The word “Cabinet” isn’t in the Constitution, but it has been a part of every presidency since George Washington. Cabinet officers are usually forgettable and occasionally defining—whether it was Alexander Hamilton at Treasury, Lincoln’s constantly-alluded-to “Team of Rivals,” or postwar icons like Bobby Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, and Hillary Clinton. So what does Barack Obama’s Cabinet say about him now that he’s made his major picks for a second term?
It’s a Cabinet that’s simultaneously edgy and safe, like the president himself. The Environmental Protection Agency and Energy Department picks announced this week signal a bold president who wants to do something about climate change. By picking EPA’s Gina McCarthy, who has her imprimatur on so many of the regulations that have peeved Republicans—and coal-state Democrats—Obama was saying: “Mas.”
On the other hand, Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell, an outdoor goods executive with an oil background, is the kind of smart consensus choice you’d come up with in the Cabinet Secretary Laboratory. This is a president who wants to pick battles (yes to Chuck Hagel) and avoid them (no to insisting Susan Rice stay in the mix).
It’s also a less combustible Cabinet for the president. Unlike in the first term, now there’s no one with rival power centers, no one as globally known as Hillary Clinton or with as much bipartisan juice as former Defense secretaries Robert Gates and Leon Panetta. Each of them had bases and reputations that would have left Obama badly wounded if they’d taken disagreements public, let alone resigned. John Kerry is about the only one in the Cabinet this time who has that kind of clout—and mouthing off with disagreements is so not his senatorial style.
Since World War II there have been three secretaries of State who were senators. Obama has named two of them (Ed Muskie was the third). With Kerry he has an independent voice—but also a loyal one. Kerry came out for Obama over Hillary in the 2008 election, even before Ted Kennedy did.
So if Obama got talked into an Afghan surge in his first term by the likes of his top generals, that kind of push-back seems much less likely this time around on any issue. There’s no one like David Petraeus in the Joint Chiefs or running the CIA, and no one with the same, um, relationship with the Washington press corps. It’s easy to forget how much riskier it all was in 2009, when Obama signed on Hillary Clinton and kept Gates. Clinton proved a great choice but that’s easy to know in retrospect, not because of her intelligence and tenacity but because of their rivalry. She could have proven fiercely independent. Bill Clinton could have been trouble in a 100 ways and there was no guarantee that Gates would fit so smoothly into a Democratic Cabinet.
This time, the risk of a rival emerging is much lower. It's hard to imagine Obama ending up in Woodrow Wilson's situation, when he appointed three-time Democratic presidential nominee and populist icon William Jennings Bryan to be secretary of State, and then watched Bryan quit after urging mediation in the looming world war. Obama picked the first party presidential nominee to be secretary of State since Charles Evans Hughes, but in Kerry he picked someone who it’s impossible to see quitting.
The best way of thinking about Obama's new posse is through taxonomy or zoology. They fit into groups that illustrate the president's highest priorities—like climate change—and ones who like keeping it all running, like implementing the Affordable Care Act. Here they are:
Tightwads. (Secretary of State Chuck Hagel, Treasury Secretary nominee Jack Lew, Office of Management and Budget Director Sylvia Mathews Burwell): The posts are different, but each is central toward managing the new age of austerity. Hagel was the second term pick not only because he shares the president’s skepticism of new military adventures, but because he’s ready and willing to preside over a retrenchment of American forces after a decade in which the department’s budget has doubled.
Lew is there to give confidence to the markets, but he’s also in a key position to preside over tax reform, if Congress allows. Burwell is there to make sure that the whole government does what it can with less.
Agenda Setters. (Environmental Protection Agency administrator nominee Gina McCarthy, Energy Secretary nominee Ernest Moniz, Secretary of State John Kerry). Kerry was a safe and popular choice unlike, say, McCarthy. But like the other two he has to reshape the position. Much of Hillary Clinton’s job was about managing the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the war on terror. Kerry’s more about strengthening alliances, climate change, and keeping the Mideast from boiling over. Each has a huge portfolio, and while Kerry has to work with a foreign policy-minded vice president and a strong national security adviser, Tom Donilon, he has a wide berth befitting the office.