Obama’s second-term Cabinet to play bigger policy role

President Obama, facing a limited window of time to enact an ambitious second-term agenda, is rounding out his Cabinet with relative outsiders and empowering them with more policymaking responsibility than secretaries had during his first term.

Obama reached outside his circle of confidants to formally name three new Cabinet nominees at the White House on Monday: Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Ernest Moniz as energy secretary, career environmental official Gina McCarthy as Environmental Protection Agency administrator and Wal-Mart Foundation President Sylvia Mathews Burwell as White House budget director.

The appointees and others named in recent weeks mark a departure for Obama, who stocked his first-term Cabinet with politicos but has recruited more business executives and other outsiders for his last four years.

The new nominees are expected to play an expanded role in helping develop executive actions and other policy initiatives, according to officials who detailed the second-term plans.

In Obama’s first term, White House officials made most policy decisions and only occasionally turned to the “outer Cabinet” for ideas, such as environmental regulations. But as he signaled in his State of the Union address last month, Obama is extending his reach by relying more heavily on peripheral appointees to develop ideas and take action.

“There’s more appetite, particularly where there might be some ideas that may be moved forward under existing authority, to listen to people with the experience in these Cabinet agencies,” said John D. Podesta, a White House chief of staff under President Bill Clinton who ran Obama’s 2009 transition and still informally advises the president and his senior staff.

Podesta added, “That emphasis on using that full suite of power and authority and having initiatives coming from the Cabinet secretaries themselves to move the ball up the field is really important.”

Added influence

The White House will remain the center of gravity on major policy decisions, including top legislative priorities such as immigration and gun control, officials said.

But climate change is one policy area where new Cabinet members are likely to exert added influence, officials said. Because the administration is determined to maximize its executive authority without having to seek the approval of a bitterly divided Congress, agency heads will focus on developing new policies and implementing changes.

Relations between the White House and the Cabinet were badly frayed during Obama’s first term, when agency chiefs complained that White House officials micromanaged their departments and were unwilling to accept their policy input.

The White House embraced a few superstars, such as Education Secretary Arne Duncan, an Obama friend, but others complained that they were not made to feel as if they were part of the team.

Stephen Hess, a presidential scholar at the Brookings Institution, said empowering his second-term Cabinet secretaries “would be a reversal of form for this president in particular, but for recent presidents as well.”

“It’s easy to make promises,” Hess said. “You don’t appoint somebody and say, ‘Hey, I’m putting him or her in this office and I’m really not going to give him or her much to do.’ They all do, and probably to some degree, at least initially, they mean them. But we’ll see in this case.”

For his “inner Cabinet” — the top positions at the departments of State, Defense, Treasury and Justice — Obama tapped loyalists who have been with him since his first days in office or earlier. But for the “outer Cabinet,” he has selected relative strangers, some of whom arrive in Washington with neither deep relationships with the president nor their own political networks.

“It’s much more of an outsider Cabinet,” said one informal adviser to Obama who requested anonymity to speak candidly. “He sees the opportunity for this second term to really push forward in untraditional ways, and he wants less-conventional people in the jobs.”

For instance, Sally Jewell, his nominee for interior secretary, is chief executive of the consumer co-op Recreational Equipment Inc. McCarthy heads the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation but is not a boldface name in Washington. And although Moniz and Burwell both served in the Clinton administration, these are their first forays into Obama’s circle.

Referencing Monday’s announcement, Podesta said, “All three of them are people who’ve had a broad amount of experience outside of the Obama orbit, so that brings him new voices, some new thinking and maybe a new dynamic to the work of the Cabinet.”

In other ways, however, Obama’s recent nominations suggest that the White House is consolidating its power even tighter. Many of his new appointees lack familiarity with Obama and may not be inclined to challenge him. And, unlike former governors or lawmakers, they do not have independent power bases they could tap to help advance their own agendas.

‘Old hands’

Richard Gold, who chairs the public policy and regulation group at the law firm Holland & Knight, suggested that a trio of “old hands” inside the West Wing — senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, Chief of Staff Denis McDonough and national security adviser Thomas E. Donilon — will exert greater influence over policy decisions.

“That may lead to quick, decisive decision-making,” Gold said. “On the other hand, it may accentuate the White House bubble effect, cutting the president off from contrary viewpoints.”

At the same time Obama will rely on these new nominees — several of whom have experience in the agency they have been picked to lead — to identify the levers of executive power they can wield quickly.

McCarthy has spent the past four years implementing policies under the same law, the Clean Air Act, that will form the basis of Obama’s climate policy in a second term. Moniz served as an undersecretary of energy under Clinton.

On the subject of diversity, Obama gained ground with his Cabinet selections Monday after coming under criticism for appointing white men to the more prestigious posts. The president’s choice of Burwell and McCarthy adds two women to the Cabinet; Jewell, who is awaiting Senate confirmation, makes that three.

But some in the Hispanic community said they remain uneasy about the dwindling number of available Cabinet slots. (Moniz’s background is Portuguese.)

“We’re still waiting for our first Hispanic appointment,” said Janet Murguia, president and chief executive of the National Council of La Raza. “There’s a lot of concern.”

The departure of minorities from the first-term Cabinet has been dramatic. Two of the Cabinet’s four African Americans and both of its Hispanic members have left or have announced that they are leaving. Only one of the two Asian Americans who served during the first Obama term remains.

The White House has five Cabinet or Cabinet-level posts left to fill. The openings are at the departments of Commerce, Labor and Transportation and the Small Business Administration, in addition to the job of U.S. trade representative.

Discuss this topic and other political issues in the politics discussion forums.

Juliet Eilperin is a White House correspondent for The Washington Post, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.
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