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The 6 Species of Secretaries That Will Define Obama's Term

Obama spoke to the news media before a meeting of his Cabinet Monday. Obama spoke to the news media before a meeting of his Cabinet Monday. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

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.  

Moniz and McCarthy are there to push climate change—and avoid any Solyndras. They have no big White House overseer, unlike the way that Al Gore kept an eagle eye on environmental issues in the Clinton years. 

Team Chicago. (Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan, (possible) Secretary of Commerce nominee Penny Pritzker) Every president brings in old friends to be in his cabinet, people who knew him before he was famous. “He thinks very differently about people who knew him before 2006,” says one Democratic insider of the president. 

Regardless of their competence, just having old friends has a certain Linus blanket appeal for a president. John Kennedy appointed his brother, Robert. George W. Bush reached out to his old friend, Don Evans, and Bill Clinton tapped his fellow Rhodes Scholar, Robert Reich.

Penny Pritzker might have gotten the Commerce job on the first go around, but the Hyatt Hotels heiress and realty magnate was tied up. Now that she’s said to be ready and has good ties to business—Business Roundtable head and former Gov. John Engler raved about her when I asked him—she’s likely to get in. Never mind that most of the department’s budget is about overseeing the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration and the Census Bureau. She’ll still be central to trade development, reassuring the business community (something missing from the first term), and she’ll be there for the president as a friend. Besides, Commerce has been a Bermuda triangle for Obama. His first pick, former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, was aborted. His second pick, former New Hampshire Republican Sen. Judd Gregg, withdrew. His third, utility executive John Bryson, left the post for medical reasons. It may not be the sexiest Cabinet slot, but Herbert Hoover, Henry Wallace, and Averell Harriman had it. Pritzker likely will too.

Make it Work. (Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, Homeland Security Security Janet Napolitano, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) First-term Cabinet secretaries who stick around have a key job, one that’s deceptively simple: keeping their agencies running well. Each of the above, three of them former governors, need to keep their departments functioning at a time of austerity. Napolitano may have the greatest second term demands if immigration reform gets off the ground. But for now they’re like second-term governors expected to keep things going. 

Have we met? (Interior Secretary nominee Sally Jewell, Labor Secretary nominee to be named) Jewell isn’t well known inside the Beltway, but the executive of outdoors outfittter REI is an avid hiker and climber with green bona fides that cheer environmentalists and a background in oil and finance that has led Republicans to back her nomination, too. In other words, she’s the kind of nominee who can pick up 90 votes in the Senate. Her job isn’t to push a radical new agenda, but to be caretaker of the department and find a middle ground on fracking and energy issues that come under her purview. The job traditionally goes to a Westerner—Stuart Udall of Arizona was JFK’s pick, Sen. Ken Salazar of Colorado was Obama’s—and Jewell is no exception. 

The next secretary of labor won’t oversee an ambitious agenda. Republicans aren’t going to allow a passage of labor-rights expansion. The so-called card-check plan for unions didn’t even get passed in Obama’s first term. But keeping the department’s jobs programs and being there to sell any major trade agreements to organized labor, like Obama was able to do with the South Korean agreement in his first term, will be a big part of the job. 

He’s Still Here? From his first days in office when he described the U.S. as a “nation of cowards” on race, Attorney General Eric Holder has emboldened Republican opponents and surprised allies who had watched his ascent as a talented U.S. attorney and deputy attorney general. For all his accomplishments—rolling up terror suspects, shepherding judicial nominations, and seeing the Supreme Court preserve the central tenets of the Affordable Care Act—he may be as well known for the botched "Fast and Furious" operation.

A second term would have given Obama a fresh start at DOJ. But the president is very close to him, has confidence in his judgment, and sees the attacks as partisan even if many of the shots come from those on the left who see him as harsh on civil liberties and shy on prosecuting financial crimes. As the first African-American to be the nation’s top law-enforcement officer, Holder has a special status that helps him hang on to his post. That’s just part of why he’s still here.

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