In the last chapter, I suggested a presidential ticket that could decimate the Trump coalition, by offering a progressive vision, uniting Clinton and Sanders supporters, and project economic populism, public service, and self-sacrifice to peel away reluctant Trump voters. And that ticket was Elizabeth Warren and William McRaven.
Of course, there is far more that goes in to an administration than who is on the presidential ticket. I explored this in greater depth in my series on ranking the presidents, but the best administrations sought out diverse points of view, hired competent and public service-minded individuals, and steered away from group-think. That is the kind of atmosphere I wanted to cultivate in selecting what a great cabinet might look like for this imaginary administration. I didn’t want any loudmouths, self-aggrandizers, and ideologues. I wanted problem solvers of proven excellence, individuals of deep learning and keen observation, and people who lived out an ethos of public service in their respective fields. So I picked out a cabinet from various walks of life- some worthy veterans of their respective departments, some businesspersons, the odd community activist, and a few public office-holders. I tried to avoid trend where people just list out a “fantasy cabinet” with a bunch of senators- like putting Bernie Sanders as Secretary of Treasury or Joe Biden as Secretary of State. Let’s instead consider the greater breadth and richness of American public life.
Secretary of State: There is a tendency here to choose a sexy, high-profile pick for Secretary of State to generate buzz and make the cabinet more prestigious via some household name. A lot of names I bandied about would have fit that profile- Caroline Kennedy, Russ Feingold, and yes, Joe Biden. But I ultimately landed on Wendy Sherman. One of the elements of the Obama presidency that intrigued me most was his ability to turn longtime pariah countries into the path of slowly, watchfully, becoming integrated back into the community of nations. She turned the probable failure of Iran negotiations into a qualified success, and is a committed policy wonk with a resolve of steel.
Secretary of Treasury: My pick for this spot goes to Richard Cordray of Ohio. As the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Cordray has a huge target on his back, and may very well be dismissed by President Trump by the time all is said and done. But so far in his tenure, Cordray has used the agency’s independence in suitably populist ways, going after predatory lenders and holding Wells Fargo accountable after it opened numerous fraudulent accounts, ultimately fining it $100 million.
Secretary of Defense: While Michele Flournoy is often seen as the presumptive nominee for this spot in the next Democratic administration, I’m going to go against the grain. Looking at the number of think tank gurus and military figures in charge of what is ostensibly an agency that is supposed to be led by civilians, I am pulling for Jack Reed, the senator from Rhode Island. As I wrote in an earlier entry, I expect Reed to retire from the Senate in 2020, and once he does, he might reconsider his long reluctance to serve in a presidential cabinet. Given the disaster of think-tankers in the Bush years, and the problematic elements of having so many career military men in the Trump administration, I think it important to return leadership of the Pentagon to civilian- indeed, congressional- oversight. With Reed, you get a 20+ year veteran of the Senate, a former West Point cadet and West Point instructor, and someone who voted against the Iraq War. That’s a pretty amazing meeting of competence, experience, and good judgment.
Attorney General: There was the old Sesame Street jingle, “one of these things just doesn’t belong,” and the Department of Justice is the odd man out in the cabinet. Unlike the other departments, it needs to confront- and if necessary, defy- the president. One critique, common in the last twenty-five years regardless of who was in power, was of collusion between the attorney general’s office and the West Wing. I don’t think that’s an unfair concern. For that reason, I have an unconventional choice. Most incoming cabinets (Mr. Trump excepted) have at least one member of the opposition party- and here’s mine. I suggest Nevada governor Brian Sandoval. Sandoval is by far the best of the Republican governors- and possibly the best governor in any state regardless of party. Almost alone of the GOP governors, he resisted the bandwagon to reject incoming refugees from Syria, he wasn’t opposed to a modest tax increase, and he has experience as a judge and state attorney general that lends itself well to serving as the head of the Justice Department. You can trust this guy to strong, prescient, and fair-minded.
Interior: Christy Goldfuss isn’t the most well-known name on this list, but she’d be a fine choice to head one of the most important of all departments, concerned as it is with preserving our country’s natural resources and beautiful landscape. In an age suspicious of Washington insiders, Goldfuss effuses a Leslie Knope-like love of public service, and she’s incredibly skilled at communicating in small events and in social media. She’s served as Obama’s Deputy Director of National Parks, and chaired the Council on Environmental Quality. There is a tendency to appoint a random western governor or congressman to this position; I seriously considered Brian Schweitzer or John Hickenlooper for this job. A native of Connecticut, Goldfuss- as far as I can tell- would be the first east-coaster in decades to hold this position, but I don’t think that’s in any sense a disqualification.
Agriculture: Similarly, there is a tendency to default to a congressman or governor from the prairie states for the D.A. Instead, I remembered the Eisenhower administration, and how he brought on talent from church-related organizations who could thrive in a government that shouldn’t play favorites among religions. Dulles, you might remember, was heavily involved in the National Council of Churches before becoming Secretary of State. In this vein, I’d love for Rev. David Beckmann to serve as Secretary of Agriculture. For the last 25 years, Beckmann has served as president of Bread for the World, raising awareness, producing scholarship, and coordinating interfaith efforts to combat global and domestic hunger. A Lutheran pastor who is also a trained economist, Beckmann understands the nuances of the Agriculture Department’s most fundamental charge: make sure hungry people get enough to eat. Part lobby, part charity, Beckmann has been at the forefront of successful efforts to get Congress to increase its spending on development assistance. In terms of getting food to people who need it, Beckmann is one of the sharpest, most effective thinkers and administrators one can imagine. We’ll need him after the massive cuts to domestic and international humanitarian programs under the Trump budget.
Commerce: Look, as a general rule, we’re not going to revive American manufacturing to its 1950s pinnacle. We need a head of the Commerce Department who understands that, and can serve as an effective liaison to the business world. I’d love for them to be partners rather than antagonists in an effort to create a more socially just America. I considered former Pennsylvania governor Mark Schweiker, civic leader and plastics magnate Noel Ginsburg, and real estate guy R. Donahue Peebles. But I ultimately landed on Xerox CEO Ursula Burns. She’s the embodiment of the American Dream, having worked her way up in Xerox from a lowly intern to become the first black woman to head a Fortune 500 company. She turned the company around from ruin, going from machine manufacturing to information and document processing. Burns is direct, tough, and realistic- a good fit for Commerce.
Labor: Ai-Jen Poo would be amazing in this job. For years, she has mobilized domestic workers and caregivers, most recently serving as leader of Domestic Workers United. (Many domestic workers are exempt from state and federal labor laws, allowing them to overworked, underpaid, and vulnerable to harassment.) She has been a consistent voice for humane immigration policies, workers’ rights, and just as importantly, making sure workers have the tools and resources they need to make a positive change. She knows, better than most, that part of the labor movement is the ability to make good on your own vocation.
Health and Human Services: Karen DeSalvo would be the only resident of the South in the cabinet. She served as the New Orleans Health Commissioner, where she took a strong grassroots approach to health services, taking less of a “reactionary” approach and more of a network of resources the community could draw on. Fit NOLA ended up being a wildly successful effort that drew links between the business world, community leaders, and the government. Her efforts got her an award as a Governing magazine public official of the year, and subsequent served as an Assistant Secretary in HHS during the closing years of the Obama administration. She has the executive experience and federal background to improve Obamacare- hopefully with a public option this time around.
Housing and Urban Development: One element I wanted in this cabinet was a proper grassroots activist. They don’t always work out in government: ultimately, not everyone can make the transition from the streets to working within the system they hoped to change. But I’ve got a good feeling about my fellow Buffalonian Aaron Bartley. His PUSH organization (that’s People United for Sustainable Housing) has brought new life into the dilapidated West Side of the Nickel City. It’s influx of refugees and immigrants have contributed to PUSH’s job training, urban agriculture, and green-powered affordable housing.
Transportation: I’m a big fan of the state of Minnesota- it’s proven that progressive leadership can produce results. For Transportation, I pick R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of St. Paul. Rybak unexpectedly became the face of coping with America’s crumbling infrastructure when I-35W bridge collapsed. His response- which included not just quick fixes but planning for the future, including light rail- was widely praised, and even earned him a nomination for the World Mayor Award. He even leads a public bicycle-sharing program.
Energy: This is another cabinet spot whose importance cannot be understated- it’s key to have strong, steady, knowledgeable leadership in an agency that is responsible for the nuclear weapons program and safe disposal of energy sources. Shirley Jackson would be 74 by the time she got the job, but there’s no reason to think she wouldn’t excel at it. Jackson served as chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board, chaired the Nuclear Regulatory Commission under Bill Clinton, served as president of RPI (about an hour from where I grew up in upstate New York), and- oh yes- was the first black woman to get a Ph.D. from MIT.
Education: To rehabilitate our public education system after the Betsy DeVos onslaught, we need someone with the heart of an educator, and the skills of a politician. Joseph Garcia is the man for that. He’s served as President of Colorado State-Pueblo, spent five years on the Colorado Commission for Higher Education, and was twice the Community College President of the Year. After all that, he served a short tenure as lieutenant governor of Colorado doing double duty as the Executive Director of Higher Education. He’s got the chops and the track record to oversee the federal government’s role in ensuring that everybody receives a quality education in America.
Veterans’ Affairs: In 2014, Congressman Michael Michaud averred re-election to Maine’s rural 2nd district to run for Vacationland’s governor. That didn’t work out, and after some speculation about his future, took a job as an Assistant Secretary of Labor in a role that facilitates the training and hiring of veterans. Maine- especially the 2nd district- has an unusually large number of military veterans, and Michaud is no stranger to representing their interests. He was one of the first to identify the VA incompetence under Eric Shinseki and demand reform. Michaud also sponsored an act in Congress that would have given tax credits to businesses that hire veterans. As someone conversant in the fields of veterans’ affairs, health care, and labor, he’d be a slam dunk at the VA. Oh, and if confirmed, he’d be the first openly gay cabinet secretary.
Homeland Security: I’d expect that Vice President McRaven would come in handy in security policy, but the actual cabinet spot should go to Juliette Kayyem. Some might clutch pearls at the idea of Homeland Security being led by a Lebanese woman, but Kayyem has more than earned her spot at the table. See, she has effortlessly combined deep policy knowledge, government experience, and public relations genius- something residually missing from previous secretaries of this department. She has already worked as an Assistant Secretary in this department, served as the Homeland Security secretary of Massachusetts, and published a well-received memoir called Security Mom. She also coordinated the White House response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, giving her solid crisis management chops.
Peace: Wait a minute, you say- there isn’t a Department of Peace! I say that we create one. And it isn’t some nebulous hippy-dippy idea. It’s been proposed by serious politicians for decades, ranging from Republicans like Alexander Wiley to crusty West Virginia populists like Matthew Neeley, to Hoosier Vance Hartke, to modern-day politicos like Minnesota governor Mark Dayton and former congressman Dennis Kucinich. It would coordinate, support, and recruit for active peacemaking, heading Peace Corps and Americorps, rehabilitating prisoners and drug users into society, and monitor democracy abroad. It might even oversee the McGovern Institute, kind of a West Point for peacemaking. And I want Nobel Prize winner Jody Williams to be its first leader. Williams is a hard-nosed realist who despises ineffectual marches, coordinates UN, governmental, and humanitarian activities like a pro, and has been instrumental in the long campaign to defuse, remove, and disincentivized landmines. Rather than giving the Pentagon everything they ask and more, we should be using our nation’s resources for programs like these.
So- what do you think? I like this cabinet a lot for a Warren-McRaven administration. It represents the best of public service in America- and can encourage a new generation to take part in civic activity like the Kennedy administration did over fifty years earlier. It provides a number of different perspectives- the business world, government, academia, grassroots activism, the military- to collaborate on solving deep problems. 50% are women, and six are persons of color- and every one is imminently qualified by character, temperament, and experience. Let me know your thoughts about this in the comments below. If there’s enough interest I might fill this out with a subsequent post on other positions like EPA, Chief of Staff, CIA director, UN Ambassador, and so on.