By Mike Lillis - 04/30/13 09:00 AM EDT
President Obama has all but skipped over Congress in choosing the inner circle to guide his second term.
Counting Vice President Biden, only three congressional veterans have secured Cabinet or Cabinet-level positions going forward this year — down from seven in Obama's first term — and all three served in the Senate but never in the House.
Lawmakers in both parties have long criticized Obama for what they contend has been a failure to reach out to Congress on the biggest issues of the day, and some of those voices lobbied hard this year for the president to tap more Capitol Hill veterans — particularly in the House — for high-level administration positions.
Obama's Monday nomination of Anthony Foxx to head the Transportation Department (DOT), however, was just the latest instance of the president looking far outside Washington for his top lieutenants.
The choice could soften the criticisms that Obama's second-term cabinet is wanting for women and minorities, as Foxx is an up-and-coming black politician. But it won't do much to silence the charges that the administration isn’t interested in what Congress thinks.
A former Democratic leadership aide said Monday that congressional experience is not a prerequisite for communicating well with Capitol Hill, since "there are ways to work with people even if you didn't work in the institution." But cutting the number of Cabinet members with congressional resumes, the aide added, will only fuel charges that the administration prefers to go it alone.
"Their outreach to the Hill has been abysmal," the former aide said. "So I don't know if having fewer [Hill veterans] will make a difference."
Of Obama's cabinet picks this year, only two came with congressional experience: former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), now secretary of state, and former Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who heads the Pentagon. With Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis — two former House members — on their way out the door, Biden, Kerry and Hagel will be the last members of Obama's team with experience in Congress.
In Obama's first term, those numbers were higher. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) left the Senate to serve as secretary of state; former Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) was pulled to lead the Interior Department; former Rep. Leon Panetta (D-Calif.) was tapped as defense secretary; Solis (D-Calif.) quit the House to head the Labor Department; and LaHood (R-Ill.) did the same to lead the Transportation Department.
Obama had actively courted Rep. Xavier Becerra (D-Calif.) to become the U.S. Trade Representative during his first term, a post Becerra turned down after gauging that trade would not be among the president’s top priorities.
Combined with Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who left a Democratic leadership post to become Obama's first chief of staff, the president's first term boasted six high-tier officials with congressional resumes — plus Biden.
It's not for a lack of interest that Obama's second term Cabinet has less congressional experience. In a letter to Obama earlier this year, for instance, CBC Chairwoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) floated several members for Cabinet-level spots, including Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) for transportation secretary, Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) for labor secretary and Mel Watt (D-N.C.) to head the Commerce Department.
Shortly afterwards, all of Minnesota's congressional Democrats wrote a similar later urging that Obama give the DOT job to former-Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), who headed the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee between 2007 and 2011.
Some of those House lawmakers took themselves out of the running. Clyburn, for one, was quick to say he didn't want the DOT position. But others were open about their interest in the job.
“It would be a great honor," Oberstar told the local Minnesota press. "It certainly would be the culmination of all that I’ve learned and trained for and developed over the years."
Instead, the White House has nominated a mayor (Foxx) for transportation secretary; a civil rights lawyer (Thomas Perez) for labor secretary; and is reportedly poised to name a hotel magnate (Penny Pritzker) for Commerce.
Michael Mezey, a political scientist at DePaul University, suggested there are real differences between the choice of Cabinet picks in a president's first term versus a second.
In the first term, Cabinets tend to be more "star-studded," Mezey said, as presidents hope to validate their victories by surrounding themselves with high-profile figures, and nominees are attracted by the possibility of heading a powerful part of the government for as long as eight years — dynamics that shift in the second term.
Mezey also noted that Obama arrived in the White House after just four years in the Senate, and probably wanted to compensate for that congressional inexperience by appointing those who knew Capitol Hill better than he did.
"At this point, I guess he thinks he's pretty much figured it out," Mezey said. "Whether he's right about that is another question."