This essay by Jonathan Alter is the introductory essay to a package of articles that will appear in our Spring 2021 issue and that we will be posting over the coming weeks on our website. We asked four Obama-era Cabinet officials to write essays describing what running their often-vast agencies was like, what surprised them, what they found to be the keys to success. We will post those essays starting next week.
This year’s crisis of democracy must be confronted directly, and no quarter given to seditionists. But beyond accountability lies the separate challenge of continuity. That Joe Biden was sworn into office as President just after a violent putsch attempt merely underscores the importance of restoring the successful—no longer boring—nitty gritty of government. Even rapid confirmation of Biden’s appointees and a flurry of executive orders will be only a prelude to the hard and now essential work of making Washington work better. That’s the only way to assure we don’t squander our democracy in the not-too-distant future.
To “Build Back Better,” the Biden Administration will need fresh blueprints. Beyond the policy specifics, how should they be drawn?
Everyone knows that the center of power in any administration lies in the White House, where face time with the President is the coin of the realm. (Or it was until Donald Trump proved such a disgrace that even his closest associates shunned him.) Under normal circumstances—even “new normal” times—the allure of the White House endures. That’s where the Congress, the press, and the diplomatic corps focus their collective attention. Cabinet secretaries generally get their names in the headlines only when they’re hired, fired, or face some kind of scandal.
But this frame on Washington, while accurate enough, misses the truth about how change happens. While political strategy and broad policymaking originate in the White House, the all-important execution of laws and formulation of dozens of initiatives remain the province of the bureaucracy—or “deep state,” to use the term popularized by Steve Bannon and exploited by him and others to fuel the insurrection. That’s where the seemingly small but often hugely impactful changes in programs and regulations often take place.
This issue of Democracy contains a special section on Cabinet-level positions and the influence they wield on government and thus, directly or indirectly, on our lives. Former Cabinet secretaries and other senior officials get under the hood to look at some of the gearing of government.
Most presidents are so busy with putting out (or, in Donald Trump’s case, starting) political fires, that they don’t have much time to manage the executive branch. That’s why their ability to appoint good people—and the ability of those political appointees to hire well, listen to the right career civil servants, and coordinate successfully in the “interagency process”—becomes so important.
The cataclysmic events of the first week of January 2021—the results of the Senate runoffs in Georgia and the Trumpist siege of the Capitol—have already changed the tone of Washington and thus will do the same for the thousands of conversations that nudge policy in one direction or another. Democratic control of Congress (albeit by the slimmest of margins in the Senate) does more than break partisan gridlock; it creates momentum for a historic Biden debut. Combined with the continuing COVID crisis and a new thirst for civility on the part of a traumatized capital and country, this could be the most consequential period for domestic political change since Franklin D. Roosevelt assumed the presidency nearly nine decades ago.
It turns out Biden and FDR have a lot in common. Both were ennobled by personal suffering—polio in Roosevelt’s case; the death of his first wife and two children in Biden’s. Both came to power amid great national suffering—the pits of the Depression in FDR’s case; a pandemic and insurrection in Biden’s. Both took the oath in a nervous capital fearing political violence. And both could boast the right kind of political skills. Shortly after Roosevelt was sworn in, retired Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. said he had “a second-class intellect but a first-class temperament.” The same applies to Biden.
Comparisons to FDR’s famous first 100 Days are nonetheless tricky; the complexities of the banking crisis of 1933 are more akin to the challenges incoming President Obama faced in 2009 than to managing COVID-19. But Roosevelt’s enactment and mobilization of the Civilian Conservation Corps—in which he managed to employ 250,000 young men in a mere four months—is comparable to Biden’s efforts to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days.
Roosevelt understood the vital importance of proper framing. He placed his entire domestic program—every initiative in every agency— under the rubric of the New Deal and, by mid-1933, the Blue Eagle decal hung in nearly every store with the legend “We Do Our Part.” The decal signified that businesses had subscribed to the voluntary codes imposed under the National Industrial Recovery Act.
The codes were often a regulatory nightmare; Washington literally regulated how many times a night a stripper could take off her clothes. And the Depression didn’t end. But in the 1934 midterms, the Democrats gained nine seats in both the House and the Senate—the last time the President’s party picked up seats in the midterms until President George W. Bush’s Republicans did so in 2002 in the wake of 9/11.
If Biden puts his entire domestic agenda under the “Build Back Better” rubric—and makes the 2022 midterms a choice between building back and obstruction from Trumpist dead-enders—he can defy history, too. To make that happen, though, he needs real accomplishments, which means creative policy thinking and big goals throughout his Administration. “The country demands bold, persistent experimentation,” Roosevelt said in 1932. “Take a method and try it: If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something.” Biden should think that way, too.
Creative experimentation requires inter-governmental cooperation, something we saw little of under Trump. But examples of interagency ingenuity abound: John F. Kennedy’s “ExCom” (the special committee that helped him avoid a nuclear war during the terrifying 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis); Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society”—including historic bills on health, education, voting rights,and immigration (the exact same agenda Biden is pursuing)—was the product of the departments working closely with the White House; Bill Clinton’s ad hoc “war rooms” on close congressional votes included not just political types from the White House but can-do representatives of various agencies. And the “deputies meetings” under Obama were vital in moving the ball on policy, whilethe famous “No Drama Obama” vibe helped make normally sharp-elbowed officials self-conscious about knifing their rivals in other departments. Biden can learn from those structures—“teams of teams,” as Bill Drayton of theAshoka Foundation calls them—that usually work better than the rigid hierarchies and established channels favored by more corporate Republican presidents.
To fulfill their potential, new presidents must launch smoothly and sequence the rollout of policy proposals in a rapid but thoughtful way. Jimmy Carter was a much more legislatively productive President than is generally recognized, with 14 major energy and environmental bills; major ethics, civil service, and regulatory reform; ratification of the Panama Canal Treaties (an extremely heavy lift), and a lot more. But his presidency offers an object lesson in how not to structure an administration.
After he was elected in 1976, Carter decided he wanted to implement something that was then called “Cabinet Government.” Like many of Carter’s early initiatives, Cabinet Government—as envisioned by political scientist Stephen Hess—was a reaction to the excesses of Watergate, which had led to Richard Nixon’s resignation only a little more than two years earlier. Nixon had hired a famously hard-nosed (and corrupt) White House chief of staff, H.R. “Bob” Haldeman, who rode roughshod over all the departments and agencies. Carter, who as governor of Georgia had not been able to get a meeting with Nixon’s domestic policy adviser, John Ehrlichman (or even his deputy), went all the way in the other direction, offering his Cabinet picks free rein.
Cabinet Government flopped. Like their predecessors, the men—and increasingly, under Carter, women—who ran the departments and agencies of government were already inclined to act in their own parochial interests and those of the constituencies they served rather than work in harness with the whole Administration. The new freedom offered them by Cabinet Government turned this structural issue from an irritation into a genuine problem.
Carter’s Cabinet was full of talented hard-chargers, including Joe Califano at the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (which Carter broke up, over Califano’s strenuous objections, to create the Department of Education); Patricia Roberts Harris, the first Black woman to serve in the Cabinet, at the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD); and James Schlesinger at the newly created Department of Energy. His secretary of state, Cyrus Vance, was undermined at every turn by his national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski. From the start, the post-Watergate press corps turned flaps and turf fights into headline-grabbing stories that consumed whole forests of newsprint and distracted attention from more important policy initiatives. And Carter got the worst of both worlds: blame for everything that went wrong in the agencies without much control over what happened there.
To make matters even more unwieldy, Carter did not hire a chief of staff until two-and-a-half years into his presidency. He opted for a White House structure that was called “spokes on a wheel”—the President at the center with several senior aides reporting directly to him. When Carter’s top aide, Hamilton Jordan, told President Ford’s 35-year-old outgoing chief of staff, Dick Cheney, about the idea during the Ford-Carter transition, Cheney rummaged in a closet and presented the Carter team with a bent bicycle wheel—a souvenir of Ford’s own failed effort to implement spokes-on-a-wheel.
Everyone on the Carter team except Carter himself later agreed that not having a chief of staff for so long hurt the Administration. (Jordan eventually took the job in 1979, followed by Jack Watson in 1980.) And even Carter understood that Cabinet Government was no way to run a railroad. Within days of his famous 1979 “malaise” speech (in which he never used the word “malaise”), he fired five members of his Cabinet. Nixon had done something similar after his smashing 1972 reelection and with similarly disastrous results: Like President Trump’s capricious Cabinet firings, Nixon’s got his second term off to a sour start and Carter’s squandered the sharp boost in approval ratings he enjoyed after his “malaise” sermon. Cabinet shuffling should be done carefully and not all at once, lest it convey Trump-like instability and cause enervating drama. The larger problem was that Carter didn’t do enough to align policy and politics; they either work in tandem or not at all.
While President Biden is unlikely to make these Cabinet-related mistakes, he is sure to make other ones. The landscape is strewn with failed Cabinet secretaries. “Engine” Charlie Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower’s Secretary of Defense, got in trouble for saying, “What’s good for General Motors [his former employer] is good for America”; Robert McNamara, who ran the Pentagon under Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, went off track with “body counts” of Vietcong; Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, served 19 months in prison for corruption. The challenge for a President is to minimize the number and severity of mistakes, and to move quickly to admit and fix them.
The following four essays by top Obama Cabinet officials will give readers a sense of the immense scope of these jobs—and may give the people who hold those posts under President Biden some timely and useful advice. In a grim time, Joe Biden enters the presidency on a wave of good will. The bar set by his disgraced predecessor is so low he can practically hop over it. Bolstered by a series of first-rate picks for his Cabinet and senior staff, this gives reason for hope.