In contrast to many other countries, the secretaries who serve in the United States cabinet aren't chosen from among the country's elected officials but entirely reflect the president's personal choices. Here, presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, talks us through the role of the cabinet and recommends which books to read to understand more about it.
The cabinet of the United States functions very differently than cabinets in parliamentary systems. Please tell us about this curious United States institution and your acclaimed book about it, The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.
Unlike in Great Britain, United States cabinet secretaries have no institutional right to be a part of decision-making. They are not members of a legislative branch. They are not part of a governing coalition. In the US, the president gets to design their cabinet and since Washington, every president has worked with a cabinet.
President George Washington realized that the options explicitly provided by the United States constitution for advice and support weren’t going to work when faced with real-world challenges. The written advice option was too inefficient, or the Constitution didn’t provide for the kind of give-and-take that assists in decision-making. So, two and a half years into his presidency, Washington convened the first cabinet on November 26th, 1791. With that meeting, Washington established the precedent that presidents may bring together their closest advisors whenever they deem it useful.
In the US, students are taught that George Washington shaped the role of the presidency by personal example. How did the cabinet members he chose shape the institution by their personal example?
Washington shaped the cabinet in two ways. First, he crafted a cabinet that he thought would be most useful to him but kept it a very flexible institution. For example, he met with his cabinet 51 times in 1793, that was the peak. But towards the end of his administration, he met with the cabinet very little; the cabinet members were different, and he didn’t like the replacements as much. Every president inherits that flexibility. Some presidents—like Franklin Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln—created cabinets that helped them govern effectively. Other presidents didn’t manage the personalities in their cabinets as well or gave too much authority to their secretaries.
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The second way that Washington left his thumbprint on the institution was that he intentionally selected secretaries that represented different cultural, educational, economic, religious, and factional interests in the United States. While in the 21st century we wouldn’t think of his cabinet as a diverse group, his contemporaries recognized how Washington ensured that every type of citizen—and of course, only white men were full citizens at the time—were represented in his cabinet. Most presidents continued to cultivate a diverse set of advisors. What diversity means and who is included in that calculation can be measured in step with the expansion of suffrage and civil rights over the centuries.
In releasing the first photograph of his cabinet, President Joseph Biden pointed out that he was fulfilling his campaign promise to appoint “a cabinet that looked like America.” He went on to explain that “building a diverse team will lead to better outcomes and more effective solutions to address the urgent crises facing our nation.” How important are the optics of the cabinet?
It’s an underrated factor. Consider President Biden’s Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. The Interior Department oversees United States government relationships with Native American nations and yet Secretary Haaland is the first active member of a native nation to hold that position. Ensuring that diverse and pertinent perspectives are heard in an administration is crucial.
“The presidency is a very personal institution”
Unlike other nations—that are more homogeneous culturally, ethnically, or racially—the United States is an incredibly diverse place and so there are almost an infinite number of American experiences. No one person can be expected to understand all American walks of life. Presidents make better decisions when they surround themselves with people who have different experiences. That idea is backed by a lot of research. Studies show that leaders with a diverse group of advisors are more inclined to avoid groupthink, come up with creative solutions and make better choices.
Your recommendations bring other aspects of the United States Cabinet to the fore. Your first choice concerns the cabinet of America’s third president, Thomas Jefferson. Please tell me about Noble E. Cunningham’s The Process of Government under Jefferson.
This is an oldie, but a goodie. No historian looked more closely at the intricacies of government. I included this book because of Cunningham’s picture of the cabinet’s functioning and because Jefferson had a remarkably effective cabinet. He had very little turnover. He carefully cultivated relationships with cabinet members. Jefferson pulled what he saw as the best from both Washington and Adams’s cabinets to guide him. His cabinet represented and served his presidency well. Cunningham does a great job of showing that.
Thomas Jefferson challenged President John Adams for the presidency, cleaving the founding generation into two parties. What is the association between political party and presidential cabinets?
After Washington, most presidents mostly selected cabinet members from their own party. They recognized that it was difficult to have people working towards different outcomes in your administration. There are some key exceptions. Presidents brought in voices from the other party when it made sense to do so. For example, at the start of his third term, Franklin D. Roosevelt brought in Republicans who were aligned with him on how to fight World War II. Although the Republicans didn’t agree with all of Roosevelt’s social and economic policies, they could work together on the war and present a united front. Other presidents adopt that example to present a bipartisan image of their administration. If cabinet members have enough shared values to pursue discreet goals together, it works.
The Politics of the US Cabinet is the focus and title of your next recommendation, by Jeffrey Cohen.
The best way to understand how this institution works is to study individual administrations. But it’s also helpful to have an overview of how the appointment process works and how the Cabinet evolved over time. If you’re looking to get a sense of how the institution has evolved, The Politics of the U.S. Cabinet is the right resource.
What are the core cabinet facts? How many members are there?
The cabinet is constantly evolving. The heads of all the departments created by acts of Congress are included. There are currently 15 department heads. The Secretary of State, the Secretary of the Treasury and the Secretary of the Interior are among the department heads whose appointment requires congressional Senate approval and who are always included in the cabinet. There are also what are called ‘cabinet-level appointments.’ Those shift, depending on the president’s preferences. So sometimes the CIA director is a cabinet-level position, sometimes it’s not. Biden has removed that position from his cabinet, while President Trump included the CIA director. Presidents will also include certain envoys in their cabinets. Former Senator and former Secretary of State John Kerry currently serves as President Biden’s Climate Envoy, which the Biden Administration designates as a ‘cabinet-level’ position. But it does shift, depending on each president’s preferences and priorities.
Team of Rivals is the way Doris Kearns Goodwin characterizes Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet and the title of her book about it. Please tell me about your next choice.
This is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand the presidency and it’s beautifully written.
I would argue that every president up until Lincoln pulled from their key political rivals when assembling their administrations. That was just how it was done. But even if you disagree with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s central argument, Team of Rivals still reveals so much about the Lincoln administration.
What makes this book so important and what made Abraham Lincoln so remarkable was that he was perhaps the least known and least experienced of all the people in his cabinet, and yet managed to cultivate close relationships and real respect with his cabinet members. Lincoln’s command of his cabinet shows his political genius.
Which cabinets were most central to the presidency they served?
I would say Jefferson, Lincoln, Grant, Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, and Kennedy. Although Kennedy’s cabinet undermined his administration.
Speaking of Roosevelts, you recommend Theodore Rex by Edmund Morris.
This is one of several volumes by Edmund Morris on Theodore Roosevelt. Theodore Rex is probably the most detailed look at his presidency. It demonstrates the centrality of the cabinet to Roosevelt’s success in office. Not many presidential biographies focus on the cabinet. It tends to be an underappreciated aspect of presidential administration. Morris turns that tendency on its head.
It’s hard not to enjoy reading about Roosevelt because he was such a colorful character. Morris brings that to life. For example, he describes how Roosevelt—who previously had been Assistant Secretary of the Navy and was very passionate about the role of the Navy in the United States’s emergence as a global superpower—just could not stop meddling with the work of his Secretary of the Navy. That drove several secretaries from office.
As you mentioned, Theodore Roosevelt was Assistant Secretary of the Navy before becoming president. Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, James Buchanan, William Taft, and Herbert Hoover were also cabinet secretaries prior to becoming president. Is cabinet service still a stepping stone to the presidency?
In the 18th and 19th centuries the cabinet was seen as a stepping stone to the presidency. Especially the Secretary of State post, because that was the most prestigious spot. It was common for a president to appoint a natural successor to that position. Since the turn of the 20th century, that has been the case less frequently because of the professionalization of the departments. Now you typically see someone who has built a career in a particular field nominated as the secretary of the department in that field. When President Obama appointed Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, she presumably hoped that would set her up as his successor. But, as we know, Donald Trump won instead.
Trump brought new theatrics to his cabinet convenings. During pre-meeting press avails, his cabinet members sequentially sang his praises—a routine that analysts suggested demeaned the institution. How common is it for cabinets members to act as validators?
Cabinet secretaries serve as messengers and defenders of policies, rather than the president himself. Often a president will appear publicly with a cabinet secretary to discuss a piece of legislation or a new policy pertaining to that secretary’s department. They might go to a department site, like a Veteran’s Administration hospital, to highlight an issue. Cabinet secretaries are rarely the subject of stories unless there is scandal or difficulty in their department. Photographs at the beginning of cabinet meetings are common, but these huge validator events were new.
During the Trump presidency, the cabinet was also in the news because of the official function it was endowed with by the 25th amendment. Please explain.
The 25th amendment provides that if the president is no longer cable of managing the responsibilities of the office, the cabinet and the vice president can request that the president be removed from office. That clause has never been invoked. But it has been discussed when prior presidents experienced acute health crises. So, when President Reagan was shot and in surgery, it was discussed. And, according to reports, there was serious discussion of invoking the 25th amendment after the January 6th insurrection.
Your final recommendation, a biography about Republican cabinet utility player James Baker III, was written by husband and wife team Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. Under President Ronald Reagan, Baker was Secretary of the Treasury and under President George H. W. Bush, he was Secretary of State. Please tell me about The Man Who Ran Washington.
This book is a fascinating read. It provides both the story of what motivated Baker to serve and an in-depth look at the very powerful role he played in shaping the modern Republican party across many administrations. Many of the most fascinating details are based on newly declassified material.
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The Man Who Ran Washington is so important for understanding the cabinet. It gives us a firsthand look at someone who participated in the institution in multiple capacities, insight into how the cabinet functioned during two different administrations and how two different presidents worked with their cabinets.
In addition to being a department secretary under Reagan and the elder Bush, Baker served as chief of staff to both. To what extent have chiefs of staff and White House advisors arrogated the role that once was played by official cabinet members?
There’s no doubt that the rise of the chief of staff has shifted the role of the cabinet. The presidency is a very personal institution. The power of any given chief of staff depends on the person in the Oval Office and their relationship with cabinet secretaries. If a cabinet secretary like Baker has a very close relationship with the president, like he did with George H.W. Bush, they can circumvent the chief of staff. In White Houses relationships matter so much. The power and influence of presidential positions are not static. They shift depending on the individuals in office and their relationships with others in the Oval Office orbit.
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