The Obama Cabinet: Advice From Players Past

Democrats (and a couple of token Republicans), start your résumés. A new administration means a massive upheaval of the vast machinery of Washington, D.C. In the coming months, thousands of jobs will come open in the White House and federal agencies, and the frenzy of jockeying, networking, phone calling and recommendation seeking is already underway. At the top of the heap: coveted cabinet positions that put a lucky few at the president's elbow. And at the top of that heap, slots at the prestige cabinet agencies: Treasury, State, Defense, Justice, the National Security Council. These posts have their glam appeal (in the capital, at least), and the competition to get them is brutal. For all those trying to maneuver their way to a swivel chair at the cabinet table, take a few sobering words of advice from those who've gone before you.

Any president needs a strong Treasury secretary, but you'll need a particularly strong one in the difficult times ahead. This go-round, the Treasury secretary is going to inherit a boatload of issues and problems, to say the least. After the stock-market crash of 1987, we did two important things that the government needs to be doing today: provisioning significant liquidity into the system to cushion the shock (which we've begun to do) and coordinate our economic policies with those of other countries. Those are the two most significant things we can do.

It's going to be important that you continue those approaches. But what no one is talking about is the need to maintain our free-enterprise system. Yes, we're going to need to come forward with some more responsible regulation in certain areas, like derivatives and credit default swaps. But be very careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Don't shift so far away from free-market principle that we lose the benefits of the most successful economic approach the world has ever seen, and that is free market and free enterprise.

You'll find Treasury to be a bit more protected, in the sense that not everybody is trying to get into tax policy or exchange-rate policy. Some of the things you're dealing with at Treasury are a bit more esoteric. But the president ought to make it clear that the head of the department is going to be the primary spokesperson on issues of economic policy.

There will also be challenges when you don't expect it—some humorous, some not. In 1987 I accepted an invitation to go on an elk hunt with the king of Sweden. But when I got to Stockholm and got off the plane, the Swedish finance minister was white as a sheet and said, "The market dropped five!" I said, "So what? Markets can drop five." And he said, "No! I mean 500!" So I spent all night on the phone with other finance ministers and flew back to Washington the next day. Come to think of it, I never saw the king of Sweden or an elk.
James Baker served as Treasury secretary under President Ronald Reagan

If you're the sort of person who likes to be liked, turn down this office. Any attorney general who is popular isn't doing his job. That's what Herb Brownell, who served as A.G. under Dwight Eisenhower, used to say. And he was right. Being attorney general is a balancing act. You're there to serve the president and meet his expectations. But you are also responsible for upholding the law. You have your own principles that you cannot compromise, and if those two things collide, you've got to be prepared to resign and turn the portfolio over to someone else.

You'll have a lot of people working for you, and plenty more who want to. You'll be inundated with résumés and a lot of them will be very impressive. Don't make the mistake of hiring résumés. And don't rely on the good word of others in making hiring decisions. You will rise or fall on the quality of the people you hire, so make sure you eyeball every one of your key appointees. They may have gone to the best schools and graduated with honors. That's fine. But can you imagine working closely with them through the inevitable crises that will spring up? Do they seem trustworthy? You'll have to go with your gut. You need loyal people around you. The old line about firing all the incompetent people and most of the competent ones comes to mind. I didn't do anything that extreme. But I did gather the entire staff together and sent a clear message that the president's priorities were our priorities. We would speak with one voice, and there would be no cacophony of views or press leaks. (I guess I was a little optimistic about that.) I told them I didn't want any surprises. If there was news, good or bad, I wanted to hear it first.
Richard Thornburgh served as attorney general under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush

Back in 1980, I was the director of the presidential transition. I was responsible for the vetting and selection of all cabinet members. I remember we had five criteria that the president laid out for all cabinet officials: First, they had to be fully committed to the president and his policies. Second, they had to have absolute and demonstrated integrity. Third, we needed someone with the intellectual experience to handle whatever the job was. Fourth, they couldn't have their own agenda—be planning to run for president in the future, for example. And last, that they would be tough in recognizing the challenges facing the administration. I think now, even three decades later, those criteria would still be the same.

But it was the role of attorney general where I had the most experience. I wasn't President Reagan's first attorney general, I was his second. But both times, the president was looking for someone who was a good lawyer and who understood the president's policies, and had the ability to manage what really is the largest law office in the world. The person who becomes attorney general has to have criminal experience, but also civil experience. When I took over, I had to deal with criminal issues in law enforcement, but I also to be able to make decisions regarding civilian law and practice. Among the most important task of the position is advising the president on judicial appointments, including for the Supreme Court. There is surely no shortage of attention around that process.

But qualifications alone will not do the job for you. One thing I remember learning the hard way about is the ubiquitous nature of the news media. I think that most people who come from private practice or even state government aren't used to it. That's a phenomenon of Washington that I'd definitely warn about.

Serving as attorney general will mean joining a long line of distinguished public servants. The president made sure I knew this in a moment of levity, which was characteristic of President Reagan. As Bill Smith, my predecessor, was retiring, he and I rode back to California with the president on Air Force One. On the trip, both of us fell sound asleep and, unbeknownst to us, the president had a photographer take a photo of us sitting there sleeping in adjoining chairs. I didn't know until a few weeks later, when I got a copy of the picture autographed by the president. He had inscribed on it, "See Ed, I told you that you could do Bill's job. Signed, Ron."

If you're not a morning person, adjust now. The Pentagon starts work early. My office opened at 5 a.m., and by 8:30 a.m. I had completed two intelligence briefings, three different senior staff meetings and a conference with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs.

You will lead an organization of more than 3 million people, with troops deployed in more than 30 countries and a budget of more than $400 billion spread over thousands of programs. Knowledge is power, but it's impossible to know everything. Instead, focus intensely in the early days on finding outstanding professionals to fill key positions who can be confirmed quickly. This is harder than it sounds; there will be individuals you really want who will decline to serve, and others you won't want who will require a court order to remove from your outer office. (One enterprising fellow had more than 200 friends write me urging that I hire him; regrettably, his abilities were not equal to his zeal, so we took a pass.)

Manage your relationship with the White House wisely. They will have many people they will want to place at DoD after the campaign, and you need to remain firm in rejecting those who do not have the necessary knowledge or background, whatever their other merits. Also, don't call the president about every little gripe you have—you will need his attention for some very big issues and you don't want to wear out your welcome.

Congress can be vexing (indeed, is designed to be), but reach out to the key members early and often. You will need their support. Most senior members of the Defense committees take their oversight responsibilities seriously and want the department to succeed. And talk to your predecessors periodically. We understand better than anyone the challenges of the job, and we want you to do well. Before I was sworn in, I met with each living former secretary and got some fascinating—if occasionally contradictory—insights.

Prepare to travel extensively and don't fret at the thought that you'll be out of the power loop. An amazing communications apparatus ensures you are never out of contact with machinations in Washington. You need to visit and connect with the extraordinary young men and women who serve this country in uniform around the world. Be sure to meet privately with the senior leaders of the enlisted troops so you can hear directly from them as well as from top military officials. You have a sacred duty to provide for their protection and to understand their needs and concerns. Retention of seasoned people is a constant challenge, and it's important to appreciate quality-of-life issues as they weigh the decision to re-enlist.

You also need to travel to meet your counterparts in many key countries. As with Congress, you will have to ask their help with difficult issues that cannot now be foreseen; so it's best to build those relationships early. Do not assume they'll be eager to accommodate your every wish. Remember, all of their politics "is local," too. Spend extra time and extend every personal and professional courtesy to them when they visit Washington. A little hospitality goes a very long way when the time comes to ask them for something hard.

Follow the example Robert Gates has set and build a good relationship with the secretary of state. It doesn't serve the country to have the two departments pushing and shoving over bureaucratic turf battles. The challenges of the 21st century are increasingly both political and military, and the president deserves a united effort.

Finally, exercise regularly, eat wisely (but not too well) and be prepared to function on little sleep. The next few years will likely be both the biggest responsibility and biggest honor you will ever have.
William S. Cohen served as secretary of defense under President Bill Clinton

In any cabinet role, but especially leading the State Department, a secretary's influence is only as strong as his or her relationship with the president. Everybody in Washington wants to get a piece of the foreign-policy turf, so it's imperative that there be an understanding between you and the president. In the current administration, there are four power centers on foreign policy: the State Department, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense and—uniquely to this administration—the vice president's office. But that all tends to promote gridlock and tension that might otherwise be avoided.

One of the things I did was go around and talk to every former secretary of state and every former president. Many of them gave me that very advice, that you need to be in control of your position and responsible for your department, because it's an institution in and of itself. You need to be the president's person at the State Department and not the State Department's person at the White House.But you'll also have to be a good manager. The department is a very large bureaucracy; most of the people below you are career public servants. The challenge will be to manage the building and not let the building manage you. Of course there will also be positions to appoint. Many people who come to Washington are afraid to surround themselves with extraordinarily competent individuals for fear they might take some of the luster away from the principal. But that's not how it works. You need to have extraordinarily talented people around you in order to succeed.In the building itself, you'll be up on the seventh floor. There's a formal office and an informal office. I didn't use the formal office much; it's mainly just to receive ambassadors. I sure had some fun up there. In those days, I was trying to quit smoking, so I would chew tobacco. I had a little sign that said I NOTICED THAT YOU SMOKE. I WANT TO TELL YOU THAT I CHEW, AND IF YOU DON'T BLOW YOUR SMOKE ON ME, I WON'T SPIT ON YOU. I put in on the mantle of the formal office. My wife had a heart attack. She said, "You've got to take that down." But you know, I never took it down. That's the kind of secretary I was.

In the fall of 2000, I traveled down to Washington for a final job interview with the president-elect at the hotel where the transition team had set up its offices. Before accepting his offer to head up the EPA, I wanted to know who would ultimately be responsible for the administration's environmental policy. In the end, I asked, would the EPA or the Council on Environmental Quality have the final say? "What's CEQ?" he replied, laughing it off.

It took less than a year for an issue to arise over which Jim Connaughton, the head of CEQ, and I disagreed. I don't recall what the issue was precisely, but I certainly recall that when I raised my concern with the White House, I was told that Jim spoke for the administration.

The ill-defined distribution of authority between the EPA and CEQ has led to tensions with the White House in the past, and that's understandable—up to a point. But I note this episode because I believe it illustrates how important it is that the next EPA administrator have a serious conversation with the president-elect about such issues at the outset. A new administrator should clarify decisively with the president-elect who is going to be determining environmental policy: either the EPA or the Council on Environmental Quality. There will always be a need for administrationwide coordination, but it should be clearly delineated that the EPA administrator speaks for the administration on the environment.

To that end, the next administration should move a bill early on that would make EPA a cabinet department. While it won't change how the agency functions day to day, it will send a strong message to the nation and the world about how seriously the new president takes environmental issues. The United States is the only developed country that does not have a "minister" of environmental issues. We accord the EPA administrator cabinet status, and that person is treated as if he or she was a minister on the world stage, but the semantic change would be a strong signal to the world that the United States will be focusing on environmental issues in the years to come.

In addition, the new administration will want to take a close look at all the pending regulations that were moved out in the last few months of the Bush years. Listen closely to the career staff in analyzing these and make sure that the work that led to them was complete and not rushed. Spend as much time as possible getting to know the EPA staff. There are many highly talented people whose skills, ideas and extensive institutional knowledge should be cultivated. There are some tremendous public servants at the EPA and their contribution should be welcomed and encouraged.

Finally, I would ask the president-elect and his advisers for flexibility in making political appointments. There are always "must-hires" when a new administration takes over, and having the flexibility to place those specific people in the departments where you believe their efforts would be most helpful can make an enormous difference. This cross-fertilization of public servants and political appointees will go a long way to ensuring that policy and politics will work together, not in opposition.

There is no doubt that the next four years will present significant environmental challenges. For the sake of our climate and our nation, I wish the next EPA administrator all the best.
Christine Todd Whitman served as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President George W. Bush

I'll always remember the night in January 1995 when, as usual, we were working late in the White House and Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin came into my office. Bob was not in a mood for small talk. Mexico—its economy in meltdown—had 48 hours to live, and there was no public or congressional support for a rescue loan. Nonetheless, President Clinton quickly approved it, and it prevented a massive hemorrhage south of our border.

Today, as Barack Obama prepares to enter the Oval Office, the entire global financial system faces a far more serious meltdown. It poses an early test of the new president—not only of where he will lead the international community but, just as importantly, how. The stakes are huge. When what happens in the Tokyo market overnight affects our markets in the morning, when falling growth in China immediately drives down commodity prices in Brazil, every nation, however rich or poor, is vulnerable.

The world knows that the economic crisis can't be solved without America. They will respect a president who leads as Obama has promised to lead—by persuasion, not compulsion. They will respond to a president who recognizes the need for new global arrangements that give new global players a greater say. If President Obama is the principal architect of this new, more-inclusive system, he will be recognized as its leader, just as his predecessors FDR, Dwight Eisenhower and Harry Truman were the leaders of the post-World War II era.

The financial crisis presents dangers, but it also presents opportunity for a new president who understands the forces of change in the world and seeks to marshal them. President Obama's ability to advance a broader agenda, from energy to nonproliferation, will be empowered if he succeeds in meeting this challenge. It will be imperiled if he fails.

Transitions are interesting, and no single one is typical because they're all different. They depend on whether it's a transition not only of administration but also among parties. It depends on the nature of the president and the nature of the campaign. One of the most difficult parts for any transition will be the national-security framework, especially dealing with the National Security Council. The first time I was transitioned out, I was kind of appalled at the notion. On Inauguration Day, movers came and all the safes were locked and moved out. All the people walked out and closed the doors. A new administration then came into empty offices. I remember thinking, "What a way to run a system." Sadly, that's still the way they run it.

The easiest thing is when you inherit the position from someone you can work with, like I did with Colin Powell in 1989. The hardest will be one like the one ahead. This transition will be very complicated, mainly in terms of the financial crisis. President Bush is going to have a conference in the middle of November with all the finance ministers of the G8. He's the president, yes, but he's not going to implement anything that comes from that meeting. The question will be what he does for the president-elect. There are still more tough decisions the president will make; many, if not all of them, will have an impact on the next president.

To whoever takes over as national-security adviser, I would say this: when you get there, you should ask for a list of the status of any ongoing discussions with any foreign country. That has to come directly from the office of the incumbent. Then I would follow up on that with anything that looks like it needs papers. To get anything after the fact means an enormous process involving legal government requests. To do it beforehand would mitigate that process.

History has shown that the president meets with his secretary of state maybe once a week. But he meets with the national-security adviser almost once a day. That person has to represent the views of many different cabinet members honestly and accurately to the president. If he or she doesn't, and there's not that trust, the system will break down. But the challenge is also to be the national-security adviser to the president, unassociated with the affiliation with any other department bureaucracies. Maintaining those separately is very complicated. If it's done well, you have a smoothly functioning system. If not, you'll have deadlock.
Brent Scowcroft was national-security adviser under Presidents Gerald Ford and George H.W. Bush

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