The Friday night departure of Health and Human Services Secretary Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceWant to evaluate Donald Trump's judgment? Listen to Donald Trump Former Georgia ethics official to challenge McBath A proposal to tackle congressional inside trading: Invest in the US MORE over the controversy surrounding the costs of his travel on charter aircraft is a rare instance of a scandal claiming the job of a presidential Cabinet member. In many ways, the Cabinet is the bellwether of an administration. Dysfunction in the Cabinet often heralds deeper difficulties. Disgruntled or marginalized Cabinet members, for instance, can be a symptom of over-centralization in the White House. Cabinet officials who repeatedly display ethical lapses can also signal a deeper culture of laxity.
History shows us both how Cabinets offer imperfect reflections of presidencies, and how the role of the Cabinet has evolved over time. George Washington brought together some of the greatest names of our nation’s founding. By surrounding himself with John Jay, Alexander Hamilton, Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph, Washington assembled a “dream team” Cabinet. From this early Cabinet of just four members, the steady expansion of the Cabinet shows the evolution of our country and the greater role the federal government would play as our nation grew in power and international stature.
George W. Bush arguably named his own “dream team” Cabinet, only to see it similarly fall into dysfunction over disagreements over the Iraq War. Tensions between the White House staff and national security officials during Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaOur remote warfare counterterrorism strategy is more risk than reward Clinton lawyer's indictment reveals 'bag of tricks' Chelsea Manning tests positive for COVID-19 MORE’s administration led to Cabinet indecisiveness in responding to various crises, from the Russian invasion of Ukraine, to civil war in Syria, to the rise of ISIS. Historically, the firing or premature departure of a Cabinet member has often come at a nadir in a presidency. Jimmy Carter fired four of his Cabinet members to show that he was reshaping his presidency, but instead fueled a narrative of instability leading into his 1980 election defeat. The firing of Donald Rumsfeld came at one of the lowest points in the Bush administration’s handling of the Iraq War and after a Democratic wave in midterm elections.
The Trump Cabinet is essentially a hybrid model. On one hand, there are business and military leaders who were brought into the Cabinet because of President Trump’s affinity for private sector experience and distinguished military service. On the other hand, there are Cabinet members from the Washington establishment who represent key conservative policy priorities, to some of which Trump seems relatively indifferent. The former group of Cabinet members are widely seen as a source of stability, even when they are often criticized, sometimes by the president himself. How many times have we heard, within the same conversation, concerns about the number of military leaders in civilian posts, combined with a sense of relief that they are tempering the president’s erratic impulses. Even as these Cabinet members try and reassure American allies or put the best face on an unpopular policy or position, their efforts are often undercut by a presidential tweet.
For the second group that includes former Secretary Price, their fate is tied, to a certain extent, to the success of the policy they were hired to advance or their position in the Washington filament. For example, the Department of Transportation is currently exploring cutting-edge technology and laying the framework for self-driving vehicles, yet most of the political horse race coverage speaks less of Secretary Elaine ChaoElaine ChaoSaluting FOIA on its birthday House passes bill to strengthen authority of federal watchdogs Biden at Sen. John Warner's funeral: He 'gave me confidence' MORE’s role in transportation policy and more of her marriage to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnell'Justice for J6' rally puts GOP in awkward spot Republicans keep distance from 'Justice for J6' rally House to act on debt ceiling next week MORE. While it was precipitated by his taste in travel and a lack of internal oversight, Price’s failure to deliver on the ObamaCare repeal left him exposed when scandal struck. Perhaps if he’d been better able to shepherd his former congressional colleagues towards repeal and replace, President Trump would help Price weather the outcry over his travel costs.
Looking past Price’s departure, it is important to consider the current structure of the Cabinet and how this unique team might better help an unconventional president tackle our nation’s challenges. First, the Cabinet needs to reflect a more cohesive vision about governing that in the best of circumstances is established even before a president takes office. The vision of Trump and his Cabinet should be brought into better sync through healthy debate and more regular discussion. Second, just as Cabinet members must constantly remember that their agenda is that of the president, the president must not reduce them to a ceremonial role or a mere cog between the White House and their agency. Finally, many business leaders would not understand a company structure where division leaders are constantly competing amongst themselves for critical attention and resources. Whether it’s a “team of rivals” or a “dream team,” a presidential Cabinet must be a team first and foremost.
As the depth and breadth of the issues confronting the presidency grows with the complexity of our world, the role of the Cabinet is more important than ever. It is never a positive sign for an administration when a Cabinet member is forced to leave. However, in a crisis that leads to the removal of a Cabinet official, there is an opportunity for renewal. History shows that bringing together a strong team, harnessing their advice and talents, and working together for the American people will lead to a successful Cabinet, and in turn, a successful presidency.
Dan Mahaffee is senior vice president and director of policy at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress, a nonpartisan think tank based in Washington, D.C.