Sunday, November 25, 2012

What Will a Second Term Obama Cabinet Look Like?

One of the predictable patterns in American governance is changes to the Presidential cabinet in the second term of an administration.  Very few department heads last the entire 8 years of an administration - the George W. Bush administration had only one (Elaine Chao at the Labor Department) and the Clinton administration had only four (Janet Reno at Justice, Donna Shalala at Health and Human Service, Bruce Babbitt at Interior and Richard Riley at Education.)

Note that for purposes of this discussion, I am only talking about department heads and not Presidentially-designated "cabinet-level" policy advisors such as the Chief of Staff, who attend cabinet meetings but don't have direct responsibility for governing and are not confirmed by the Senate.

The reasons for this are fairly obvious.  Eight years is a heck of a long time in any one job, but particularly one that is so high profile, stressful and subject to public criticism as running a large portion of the government.  And cabinet officials don't make a ton of money - current pay scales for cabinet-level positions are $191,300 per year - a lot of money if you are the average middle-class tax payer but a tiny amount compared to comparable executives in private industry, who would typically make millions for running groups that large.  So, most cabinet officials want out eventually.

If politics weren't involved, you'd see a distribution of cabinet officials leaving - some would leave after 2 years, some would leave after 3 and so on and so forth.  But obviously politics are involved and Presidents generally don't want to deal with high-profile cabinet appointments in the middle of an election season, so cabinet-officers are generally asked to stay at least through an election, which creates a pent-up demand for departures at the beginning of a President's second term.

President Obama's cabinet actually appears to be relatively more stable than most.  After George W. Bush won re-election in 2004, within the next year, he had changes at State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, Interior, Agriculture, Commerce, Health and Human Services, Education, Transportation, Energy, Veterans Affairs and Homeland Security, in addition to having already made a change at Housing and Urban Development.  President Obama isn't looking at nearly that level of change.  He has already made a change at Defense (Leon Panetta replaced Robert Gates, who was a holdover from the Bush administration) and has a current vacancy at Commerce (after the bizarre resignation of John Bryson, who was actually Obama's second Commerce Secretary, who was involved in a hit and run after an apparent seizure.)

Of all the cabinet seats, here is what is likely to happen in the next year:
The Big 4 (The 4 largest and most important departments - State, Defense, Justice and Treasury)
State - Hillary Clinton - likely to depart as she has repeatedly stated that she probably will not stay for a second-term.  Will President Obama pick a fight with John McCain and nominate Susan Rice over GOP protestations led by McCain or will he go with a "safer" pick?  This one could be a real filibuster fight.
Defense - Leon Panetta - also likely to depart although the President may be able to persuade him to stay on a little longer to sort out the other seats first - Massachusetts Senator John Kerry appears to be the leading candidate here.  I would be surprised if Kerry had an issue getting confirmed.
Treasury - Tim Geithner - likely to depart.  Jack Lew is the lead candidate to replace him.  He has both the private industry (Citigroup) and public sector (head of the OMB) experience and would likely be non-controversial.
Justice - Eric Holder - likely to stay.  He's not liked on the right at all, but Obama has shown a lot of loyalty to him and he doesn't need to be confirmed to stay.

The Other Seats:
Commerce - Rebecca Blank (acting) - this is an obvious vacancy that the President has to address.  The role has been technically vacant since June with undersecretary Blank filling the interim role.  The President is actually a pretty big fan of Blank's and might look to make her role permanent.
Interior - Ken Salazar - likely to stay - at least for now.  This is Salazar's dream job.
Agriculture - Tom Vilsack - likely to stay - despite some earlier staffing controversies, Vilsack hasn't been particularly high profile and he seems to enjoy the work.
Labor - Hilda Solis - likely to stay for now - Solis doesn't have a resume that would land her naturally in a big private industry lobbing job and labor will be interesting in the next few years with Wal-Mart protests and such - plus President Obama is likely to look for her to stay, knowing that any appointment to this seat would be controversial.
Health and Human Services - Kathleen Sebelius - very likely to stay - if you are going to do this job, wouldn't you want to be around for Obamacare implementation?
Housing and Urban Development - Shaun Donovan - likely to stay - he is one of Obama's closest trusted advisors from Chicago and though HUD has not been a focus, I think Donovan enjoys the work.
Transportation - Ray Lahood - likely to depart - Lahood has basically said he is burned out and looking to move on.  The lone remaining Republican in Obama's cabinet would be an interesting role to replace.
Energy - Steven Chu - 50/50 to depart in the next year - Chu didn't really get the deal he bargained for - the brilliant scientist thought he would be overseeing implementation of meaningful global warming policy around cap and trade.  It hasn't materialized and Chu may want to get out of government.
Education - Arne Duncan - likely to stay - Duncan is another one of Obama's Chicago-era friends, has received lots of bi-partisan praise for his reform-minded approach to education and his willingness to incorporate Republican ideas.
Veterans Affairs - Eric Shinseki - seems likely to stay - I really have no intel on Shinseki, who hasn't been very high profile, but he hasn't given an indication that he is leaving.
Homeland Security - Janet Napolitano - 50/50 to depart in the next year - this is a burnout, thankless role and Napolitano has taken a lot of heat.  Obama is very loyal, however and if Napolitano wants to keep taking the heat, I'm sure he would let her.

It is very likely that none of the vacancies, other than the current one at Commerce will occur prior to the New Year as the President has likely asked his cabinet officials to hold on until after the debate on the fiscal cliff is resolved, which seems likely to stretch right up to December 31st.  But they will be front-and-center in 2013 as the President seeks to remake his cabinet.

One of the many reasons that second-term Presidents tend to get less done is that they burn out the A-players in their cabinet in the first term and are stuck with the B-team in their second term.  How much of that happens in the Obama administration remains to be seen, but there is no doubt that he will have some vacancies to fill.

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