In the wake of any president winning his first election, political insiders start one of their favorite parlor games: Cabinet speculation. Well, we at North by Northwestern may not have the highly-placed sources who leak like malfunctioning faucets to the bigger news organizations, but we do have misplaced, naïve idealism! So, here’s a hypothetical cabinet that’s a combination of the predictable and probable (just look at Treasury and Defense) to the delightfully doubtful (check out Agriculture).
Secretary of State: Richard Holbrooke– In the first six or so years of the Bush administration, the State Department was stripped of authority and influence. In the run-up to the Iraq War, the Defense Department was in charge of planning (or not planning) for post-intervention reconstruction, although there were State Department officials with more relevant expertise. Structurally, the uniformed military has taken on a lot of traditionally diplomatic responsibilities, especially in countries where the U.S. is deeply involved in counter-terrorism. The State basically needs a power-hungry jerk to wrest back their influence from the Defense Department. Holbrooke, the former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and Nobel Peace Prize nominee, is that person. The man got the Serbs and Bosnians to stop killing each other, but that’s probably because they all wanted to leave Dayton, Ohio as soon as possible.
Secretary of the Treasury: Tim Geithner– This 47-year-old hotshot is the current head of the New York Federal Reserve and a former Treasury official. Everyone seems to like him and he was lauded for his deft handling of the Bear Stearns collapse and bailout. Appointing a Treasury Secretary now is like appointing a War Secretary in 1940– you need someone who knows what he’s doing. Geithner does– he can boast both his experience actually leading a federal reserve and the knowledge of how the Treasury works from his experience under Clinton.
Secretary of Defense: Robert Gates– Obviously, Democrats want to put their stamp on the Pentagon, especially considering that a Republican, William Cohen, was the last Secretary for a Democratic administration. Withdrawing from Iraq, however, will require buy-in from some Republicans and the defense establishment. Also, Gates recognizes that the future of the military is not getting in dogfights with Russia or China, but instead low-intensity, counter insurgency conflicts.
Attorney General: Janet Napolitano– For Attorney General, you want someone who is loyal to the president but not a weak-willed pushover like former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, best remembered for blatantly lying to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Napolitano, the current governor of Arizona, was an early supporter of Obama and a former U.S. Attorney, and would fit the bill nicely. She should also have the managerial and political skills to reverse the politicization of the Justice Department that occurred under Gonzales’s watch.
Secretary of the Interior: Jay Inslee– He’s a Democratic representative from Washington state and has a long record serving on both the Resources and Energy and Commerce Committees. His environmental record is near-impeccable, which would be a relief after eight years of dismantling environmental protections and regulations under Secretaries Gale Norton and Dirk Kempthorne.
Secretary of Agriculture: Daniel Sumner– In a perfect world, we would not have a Department of Agriculture. Besides some cursory responsibilities related to food inspection, its primary responsibility is to oversee a multibillion dollar subsidy program that impoverishes poor farmers in the developing world by artificially lowering the price of American farm goods. As if that weren’t enough, our subsidy program favors unhealthy foods like high fructose corn syrup, thus making it easier for Americans to eat what ails them. So, who should Obama appoint to this position, besides a barrel full of dynamite? How about famed agricultural economist Daniel Sumner? This University of California-Davis academic has been an intellectual leader in the battle against farm subsidies. His paper written for the American Enterprise Institute, “Farm Subsidy Tradition and Modern Agricultural Realities” lays out a cogent, detailed case against our current agricultural policy.
Secretary of Commerce: Olympia Snowe– Tapping the senior Republican senator from Maine would accomplish quite a few objectives for Obama. One, she is a Republican, and having a few members of the opposition party in his cabinet would do a lot to promote Obama’s “new politics” and back up his rhetoric about healing the partisan divide. Two, Snowe has distinguished herself as a lawmaker who’s something of a specialist in commerce and small business as a member of the Finance, Small Business and Entrepreneurship and Commerce, Science and Transportation Committees. And an extra bonus: Maine is a deep-blue state with a Democratic governor that went 58-41 for Obama. If he could lure Snowe out of the Senate, the Democrats could be able to hold on to her seat for decades.
Secretary of Labor: Wilma Liebman– Exactly what does a Labor Secretary do during a Republican administration? Well, they don’t do much, except staff the place with people opposed to organized labor. So, the Labor Secretary ought to be someone who knows her way around the federal labor bureaucracy and can reverse eight years of stalling – or worse – by Elaine Chao, the current Labor Secretary. Wilma Liebman, who was appointed to the National Labor Relations Board by Bill Clinton in 1997, would be someone with the requisite pro-labor credentials and governmental experience.
Secretary of Health and Human Services: John Kitzhaber– Haven’t heard of the mustachioed former governor of Oregon? Neither have most people, unless they’re health policy wonks. He is a former doctor, and as governor helped create the Oregon Health Plan, which provides health coverage for low-income individuals. Since leaving office in 2003, he has been active in health policy and an advocate for universal coverage and evidence-based care.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Shaun Donovan– Sure, he sounds like (and looks like) an extra from The Departed, but he’s also doing a pretty good job as New York City’s Commissioner of the Department of Housing Preservation and Development. According to The New York Times, he “is seen nationally as a pioneer in finding new ways to create and preserve low-cost housing.” The only concern is that if Obama were to tap him, along with Sadik-Khan and Klein, New York City would be bereft of talented bureaucrats.
Secretary of Transportation: Janette Sadik-Khan– The big problem with our federal transportation policy is that it is centered on getting states as much highway money as possible so they can make it easier and easier for people to commute longer and longer distances. Considering the long-term likelihood of high oil prices and concerns about global warming, we need someone who is focused on transportation for people who live in urban areas and close-in suburbs, which will likely grow in size as far-out suburbs and exurbs become unsustainable. Sadik-Khan, who is currently New York Citiy’s Commissioner of the Department of Transportation, is almost universally beloved by public transit advocates and progressive urban planners. She also rides her bike to work every day.
Secretary of Energy: Kathleen Sebelius– Although she was mentioned as a vice-presidential candidate, the Democratic governor of Kansas would make a fantastic Energy Secretary. As governor, she gained nationwide attention for three times blocking the construction of coal-fired power plants. Under an Obama administration, the Energy Secretary will have the responsibility of managing huge investments in alternative energy and shifting away from fossil fuels. Considering Sebelius’ record, she’s the woman for the job
Secretary of Education: Joel Klein– Another New York City bureaucrat, Klein is the Chancellor of the New York City Department of Education. He has gained both national fame and notoriety for his ambitious plan of testing students, evaluating teachers and rating individual schools. He is a noted educational reformer and founder of the Education Equality Project, an advocacy group that is pushing for wide-ranging reform of American primary and secondary education. He also already has federal government experience, having served in the Justice Department from 1997 to 2001.
Secretary of Homeland Security: William Bratton– The Department of Homeland Security is a total mess, so someone with a lot of experience in large law enforcement bureaucracies would probably be right for the job. Bratton is the current Chief of Police in Los Angeles and has served as Police Commissioner in Boston and New York. In New York, he was responsible, along with Mayor Rudy Giuliani, for reforming the department and putting an emphasis on empirical measures of success for individual precincts. He oversaw a large drop in crime during his tenure.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs: Chet Edwards– Losing Edwards to the Cabinet would certainly be a blow to the Democratic House caucus, where he is already a rising star. But Edwards has always been a determined advocate on behalf of veterans and has already expressed interest in the job, rhetorically asking, “Where could I do the most good for veterans? I’m not sure.”