elevated the Ambassador to the United Nations to a cabinet-level position — all competing roles with that of the Secretary of State. Furthermore, Obama is gratuitously insulting Clinton by rehabilitating his former advisor Samantha Power, who resigned during the campaign after calling Clinton a “monster”: Obama appointed Power to the National Security Council, where she sits next to Clinton.

So far, Obama has yet to find a Secretary of Commerce. He initially nominated New Hampshire Senator Judd Gregg, who later withdrew, citing as one of the main reasons his disagreement with the president over the upcoming Census’s procedure.

The Census is one of the few constitutionally-mandated activities assigned to a Cabinet secretary. Congress has assigned the Department of Commerce to conduct it, but Obama plans to have the Director of the Census report not only to the Secretary, but to the White House Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel. The potential for political exploitation and manipulation is tremendous — and comes at the expense of the Secretary of Commerce. It is no wonder that Gregg refused to accept such a gelded office.

Traditionally, the Vice-President has had very little to do. He or she has two duties, described most eloquently by John McCain as “breaking tie votes in the Senate and  inquiring daily as to the health of the president.” In the 80′s and 90′s, the most common function of the Vice-President was to attend state funerals — which meant having some nice suits handy at a moment’s notice and an ability to maintain a somber expression.

So far, Vice President Biden’s main function seems to be to swear in various Obama appointees. And even with such limited function, Biden’s track record of gaffes continues to grow (e.g. he took a dig at Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts that left President Obama nonplussed).

Prior presidents have gone out of their way to give their vice-presidents something to do. The first President Bush put Dan Quayle in charge of the space program. Bill Clinton put Gore in charge of governmental restructuring. And the latter President Bush used Dick Cheney as something of a co-president.

It’s hard to see Joe Biden being entrusted with these kinds of responsibilities.

Obama described his ideal Cabinet as “a team of rivals,” in the spirit of Abraham Lincoln. It appears he plans to achieve this dynamic by chiseling away at the power of each member and encouraging rivalries and conflicts.

That doesn’t seem like a good recipe for success. On the contrary, it seems almost designed to reinforce the absolute power of the President — he is the ultimate arbiter of policy, he decides just how much authority each officer holds, and he can give or take away that authority at his whim.

On the surface, this approach seems to signal insecurity in a man who feels the need to constantly reassert that he was, indeed, the “winner” of the last election, and who must constantly remind everyone else he is the top dog.

And sometimes, the surface impression is the most accurate.