Robert M. Simon is the staff director for the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. He served as principal deputy director of the Energy Department’s office of energy research from 1991 to 1993.
So, would you like to be the secretary of something in the second Obama administration? Political connections are key, but they won’t guarantee you the job or, more important, success once you are sworn in. Here are seven rules to boost your chances of getting to the Cabinet — and then actually accomplishing something.
1. Keep a low profile until
you are officially picked.
This rule applies especially to activities on your behalf by your friends and would-be supporters. Having your name in every news story about the administration’s transition encourages people to gin up opposition to or support for your selection, much as we have seen as Sen. John F. Kerry has been floated for defense secretary and before that, secretary of state.
Presidents and their staffs want to look like geniuses for thinking of you, not like slaves to the Washington spin cycle. For example, picking Hillary Rodham Clinton for secretary of state in 2008 was widely seen as a bold stroke by President- elect Barack Obama precisely because the news media hadn’t put her on the short list.
You can’t stop the media from speculating about your chances. But don’t encourage it — or imagine that it helps. Your best bet is to emulate Clinton’s response once news of Obama’s offer to her had leaked: “I’m not going to speculate or address anything about the president-elect’s incoming administration. And I’m going to respect his process, and any inquiries should be directed to his transition team.”
2. You will accomplish perhaps three things as a Cabinet officer — decide on them before you seek the job.
If you can’t think of three specific goals that you want to achieve in four years as a Cabinet member, why do you want the job? Having focused goals also helps when your interview with the president turns substantive.
You’ll need allies to achieve those goals; be prepared to provide the president with the names of three people you could hire who would be critical to helping you. The positions that really count are usually at the level of assistant secretaries or deputy assistant secretaries. You have more influence there.
At the beginning of his tenure in 1989, Energy Secretary James Watkins set a goal of cleaning up the nuclear waste accumulated from the Cold War production of atomic weapons — as well as the deficient nuclear-safety culture in the Energy Department that, in his view, helped create the problem. He secured from President George H.W. Bush a free hand to determine who would occupy the department’s top nuclear-related positions. As a result, these jobs were filled with people who were competent, instead of merely politically connected. While Watkins certainly did not solve all of the department’s nuclear problems in four years, he made a lasting impact because he had a team of experts focused on achieving his top goal.