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Why does Obama keep cabinet all-stars on the bench?

As his second term begins, President Barack Obama is in his comfort zone, surrounded by loyal lieutenants.

What a contrast to the captivating candidate of 2008, who told Time Magazine’s Joe Klein that as president he would be surrounded “by people who are continually pushing me out of my comfort zones.”

Then, he enlisted high-powered Cabinet members such as Hillary Clinton for the State Department and Bob Gates at defense. Yet, more than any president since Richard Nixon, he has concentrated decision-making in the White House. Cabinet heavyweights are underutilized.

This isn’t new; it’s a pattern of the modern U.S. presidency to focus power in the White House staff.

“With 15 Cabinet-level departments as the government gets larger, it’s the White House that is at the center of the presidential orbit,” says Shirley Warshaw, a presidential scholar at Gettysburg College.

This trend has accelerated under Obama. There is a strong case to be made that presidential decision-making today would benefit from Cabinet members who have considerably more political and managerial experience than White House aides, who are predominately longtime Washington staff insiders.

Executive experience

The president’s Cabinet — in both the first and second terms — has included men and women who have faced voters and won more than a dozen elections among them, as well as people who have run major enterprises. There is no one among the top White House staff members who has faced voters, and there are few who have managed an organization.

There are exceptions to the general Cabinet downgrade. Former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner was the point person on economic and financial issues; in national security, the record is mixed. Most other Cabinet officers, however, have a limited scope.

That deprives the president of advisers who have the best feeling for the public and political pulse. As Obama’s economic policies were formulated, the dominant participants were Geithner and, at the White House, National Economic Council Director Larry Summers, who had the policy expertise.

Yet some of the policies, and certainly the public presentation, could have been better if the agriculture secretary, two-term Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack; or the Central Intelligence Agency Director and later Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, a former California congressman; or Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, a former Kansas governor; or Clinton had occasionally been at the table.

Some first-term Cabinet members — labor, commerce and energy — were written off early by the White House. Even those held in high regard — Vilsack, Sebelius, Homeland Security chief Janet Napolitano, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan — were rarely brought in on broad policies. (Interestingly, one who gets mediocre marks from a number of Democrats and White House insiders is Attorney General Eric Holder. Yet his personal bond with the president and top adviser Valerie Jarrett preserves his position.)

The most compelling story may be that of Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has made a real policy mark with innovative ideas and enjoys a longtime relationship with Obama, a fellow Chicagoan. Yet, associates say, that he, too, sometimes gets frustrated at the lack of access and a sense of being kept on a fairly short leash by the White House.

Foreign policy

In national security, Defense Secretaries Gates and Panetta had special standing and were deeply involved in important decisions such as Afghanistan and the killing of Osama bin Laden. Still, much foreign policy decision-making authority resided in the White House.

Clinton gets rave reviews for improving America’s standing in the world, highlighting “soft power” issues such as women’s rights, and leading the policy pivot to Asia. Still, on a number of big decisions — Syria, Iran — her role has been more consultative. Denis McDonough, now the White House chief of staff, referred to her as the “principal implementer” of foreign policy. That term never would have been applied to Dean Acheson, Henry Kissinger or George Shultz.

Her successor, John Kerry, was told by the White House he would have even less license on appointments than his predecessor; that’s more in the purview of the White House staff. Some foreign-policy experts see this as a harbinger of a weakened secretary of state.

Others, however, predict the experienced Kerry may have more influence than conventional wisdom suggests. Zbigniew Brzezinski, a leading national security strategist, praises Clinton’s record, while adding, “The president seems to have high confidence in Kerry; there is no re-election and he never was a putative rival.”

Some knowledgeable administration sources say McDonough is aware of the shortcomings of the Cabinet system. Whether he has the inclination to change it is an open question.

It’s not inconsequential. Warshaw says there is a dichotomy in this administration: “There are really talented Cabinet members,” she says. “Other than Hillary Clinton, nobody knows them.”

An administration that has suffered for effective spokesman, she says, “would be well-served having some of these voices utilized.”

Bruce Babbitt, a former Arizona governor who was interior secretary for the eight years of Bill Clinton’s presidency, says that with the proliferation of agencies, “it’s almost impossible to have a meaningful Cabinet meeting.”

This carries a cost, he says, “You lose the broader judgment of these people.”

Hunt is a Bloomberg View columnist.

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