The Irrelevance of the Cabinet?

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The Irrelevance of the Cabinet?

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Jun 7, 2012, 7:54pm

Vanity Fair has a short but interesting piece on Obama's relationship with his Cabinet. I find it interesting less for the specifics of the author's view on that topic than for his take on the function of the Cabinet in modern America:

The larger truth is that modern presidents, with a few exceptions, don’t need, and don’t use, Cabinet members as privy councillors on the most important questions. They have other people for that. Presidents do need competent, even if anonymous, executives to run the vast machinery of the federal government, but most Cabinet secretaries don’t really do that either—at least not in the classic C.E.O. sense—leaving such work to their deputies and the professional civil-service staffs.

In some ways, members of the Cabinet have become like U.S. Ambassadors to rich countries: they are chosen because of past service, not because of present competence. Of course, members of the Cabinet are far more visible than Ambassadors so they have to at least pretend to run the show, and they will at least need to be able to give testimony to Congress on their area of coverage. But other than that, they are more likely to be order-takers than they are to be advice-givers, particularly those Cabinet members who run the minor departments like Interior and Labor and Transportation. And they probably don't even take orders from the President, but instead from members of the President's staff.

I'm not sure if this change is bad for the country, but I think that it isn't good. The people who are the President's primary advisers should have to pass through public scrutiny. The public has a right to know who is whispering in the President's ear.

Jun 7, 2012, 8:46pm

My guess is that the Congressional review has become so politicized that it is easier to get nominal head passed for the positions requiring Congressional approval and have the real power brokering persons occupying other positions that do not require Congressional consent.