August 15, 2012
By Nancy Scola
Paul Ryan comes into his vice presidential nomination with more policy baggage than most. We'll vet him obsessively for the next few weeks, and with good reason. But let's face it, he's still running for the second slot. Think about this: The attention we pay to who might be the next vice president of the United States dwarfs by several orders of magnitude the attention we give to the dozen or so people whose job descriptions actually include making public policy for the country -- the rest of the president's cabinet. Who might Mitt Romney pick to head up the Treasury Department? The Department of Defense? To be attorney general? Who, for that matter, would fill Hillary Clinton's shoes as Obama's second-term secretary of state? Those questions are hugely consequential to the functioning of the American presidency.
Still, voters get little insight into their answers. Who will line up alongside the president at cabinet meetings is a decision that lives only the mind of the president-to-be. Should that change? . . .
Things work differently in other countries, of course. Nearly every one of my academics began by pointing to the "shadow cabinets" built into other ways of governing. Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, described the full-color display the loyal opposition puts on during Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom. "They're hooting and booing and hollering at his answers," says Jillson. "It helps people decide because they know who is going to be chancellor of the exchequer, secretary [of state for] defence, and all those jobs. But our system isn't set up that way." . . .
For the new president-elect, fleshing out full cabinets -- Health and Human Services? Agriculture? HUD? -- can be an afterthought. This can, in turn, lead to something like what public affairs expert Hugh Heclo described in a book in the late 1970s called A Government of Strangers: In recent years, presidents have often come into office without much experience on the national stage. Getting the bureaucracy up and running involves a lot of fumbling in the dark. In the rush of transition, administrations get staffed with people who the president doesn't know very well, and, horizontally, often don't know each other very well. It all makes it particularly tempting to pick from the pool of folks who have already been through the ringer. . .
Jillson of SMU picks up the thread. "Since the president, then, doesn't know [the members of his cabinet and other executive branch staff] very well, he can't place deep confidence in them, and that leads presidents to depend upon their White House counsellors, their own close appointees."
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