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Is a presidential appointment worth the risk?

Seated just across the aisle from the Supreme Court justices at last week’s State of the Union were the members of President TrumpDonald TrumpClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Arizona Republican's brothers say he is 'at least partially to blame' for Capitol violence Biden reverses Trump's freeze on .4 billion in funds MORE’s Cabinet. As the headlines were quick to tell us, the Cabinet experienced a remarkable degree of turnover in the past year. The list of the recently departed, of course, includes Jeff SessionsJefferson (Jeff) Beauregard SessionsHarris to resign from Senate seat on Monday Rosenstein: Zero tolerance immigration policy 'never should have been proposed or implemented' Sessions, top DOJ officials knew 'zero tolerance' would separate families, watchdog finds MORE and Nikki HaleyNikki HaleyCan we protect our country — from our rulers, and ourselves? In calling out Trump, Nikki Haley warns of a more sinister threat Nikki Haley unveils PAC ahead of possible 2024 White House bid MORE. While much of the focus has been on seeking to understand the nature of the disagreements that caused the fall-outs, perhaps a more fundamental question remains: Should governors and senators have left prestigious and important political roles to become presidential appointees in the first place?

From Kathleen SebeliusKathleen SebeliusBiden seeks to use the bully pulpit he has on COVID-19 Biden unveils COVID-19 task force Biden's COVID-19 crisis team takes shape as virus rages MORE’s departure as governor of Kansas to take the helm of Department of Health and Human Services to Janet Napolitano’s resignation halfway through her second term as governor of Arizona in favor of heading Homeland Security during the Obama administration, many leaders have elected to head to Washington. Although the conventional wisdom is that this might be a promotion of sorts, a stepping stone to national (or even presidential) politics, the rewards might not jump off the page, particularly today, given the revolving door of turnover in the Trump administration. 

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Nikki Haley left being governor of South Carolina to become ambassador to the United Nations. Ryan ZinkeRyan Keith ZinkeOvernight Energy: Interior finalizes plan to open 80 percent of Alaska petroleum reserve to drilling | Justice Department lawyers acknowledge presidential transition in court filing | Trump admin pushes for permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Trump administration pushes for grazing permits for men who inspired Bundy standoff Interior secretary tests positive for COVID-19 after two days of meetings with officials: report MORE and Tom PriceThomas (Tom) Edmunds PriceFocus on cabinet nominees' effectiveness and expertise, not just ideology Conspicuous by their absence from the Republican Convention Coronavirus Report: The Hill's Steve Clemons interviews Chris Christie MORE left Congress, and Reince PriebusReinhold (Reince) Richard PriebusAuthor: Meadows is history's worst White House chief of staff Ex-White House officials urge Trump to condemn violence at Capitol Making America dull again MORE traded his fortunes at the RNC to help lead the Trump White House. Today, they are all out of a political job entirely.

Perhaps most striking of all is the unfortunate fall of Jeff Sessions. Ending his 20-year career in the Senate to join the Trump administration, Sessions would face incessant jabs from his boss, a forced resignation, and later express skepticism about whether he would return to politics again in any capacity. 

It makes perfect sense for David ShulkinDavid Jonathon ShulkinThe Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Mastercard - Congress slogs toward COVID-19 relief, omnibus deal A crisis that unites veterans OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Biden taps ex-Obama chief for VA | Shutdown looms amid standoff | SCOTUS rules on rape cases in military MORE to have accepted a promotion from undersecretary of Veterans Affairs for Health to the main job. It was probably perfectly reasonable for former Indiana Senator Dan CoatsDaniel (Dan) Ray CoatsFormer Trump intel chief Coats introduces Biden nominee Haines at hearing Senate Intelligence Committee leaders warn of Chinese threats to national security New federal cybersecurity lead says 'rumor control' site will remain up through January MORE to return to the political spotlight and take the job of director of national intelligence. But if you’re Jeff Sessions or Nikki Haley, does it make sense to give up your job to enter the unstable land of presidential appointments? Perhaps this is what John CornynJohn CornynDemocrats torn on impeachment trial timing McConnell keeps GOP guessing on Trump impeachment Schumer: Trump should not be eligible to run for office again MORE (R-Texas) was thinking when he balked at vacating his Senate seat to become FBI director.

The idea of moving up in politics is almost taken for granted. Look no further than George H.W. Bush’s famous 1969 visit to see former president Lyndon Johnson. Then-Congressman Bush shared with President Johnson his plans to trade his House seat for a Senate bid. President Johnson replied that both were honorable places to serve one’s country, but the difference between the Senate and the House was the same as the difference between chicken salad and chicken you-know-what

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Although we might be tempted to view, say, Nikki Haley’s stop at U.N. ambassador as part of her journey toward a possible presidential campaign, most of our recent presidents and vice presidents did not, in fact, do time in the executive branch. Donald Trump, Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaClinton, Bush, Obama reflect on peaceful transition of power on Biden's Inauguration Day Biden's inauguration marked by conflict of hope and fear Why aren't more Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Biden's Cabinet? MORE, George W. Bush, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter — none of them served as presidential appointees prior to being elected president. Perhaps it’s what Bill Richardson meant in a 2008 Democratic primary debate when he said: “We elect governors as president.”

When it comes to George H.W. Bush, one recent president who served in a number of appointed roles, there is often a tendency to see his stop at director of central intelligence, for instance, as a natural resume-builder for his eventual election to president. But, we forget, that at the time, Bush’s appointment to head CIA was a conscious ploy orchestrated by his rival, Donald Rumsfeld, to sideline Bush from presidential politics. CIA director was considered a dead end, not a pathway to the Oval Office.

One can understand why an elected official might head to D.C. — George H.W. Bush, for example, when nominated to head the RNC by President Nixon told his wife that "You can't turn a president down." Others might find that they’ve done all they can at their current position and that the time has come to contribute elsewhere. Then, of course, there’s that idea of stepping up to the national stage. With that said, however, there does seem something curious about giving up the job the people of one’s state elected one to do, particularly when the benefits of a presidential appointment might be — at best, a change of pace — and at worst, a white elephant.

Erich J. Prince co-founded and runs Merion West (@merionwest), a Philadelphia-based group promoting civil discourse in the age of polarization; he also writes a weekly column at MediaVillage on how the news media covers politics. He previously served as a communications strategist for former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory. He studied political science at Yale.