The job of the presidency has grown so large, so overwhelming in its power and responsibility, that no one human being can excel in all its many dimensions, from the ceremonial to the political, from making policy to managing a vast bureaucracy. In an atmosphere of bitter partisan division and a 24-hour news environment, presidents more than ever need help at the highest levels possible. Fortunately, there is a well-established yet greatly underutilized institution readily available to lend a hand: the presidential cabinet.
Although the cabinet and its role in government are not formally established in the Constitution, presidents since George Washington have convened a collective body of the heads of the executive departments. Washington used cabinet meetings to tap into the wisdom of such luminaries as Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton. In her 2005 book Team of Rivals, Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin demonstrated how the strong and diverse cabinet assembled by Abraham Lincoln girded the nation at its time of greatest peril. FDR convened his cabinet the day after the Pearl Harbor attacks, while JFK famously relied on a subset of his cabinet during the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Over the past half-century, however, the rise and expansion of the White House staff has centralized deliberation and decision-making increasingly within the confines of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Between this reliance on professional staffers and life in the ever-more restrictive “security bubble,” presidents have had less and less direct access to a range of views and opinions. Indeed, while the Kennedy and Johnson cabinets met monthly, the Obama cabinet has met less than one-third as often.
Today, cabinet meetings are often little more than occasional photo ops to bring together POTUS, the VP, the heads of the 15 executive departments and a few other “cabinet-rank” officials such as the heads of the Office of Management and Budget and the Environmental Protection Agency, the Ambassador for the United Nations, and the U.S. Trade Representative. Virtually the only time they are seen together by the public is in the front row at the annual State of the Union Address.
By contrast, many of America’s democratic allies benefit from the much more central role played by their cabinets, particularly in parliamentary systems where they are critical partners in the governance of their nations. In countries such as the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and Germany, the executive leadership comprises an entire team of senior politicians who meet weekly to lay out political alternatives and strategize about policy implementation. In many parliamentary systems, the cabinet is considered so central that the members are all considered to share “collective responsibility” for the work of government.
Under the U.S. Constitution, the American president will always remain paramount, but both the president and the nation could benefit greatly by enhancing the role and strengthening the position of the cabinet. Below are five ideas to maximize the reach and impact of the president’s hand-picked first-string team.