Searching for Significance in a Noninstitution
The presidential cabinet is a well-known but little examined part of the United States' federal government. Unlike the situation in the Westminster system, the U.S. presidential cabinet is responsible to the executive, not to the legislature, but appointments to it are subject to the advice and consent of the Senate. Unlike the Westminster system, and despite desultory debate at the Philadelphia Convention over the establishment of an executive council to share executive power with the president, the U.S. presidential cabinet enjoys no collective power or even constitutional status (Cohen 1988, 16; Cronin 1980, 178-79; Milkis and Nelson 1980, 44-45; Warshaw 1996, 14).
Accordingly, the Constitution vests executive power solely in the president and makes no mention of a presidential cabinet. It imposes no duty upon presidents even to form one, let alone to call it together or to consult it. Only eight presidential nominees for cabinet have been denied confirmation by the Senate, and since the repeal of the Tenure of Office Act in 1887 the president's right to fire his secretaries at will has not been contested (Cohen 1988, 10. 15). "The American cabinet was in 1793 and is today," Richard Fenno (1959, 19) declared in 1959, "an extralegal creation, functioning in the interstices of the law, surviving in accordance with tradition, and institutionalized by usage alone."
Fenno's study of presidential cabinets is more than 50 years old, but few political scientists have cared to revisit or extend his research. (1) Nelson W. Polsby's study of presidential cabinet making, published in this journal in 1978, posited three ways that presidents had formed their cabinets: using appointments to it to curry favor with interest groups, appointing "substantive specialists" expert in the work of their departments, or selecting "generalist executive[s]" who could bring nonspecific executive experience to the cabinet. Since the advent of the imperial presidency, Polsby thought, presidents had moved away from appointing cabinet secretaries to appease constituent groups and towards choosing generalists who owed their position solely to the president (Polsby 1978, 19, 22-33; see also Best 1981, 62-66; Borrelli 2000; Cohen 1988, 35; Cronin 1980; Warshaw 1996).
In 1984, R. Gordon Hoxie published an account of the cabinet from its origins in Britain's seventeenth century royal government up to its operation during President Ronald Reagan's first term. With such a broad sweep, Hoxie's work did not provide an analytical or theoretical interpretation of the role of the cabinet other than to observe that its role and usefulness have always been within the gift, and utterly dependent upon, the president of the day (Laski 1940, 82-86). "Seven noes and one aye," Lincoln Summed up his cabinet's discussion over whether he should issue the Emancipation Proclamation. "The ayes have it" (Hoxie 1984, 219; see Borrelli 2000, 21).
Jeffrey Cohen provided in 1988 a much more analytical study of the presidential cabinet. "If the cabinet as a body is so unimportant," Cohen asked, "why do presidents invest so much time in building their cabinets? The cabinet must have some intrinsic value to presidents" (Cohen 1988, 3). His answer was that the presidential cabinet, although without institutional status of its own and entirely subject to the president's will, was and is an important part of the federal government. Quite apart from the power and influence that might accrue to individual cabinet secretaries, cabinet as a whole functions as a key representative body that reflects the concerns of regions, industries, interest and demographic groups, and constituents.
Even more importantly, Cohen concluded, the presidential cabinet exercises important symbolic representative functions, in that it--collectively and individually--symbolizes "the colors, tone, and coalition make-up of the administration." Through his or her cabinet the president can reward supporters, lure the undecided, and snub enemies. The media and informed public, well aware of this use of cabinet appointments, amplify these messages to the electorate at large. The result, Cohen argued, was that the cabinet really does matter, although not in ways that are recognized by those who take an institutional view of political structures and power (1988, 173-76).
Although he analyzed the aggregated experience of cabinet secretaries in terms of their backgrounds, age at appointment, and length of tenure, Cohen did not focus on individual secretaries to illustrate their representative symbolism. In 2000, however, Mary Anne Borrelli applied gender analysis to the presidential cabinet and to some of its prominent female members. In surveying the 17 women who had served in presidential cabinets between 1933 and 2000, Borrelli (2000) found that they had usually been "Generalists," to use Polsby's category, and had most often languished in the outer cabinet. Two female inner cabinet appointments in the 1990spMadeleine Albright as secretary of state and Janet Reno as attorney general, Borrelli hoped, would mark a permanent break in that confining syndrome.
Although it is popularly referred to as the president's "official family," the cabinet has rarely lived up to the influence and intimacy that this term suggests. Almost every president since George Washington has begun his term emphasizing the importance of the cabinet to his administration but within a year has either ignored it or reduced it to irrelevance (Cronin 1980, 183). Washington relied heavily on his four-man cabinet for policy and political advice, but allowed it to be dominated by feuds between Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton; Andrew Jackson politicized his cabinet and downplayed its importance by making it subject to the spoils system and relying on his "kitchen cabinet" for policy advice; Abraham Lincoln used it to keep his political enemies close to hand, and Franklin Roosevelt used it to gauge opinion on policies that his Brain Trust and later his White House staff had already devised (Cronin 1980, 178-79; Fenno 1959, 119; Goodwin 2005; Smith 2007, 335; Warshaw 1996, 1, 14-17).
As the work of the federal government has expanded, and as the powers of the president have grown, so too has the size of the presidential cabinet. John Adams had five departmental heads in 1800, Woodrow Wilson had 10 in 1913, and George W. Bush had 15 in 2008. Growth, however, has not made the cabinet more powerful. Indeed, cabinet secretaries have become less so as the size and influence of the president's White House staff, and bodies such as the National Security Council and the Office of Management and Budget, have grown. Members of the cabinet are nowadays conditionally entrusted to implement administration policies rather than treated as autonomous policy makers within the federal bureaucracy (Cohen 1988, 39; Laski 1940, 82). This is not to say that individual cabinet secretaries, either in the past or the present, are powerless or irrelevant. As a political institution, however, the presidential cabinet has never risen above its constitutional nonexistence or the decision in 1787 to vest executive power in the president alone.
The cabinet's lack of intrinsic power, and its problematic status as an institution of government, may explain political scientists' lack of interest in it. The disdain of political historians, however, is more surprising. Apart from Doris Kearns Goodwin's study of Lincoln's cabinet, and biographies of prominent cabinet secretaries, such as Newton D. Baker, John C. Calhoun, Josephus Daniels, Alexander Hamilton, Herbert Hoover, Thomas Jefferson, Robert Kennedy, Henry Kissinger, William G. McAdoo, and Robert McNamara, we know little about the history of the cabinet in action. We also know little about the ways in which successive presidents have--or have not--worked with the cabinets that they had spent much thought and political capital in creating. (2)
This is despite the fact that individual cabinet members, and sometimes the cabinet as a group, have been significant political and policy actors. Historians and political scientists need to pay more attention to the cabinet to better acknowledge its importance to the growing ambitions and competence of the federal government at critical periods of its existence.
Ideals and Realities in Woodrow Wilson's Cabinet
Wilson's two presidential terms between 1913 and 1921, dominated by an ambitious domestic policy agenda before 1917 and then the demands of fighting and settling a world war, are striking examples of the value of revisiting the significance of the presidential cabinet. Wilson and his departmental heads were key actors in the increasing assertiveness of the federal government, but they acted without the assistance of executive agencies such as a large White House staff or numerous advisory and regulatory bodies. Wilson's own staff was small and chiefly clerical. Before the creation of extra congressional and extra cabinet organizations such as the War Industries Board, he relied on his personal advisor Colonel Edward House, his political secretary Joseph Tumulty, prominent Democrats in the legislature, and his cabinet secretaries for advice and policy ideas (D. Craig 2013, 98). In this, Wilson was in the same position as his predecessors, but he did have one key advantage: as a political scientist he could draw on his own ideas as they had evolved during his prepresidential career about the proper role of cabinet within the federal government.
Wilson had thought long, if not especially hard, about the presidential cabinet. His earliest thoughts on it were both radical and impractical. In "Cabinet Government in the United States," which he wrote as a senior at Princeton in 1879, Wilson despaired of the cronyism and incompetence of Gilded Age governance. He suggested that...