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November 24, 08

NEWS / Dozens of Advisers Will Guide Next U.S. President Obama team pledges to make transition process ope

By Michelle Austein
Staff Writer

Washington — During the coming weeks, President-elect Barack Obama will announce his choices for department heads and other high-level officials who will help guide his administration and play an influential role in shaping U.S. policy.

Americans are eager to see who Obama will appoint to his Cabinet. These primary presidential advisers, most of whom carry the title “secretary,” will oversee some of the most important departments of the U.S. government, including State, Defense and Treasury.

John Podesta, one of the co-chairs of Obama’s transition team, said in a news conference November 11 that the team is reviewing the backgrounds of potential candidates for Cabinet posts and other high-level positions.

The team is committed to making the Bush-Obama transition the “most open and transparent transition in history,” Podesta said, and plans to keep Americans informed of the president-elect’s appointments by posting information about the prospective Cabinet on its new transition Web site.

The earliest nominations are likely to be for posts that deal with economic or national security issues such as heads of the State Department and Defense Department. “The president-elect and the vice president–elect are hard at work in trying to select their team and I think that we, obviously, are concentrating, because of the circumstances that we face today, on … particularly … the economic team and the national security team,” Podesta said.

The U.S. Senate must confirm Obama’s nominations. “This is a process that will require the cooperation of both parties in Congress,” Podesta said. “We hope and expect to receive that.” Obama cannot formally nominate Cabinet members until he becomes president on January 20, 2009.

Between now and that date, the FBI and other agencies will begin researching nominees’ backgrounds so they can quickly obtain the security clearances they will need to review classified information relevant to their work.

To help new Cabinet officials familiarize themselves with their respective government agencies, the Obama transition team has established agency review teams that will complete a thorough review of more than a hundred departments and agencies, Podesta said.

The teams will provide “the president-elect and the vice president–elect, Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials, once selected, and key advisers with the information needed to make strategic policy, budgetary and personnel decisions prior to the inauguration,” Podesta said. (See “Obama Team Severely Restricts Role of Lobbyists in Transition.”)


The Cabinet has no official collective authority. Rather, it is a group of individuals who serve as executives of various government entities and offer advice to the president. In addition, under the terms of the Presidential Succession Act of 1947, Cabinet members are in the line of succession to the presidency after the vice president, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the president pro tem of the U.S. Senate. To ensure continuity of government in the event of a catastrophe, one member of the Cabinet is always absent from official government gatherings like the annual State of the Union address.
The first Cabinet posts were established in 1789, and each U.S. president has appointed a Cabinet to offer advice and facilitate interdepartmental communication. However, how often each president held Cabinet meetings and how extensively each relied on Cabinet guidance have varied greatly.

The term Cabinet did not come into common use until 1793, but George Washington, the first president, held meetings with his executive department leaders beginning at least as early as 1791. That group included four people — the secretaries of Treasury, State and War and the attorney general, who was a lawyer working on a retainer to the federal government. The attorney general did not become the head of the Department of Justice until the agency was created in 1870.

Over the years, Cabinet posts have been added and removed. For instance, in 1829 the postmaster general became a Cabinet-level position, but was demoted in 1872. Today the Cabinet includes 15 secretaries, who head the various federal departments. The most recent addition to the Cabinet came in 2003, when President Bush created the Department of Homeland Security following the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Other members of the Cabinet include the heads of the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

All these individuals must be chosen by the president and confirmed by the Senate. They serve “at the pleasure of the president,” meaning the president has the authority to dismiss members of the Cabinet at any time.

The vice president and the White House chief of staff (who is not subject to Senate confirmation) complete the official Cabinet, but the president is free to invite whomever he wishes to Cabinet meetings. Other frequent attendees include the national security adviser and the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff.


In recent administrations, presidents have worked to build an ethnically and politically diverse Cabinet. Although the original Cabinet was made up entirely of white males, the group became increasing diverse over the course of the 20st century. In 1933, President Franklin Roosevelt appointed the first woman Cabinet member, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins; in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed the first black Cabinet member, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Robert Weaver.

President Bush’s Cabinet includes two immigrants — Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao from Taiwan and Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez from Cuba.

Throughout his presidential campaign, Obama pledged to fill his Cabinet with individuals from a range of backgrounds. Podesta said the president-elect also will look to form a bipartisan Cabinet by including Republicans.

Podesta added that even though diversity is an important element, the transition team will be making recommendations for Cabinet members with “very strong backgrounds and resumes to carry forward the priority items that [Obama has] mentioned.”

Excellence is the first criterion for all of the people coming into government, he said.

More information on the transition is available on the Obama-Biden transition Web site.



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