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Cabinet Making

Recommendations for how Obama should make his most important presidential appointments.

If Barack Obama wins the presidency, I don’t know who he is going to put in his cabinet, but I have some recommendations for how he should go about choosing people. My assumption is that he will face unprecedented challenges (a downturn, a financial crisis, two wars) and opportunities (a large Democratic majority, discredited opposition in Congress and on K Street). At the same time, he can expect this opposition to do whatever it thinks is necessary to block his initiatives. Republicans in Congress and conservative activists in Washington know that if Obama has a successful presidency, he has a chance to establish a lasting Democratic majority that would keep them on the sidelines well into the next decade.

In choosing his top cabinet and agency positions, Obama should follow the precedent set when he selected Joe Biden as his vice president. He should not look to reward friends and supporters; he should try for diversity, but not make it his first priority; and above all, he should pick the people who can best do the job. That may seem obvious, but most presidents have not followed these rules. Obama can’t afford not to.

There is ample precedent for Democrats co-opting Republicans to fill controversial cabinet and regulatory positions. Franklin Roosevelt chose William H. Woodin for his secretary of the treasury in 1933; in 1940, fearing the need to mobilize for war, he recruited Henry Stimson (an extraordinary choice) and Frank Knox, as well as lesser figures like Paul Nitze. John Kennedy called on Douglas Dillon for secretary of the treasury and Robert McNamara as his secretary of defense. Clinton picked Maine senator William Cohen for defense--a choice that probably helped him win support for war in Kosovo.

In making cabinet choices, Obama has to realize that he faces some issues where he will need bipartisan support--not from every Republican, but at least the moderates and independents. These issues include the conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (where the opposition will be ready to criticize him for abandoning Iraq, negotiating with terrorists, or not supporting our troops), as well as global warming and national health insurance (where powerful lobbies will attempt to divide the Democrats and mobilize the Republicans against his initiatives). He should choose his cabinet appointments accordingly.

Obama’s best choice in these cases might be Republicans who will be loyal to him--out of duty, if nothing else--but who also have clout on Capitol Hill. Getting Robert Gates to continue at the Pentagon is the obvious choice. Retiring senator Chuck Hagel has been mentioned for the post, but I don’t know whether Hagel, who was not on the Armed Services Committee, can handle the Pentagon--or handle it right away; he might make a better choice for UN ambassador.

In trying to secure support for a new global warming agreement, Obama will and should call on Al Gore. But he might also consider appointing a global warming czar or elevating the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to a Department of the Environment. He could try to recruit California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or Maine senator Olympia Snowe--both whom are Republicans who have been active on the issue--to head up these efforts.

In an ideal, non-partisan world, the perfect choice to lead his national health insurance agenda would be Mitt Romney. He is a technocrat and a politician, and knows the issue from his governorship of Massachusetts, where he enacted near-universal health care for the state. But Romney has lurched rightward and seems to be poised for a run in 2012, so he probably wouldn’t do it. I would try to get someone with his skills and a commitment to health insurance to run Health and Human Services or to lead a presidential task force. And it needs to be someone who can work with Congress and who has the myriad of interest groups who have a stake in the legislation.

There are two posts where the best candidates are Democrats. Obama needs to pick a treasury secretary who on January 21 can replace the current secretary as the leader in global negotiations over the financial crisis. My choice would be former treasury secretary Larry Summers. He won’t need any on-the-job training, and the columns he has written for The Financial Times should be required reading for a new administration. Summers understands the need for tough regulation, but he can also be counted on to reject the Washington canard that we need to tighten our belt or pass only “pay as you go” programs. We face, among other things, a classic Keynesian crisis of effective demand, as well as a global financial crisis, and Summers is the best candidate to lead the country through them.

For secretary of state, I think Obama needs to stay away from veterans of George W. Bush’s administration, who are tainted by its failures. (Condoleezza Rice has done pretty well in the last two years, but she is a Bush loyalist.) I would recommend a veteran of Clinton’s second term, where he was more successful in foreign policy. And it should be someone with extensive diplomatic experience, like former U.N. ambassador Richard Holbrooke. I would not worry whether Holbrooke or a similar candidate backed the Iraq war--as long as they appear to have learned from the experience.

Then there are posts where Obama should not follow a bipartisan model at all--particularly that of attorney general. He has to anticipate that, like every Democrat since Franklin Roosevelt, he will face a ruthless and unprincipled campaign to undermine his presidency. There are always grounds for scandal-mongering against a president or a presidential candidate--Bill Clinton, for example, deserved a reprimand on his campaign finance practices in 1996. But a stronger attorney general and a less hostile FBI chief might have prevented Republicans from wreaking havoc on Clinton’s presidency with the phony scandals of Whitewater and Monica Lewinsky.

That doesn’t mean that Obama has to pick a hack like Alberto Gonzales. He needs to pick someone who understands politics and partisan warfare, and can, where appropriate, make the distinction between Whitewater and Watergate. I don’t know who the right choice is. If Hillary Clinton had put aside her presidential ambitions, she might have been ideal for the position. Obama might consider Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, a brilliant pol who was previously a U.S. attorney for the District of Arizona. (The problem with Napolitano is that she could become Arizona’s first Democratic senator since Dennis DeConcini.)

Obama should pay special attention to finding able Democrats to head the Department of Labor and the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). These should not be seen as sinecures, as they were in the Bush administration. The two labor posts are important not only because a vibrant and growing labor movement is necessary for American pluralism, but also because it is crucial for an enduring Democratic majority. It’s how the Democrats can revive their identity as a working-class party while maintaining the support for middle- and upper-middle class voters.

As we learned from the Bush administration, the cabinet and other executive appointments can be as important as the president himself. Obama’s task will be to distinguish when he should worship at the altar of bipartisanship and when he should remember who brought him to the White House.

John B. Judis is a senior editor of The New Republic and a visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.