INSIDER FEATURED ARTICLE
Inside Biden's Cabinet: How he's reinventing the way the White House works
Once a week, over a salad or a sandwich from the White House mess and a Diet Coke, Ron Klain has lunch in his West Wing office with two Cabinet members. The meetings cycle through random pairings of secretaries — one recent lunch included Education Secretary Miguel Cardona and Interior Secretary Deb Haaland. There's rarely a formal agenda. Klain, President Joe Biden's chief of staff, uses the sessions to talk shop with the agency heads, check in on their families, and lavish them with facetime — a coveted Washington commodity rarely awarded to Cabinet members by recent administrations.
"Being able to just sit down, roll up our sleeves, and talk through some of the things we're respectively thinking of is a really helpful way to stay dialed in on Ron's thinking about what's going on in the White House," Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told me.
The lunches — described to me by three Cabinet members and two White House officials — underscore one of the most distinctive elements of the Biden administration. No president in at least 30 years has provided his Cabinet members with so much direct access to the White House or relied on them so heavily to pursue his administration's top priorities. President Barack Obama kept much of his Cabinet at a distance during his first term. President Donald Trump mostly ignored his Cabinet unless he was blaming them for his mistakes or forcing them to bend the knee on national television. But Biden has created a team of allies, treating Cabinet secretaries like top deputies and strategically deploying them on Capitol Hill to whip votes and till the ground for his legislative agenda.
Douglas Brinkley, the presidential historian and a professor of history at Rice University, told me you'd have to go back to the administration of President George H.W. Bush, or even President Dwight Eisenhower, to find "a Cabinet that works in unison with the president in such a seamless fashion.
In empowering his Cabinet, Biden has drawn on the lessons he learned during his eight years as the top member of Obama's Cabinet, when secretaries were sometimes kept out of sight. "You have seen Cabinet members with a much more prominent media profile than you saw during Obama's administration," one veteran of the Obama White House told me. "It's everything from putting Cabinet members on Sunday shows to bringing them into the White House press-briefing room, which is something we did not do. Biden is really leveraging the Cabinet, in terms of their travel around the country, to help push the broader administration message."
Last spring, as Biden plotted how to pass his major legislative priorities, he cleaved his Cabinet into two teams. The first was a "jobs Cabinet" of five secretaries — Buttigieg, Gina Raimondo at the Commerce Department, Marty Walsh at Labor, Jennifer Granholm at Energy, and Marcia Fudge at Housing and Urban Development — which was tasked with pushing Biden's infrastructure plan. The jobs Cabinet, the president said, would "represent me in dealing with Congress, engage the public in selling the plan, and help work out the details as we refine it and move forward."
The second team was a "families Cabinet" of five Cabinet members — Cardona, Janet Yellen at the Treasury Department, Xavier Becerra at Health and Human Services, Tom Vilsack at Agriculture, and Cecilia Rouse at the Council of Economic Advisers — which would champion Build Back Better, Biden's social-spending bill.
The two teams were especially aggressive in lobbying Congress. During Biden's first year in office, according to data the White House provided exclusively to Insider, Cabinet members made 2,155 calls to members of Congress. They also sat for 2,871 media interviews, traveled to 410 cities across 49 states and Puerto Rico, and embarked on 124 international trips. The former Obama official said that while he did not have similar data for Obama's Cabinet, he would be surprised if it came close to that provided by the Biden administration.
"The secretaries are serving as effective tools for public outreach, congressional liaison, international diplomacy, and ambassadors for the president's agenda," Lindsay Chervinsky, a member of the White House Historical Association and the author of the book "The Cabinet," told me. "The fact that they have done so without reports of intra-Cabinet squabbling reflects well on President Biden and his staff's ability to manage the Cabinet."
But the results of Biden's Cabinet strategy, like that of his policy agenda, have been decidedly mixed. The jobs Cabinet played a key role in the bipartisan success of his infrastructure bill. Build Back Better, by contrast, seems unlikely to pass, despite the efforts of the family's Cabinet, whose calls to Congress and TV appearances were unable to overcome the politics of a 50-50 Senate. To make matters worse, the Cabinet has suffered a series of very public blows in recent weeks. Becerra is facing criticism over his department's handling of the pandemic, and Eric Lander, the president's top science advisor, resigned after admitting to demeaning and belittling employees.
Still, according to presidential historians and White House veterans, Biden has largely succeeded at forging a Cabinet that's far more proactive and influential than Washington is accustomed to. "He listens to them," Brinkley told me. "It gives a cohesiveness to the Biden presidency."
In the old days, receiving a spot in a presidential Cabinet afforded intimate access and influence. President George Washington's Cabinet included just four trusted personal advisors: Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of War Henry Knox, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph. President Abraham Lincoln's famous "Team of Rivals," documented by the historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, included three of his competitors for the 1860 Republican presidential nomination: Sen. William Seward of New York at the State Department, Gov. Salmon Chase of Ohio at Treasury, and Missouri's Edward Bates as attorney general.
Over the years, the Cabinet has ballooned in size and diminished in influence. It now includes two dozen people: the vice president, the chief of staff, the United Nations ambassador, the heads of 15 major departments in the executive branch, and top advisors on everything from national intelligence to science and technology. Though the Cabinet technically still exists, as the White House website puts it, to "advise the president on any subject he or she may require relating to the duties of each member's respective office," many of its day-to-day functions have effectively been absorbed by West Wing staff. "I don't think there's really been any such thing as a Cabinet government since the Nixon administration," said Chris Whipple, the author of "The Gatekeepers," which chronicles the role of the White House chief of staff.
Cabinet secretaries have long complained about their second-class status. Robert Reich, who served as labor secretary under President Bill Clinton, offered a blunt summation in his 1997 tell-all book, "Locked in the Cabinet." "From the view of the White House staff, Cabinet officials are provincial governors presiding over alien, primitive territories," Reich writes. "Anything of any importance occurs in the national palace."
Biden spent eight years in Obama's Cabinet, which Politico called "the worst job in Barack Obama's Washington." During Obama's first term, when Rahm Emanuel served as chief of staff, Cabinet secretaries griped about being little more than White House furniture. Bill Daley, Obama's third chief of staff, told me he'd meet with Cabinet members from time to time and occasionally had dinner with the ones he knew. But he was surprised to hear about Klain's weekly lunches.
As vice president, Biden supervised the implementation of Obama's $800 billion Recovery Act, interacting and traveling with other members of the Cabinet. "He benefited from those relationships and knows how important they are," Ray LaHood, who served as Obama's transportation secretary, told me. The interactions also provided Biden with plenty of exposure to what Obama's Cabinet secretaries didn't like. "Joe had this history of hearing Cabinet complaints from people," Daley said.
So when it came time for Biden to assemble his own Cabinet, he wanted to take a more inclusive approach. He knew he'd be attempting to steer a complex and ambitious legislative agenda through a sharply divided Congress, so he intentionally sought out emissaries who could communicate across the aisle. Biden's transition team even considered Cabinet suggestions from congressional Republicans. Raimondo, then the governor of Rhode Island, received high marks from the GOP. "A lot of people said, 'Ah, she'd be great,'" Ted Kaufman, the cochair of Biden's transition team, said.
Biden also wanted his Cabinet to feel like a team of role players, not a constellation of superstars. Of the 26 candidates who ran against him in the Democratic primaries, Biden selected only two to join his Cabinet: Vice President Kamala Harris and Buttigieg. This is no team of rivals, and there are no outsize personalities — no one whose ambitions bridle at the constraints of the modern Cabinet.
Indeed, few members of Biden's Cabinet are household names. In November, a Politico-Morning Consult poll asked Americans which Cabinet members they had heard of, beyond Harris. Buttigieg, not surprisingly, had the highest name recognition at 83%, followed by Yellen at 77%. Raimondo had the lowest name recognition at 66%. (The poll included only 11 of the best-known Cabinet positions.)
Biden also pledged to assemble the most diverse Cabinet in history. Half his Cabinet members are women — a first — and nearly half are people of color. The Cabinet includes the first openly gay member to be confirmed by the Senate, the first woman at the Treasury Department, and the first Native American (Haaland, the Interior secretary). An NPR analysis found that Trump's Cabinet, by comparison, was 82% white and 82% male. "We know you have strong results when you have diverse teams," Isabel Guzman, who serves in the Cabinet as the head of the Small Business Administration, told me.
Cabinets, by their nature, tend to foster bureaucracy and territorialism. But the greater access that Biden has provided his Cabinet secretaries — combined with their diverse experience and viewpoints — has helped foster an unusual degree of cooperation. At the weekly lunches with Klain, Cabinet secretaries often wind up making connections they might otherwise have missed. When Klain had lunch with Cardona from Education and Haaland from Interior, for example, they talked about how Native American students weren't seeing the same educational outcomes as some of their peers. "We're working to be intentional about overlapping our work," Cardona told me.
But while the Cabinet may be a diverse and cohesive team, it's not the front office. As with other recent administrations, the center of power remains the national palace, where Biden has cocooned himself among a group of mostly white men who have been with him for decades. In addition to Klain, his closest confidants include Mike Donilon, a senior advisor, Steve Ricchetti, a counselor, and Bruce Reed, his deputy chief of staff.
"Every cycle, this question is asked," Daley told me, dismissing the criticism that Biden was too insular. "People come to positions like this with people they've known for a long time. It's logical."
For now, Biden seems unlikely to reshuffle either his top advisors or his Cabinet. "I'm satisfied with the team," he said last month when asked whether he would do anything differently during his second year in office. He added that he would seek "more input, more information, more constructive criticism about what I should and shouldn't be doing."
Over the summer, the "jobs Cabinet" secretaries fanned out across Capitol Hill to help get the infrastructure bill across the finish line. Raimondo was especially effective, impressing Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Roger Wicker of Mississippi, and Todd Young of Indiana with the bill's benefits, including its $65 billion in
spending to link more Americans to high-speed internet. "Particularly with me, Secretary Raimondo has made some accommodations that made it possible for me to vote yes," Wicker said. Raimondo also shared a meal of Italian food and scotch with Sen. Joe Manchin on Almost Heaven, the West Virginia senator's houseboat.
"Joe Manchin is a former governor," Raimondo told me. "I'm a former governor. It's like, once a governor, always a governor. We relate to each other."
Buttigieg, according to a Transportation Department staffer, logged 300 calls and meetings with Republicans and Democrats, as well as 300 press interviews on behalf of the infrastructure bill. "You don't feel like you're here for show," Buttigieg told me. "You feel like you're here to help solve problems and make decisions."
Now that the bill has passed, Biden's Cabinet secretaries are overseeing a massive pool of infrastructure spending created by the law. Education Secretary Cardona, for example, is managing the distribution of $170 billion to safely reopen schools. Buttigieg, meanwhile, will be doling out $210 billion for projects such as the Gateway rail program in New York and New Jersey and the Brent Spence Bridge between Ohio and Kentucky, which gives him the clout of a modern-day Robert Moses.
The "families Cabinet" was far less successful. Their efforts were undercut by Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose intransigence has been holding Build Back Better hostage for months. Administration officials remain hopeful that they'll be able to pass a skinnier version of the bill, and the family's Cabinet has been lobbying Congress hard. "I've traveled across the country and heard from families who want better access to quality, affordable pre-K and childcare and stronger pathways through college and training programs that lead to successful careers," Cardona told me. "I will continue to fight to get these things done."
Beyond Biden's legislative agenda, the Cabinet has been unable to help the president with his approval rating, which has nosedived since the disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan in August. Buttigieg chalks up Biden's struggles to the crises he faces, from the lingering pandemic to soaring inflation. "I think it just reflects the monstrous nature of the challenges that the president confronted all the way into office and that, in many ways, we're still dealing with," Buttigieg told me. "So despite historic achievements in terms of job creation, getting shots in arms, getting checks in pockets, there's obviously a lot that our country is still up against." Cabinet members, according to the Politico-Morning Consult poll, have even lower approval ratings than Biden's 41%, from a high of 38% for Buttigieg to a low of 24% for Raimondo and Fudge, the Department of Housing and Urban Development's secretary — in large part because many are little-known on a national level.
As Biden approaches the buzz saw of the midterm elections, which will render a verdict on his first two years in office, his Cabinet will play a major role in trying to sell the administration's accomplishments to the public. "I think you'll see a lot of our Cabinet all over the country," Cristóbal Alex, the White House deputy Cabinet secretary, told me.
Cabinet secretaries always have a self-interest in defending their administration. But Biden's team is particularly invested in supporting him. By granting them more power, the president has made them more responsible than previous Cabinets for the success or failure of the administration's agenda. That's especially true for Buttigieg, who is often mentioned as a potential presidential contender in 2024 if Biden decides not to pursue a second term. Before Hillary Clinton, the last time a Cabinet member other than a vice president received their party's nomination for president was Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover in 1928. By joining Biden's "team of allies," Buttigieg is now tied, for better or worse, to Biden's legacy. The best thing he can do for his own political future is to make his boss look good.
Buttigieg, a veteran of the campaign trail, told me he was looking forward to it. "What's nice is that it'll be a little less going around the country and saying: 'Here's what could happen someday if we have to build that,'" he told me. "Instead, it's traveling around saying, "Here's what we're doing," and being able to point to concrete — literally concrete — projects and results."