Sixteen years ago, president Bill Clintonâ€™s secretary of labor, Robert Reich, summed up the frustrations of adjusting to life in the Cabinet, where even a close personal relationship with the president, dating to their Oxford days, didnâ€™t spare him from being bossed around by arrogant West Wing nobodies. â€œFrom the view of the White House staff, cabinet officials are provincial governors presiding over alien, primitive territories,â€ Reich wrote in a classic of the pissed-off-secretary genre, Locked in the Cabinet. â€œAnything of any importance occurs in the national palace.â€
Two presidents later, the Cabinet is a swarm of 23 people that includes 15 secretaries and eight other Cabinet-rank officers. And yet never has the job of Cabinet secretary seemed smaller. The staffers who rule Obamaâ€™s West Wing often treat his Cabinet as a nuisance: At the top of the pecking order are the celebrity power players, like former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, to be warily managed; at the bottom, what they see as a bunch of well-intentioned political naifs only a lip-slip away from derailing the presidentâ€™s agenda. Chu might have been the first Obama Cabinet secretary to earn the disdain of White House aides, but he was hardly the last.
â€œWe are completely marginalized â€¦ until the shit hits the fan,â€ says one former Cabinet deputy secretary, summing up the view of many officials I interviewed. â€œIf your question is: Did the president rely a lot on his Cabinet as a group of advisers? No, he didnâ€™t,â€ says former Obama Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood.
Little wonder, then, that Obama has called the group together only rarely, for what by most accounts are not much more than ritualistic team-building exercises: According to CBS News White House reporter Mark Knoller, the Cabinet met 19 times in Obamaâ€™s first term and four times in the first 10 months of his second term. Thatâ€™s once every three months or soâ€”about as long as you can drive around before youâ€™re supposed to change your oil.