The Cabinet: What’s the Big Deal?

Like many other politically-oriented students, I have been following the 2012 Presidential Election closely from day one. But early on in the Republican primary campaign, I wasn’t sure how to react when candidates like Governor Rick Perry called for the dissolution of three cabinet departments, albeit the third one was omitted during a debate. But it got me thinking: what would happen if these cabinet positions didn’t exist? Could it mean that an organized and systematic way to deal with things like education was out of the question? Hardly.

Rather, I began to realize that positions in the cabinet show, as my adviser likes to describe it, “what Americans think are important.” They are the priorities of our country. So, I began to wonder what kinds of factors actually make a subject a priority in this country. Is it public pressure, interest groups, the government or a combination of factors? Although I am still in the midst of my research, I hope to discover what allowed for the creation of the Department of the Interior, but did not align to create something like the Department of Food.

Many months later, the Washington Post noted that President Obama was holding his first cabinet meeting in over several months, and only his fourth during his entire term as President. Interestingly, Obama actually changed the executive structure, elevating and returning the Permanent Representative to the United Nations to a cabinet-level status. However, it seems as though President Obama never made good use of the change. This then leads to my second question: what is the point of the Cabinet? Is it meant as a rudimentary body there for show and tell? Is it supposed to simply be a body of administrators? Or, is it supposed to present the united application of policy of the President?

Obviously, answering these questions presents a daunting task. The Cabinet has developed from four departments during President Washington’s time, to twelve departments today. However, I believe that it is important to take a historical look at the Cabinet and see what history can tell us about its past, and what changes we may see in the future, and how that will affect us as both citizens and beneficiaries. Perhaps when we start to understand this elusive body, we will truly be able to understand the issues that affect our country as a whole.

About ryncho

Student at Columbia University.
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5 Responses to The Cabinet: What’s the Big Deal?

  1. shindi13 says:

    This sounds like a very intriguing research topic, especially given the significant influence that Cabinet wielded during the 1800s (i.e. how the Secretary of State was often viewed as the main steppingstone to the Presidency). I was not even aware that President Obama had instituted neither that personnel change nor that he had met so infrequently with the Cabinet. Are there certain Administrations that you intend to compare? Or, will you be primarily focusing on the institutional development of the Cabinet itself over the years? Something that you may want to consider is how did the development of other institutions within the Executive Branch (the Executive Office of the President, the National Security Council, the Council of Economic Advisers, etc) impact the Cabinet’s influence and access to the president. I’m not sure how feasible it is, but I’d imagine it would be incredibly interesting to research how Cabinets or Cabinet members reacted to the formation of a new Executive Branch agency. I would definitely like to hear more about this topic in the coming months! Best of luck with it!

  2. samfarish says:

    My mock trial team at my university has a cabinet as well, and I would love to know why we have one, too. The positions are entirely pointless, as the organization is run by our coaches and the president (that’s me). We always say they are resume fillers. By being on the cabinet, you get to add things to your resume.

  3. johnadearborn says:

    Are there any particular presidents or management models (formalistic, competitive, collegial, for example) that you’ll be looking at for your paper? FDR is particular fascinating in how he utilized his cabinet and sometimes undercut the various secretaries. Will you be looking at the differences in how much the President relies on the Inner Cabinet (defense, state, treasury, justice, and probably homeland security now) versus the Outer Cabinet? Your topic is definitely very interesting and I’m looking forward to seeing where you go with it.

  4. katelynnoellee says:

    I found your observation about the relationship between the status of cabinet positions and public opinion to be very insightful. I’ve noticed, for example, that recent discussions of eliminating the Department of Education come at a time when our education system is facing a number of issues and failing many of its students. If we placed greater value on improving the system, these discussions might be significantly different in nature. It will be interesting to see the connections you discover in your research!

  5. Wow, I can’t believe President Obama has met so infrequently with his cabinet. Is this unusual, or has the Cabinet been waning in relevancy for some time?

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