Features » September 26, 2008
22 to Know
Our Picks for an Obama Cabinet
The Energy Department needs a smart manager who values sound research and understands the importance of efficiency -- the cheapest, quickest way to curb our carbon output
In 2007, the Pew Research Center conducted a poll asking Americans if they could identify a man named Robert Gates. As the Iraq War raged, fewer than one in four respondents knew he was the secretary of defense. Is this a sad commentary on whether the public is following events in Iraq? Perhaps. But more likely it’s a reflection of the overall obscurity of our government’s top decision makers.
In a media environment that portrays presidents as the sole messianic implementer of their agenda, the steep drop-off in name recognition is predictable – even if it belies how power really works.
Far more than a brain trust of advisers, the U.S. Cabinet has been the instrument by which political rhetoric becomes public policy. From Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins (under FDR) to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (under Ford and Bush II), Cabinet officials have been the chief sculptors and enforcers of the best – and worst – presidential policies.
In many ways, administrations are the sum of their Cabinets’ work, and that axiom would be especially powerful should Sen. Barack Obama win the 2008 election. With just four years of federal legislative experience, the Illinois senator would be the antithesis of the old Washington hands who tend to occupy the Oval Office – and based on his campaign themes, he will likely enter office with a mandate for progressive change.
Which raises the question: What would a truly progressive Cabinet look like? There has been no such thing in at least a generation (if not longer), so it is a difficult–but critical–question to answer. After all, who heads our federal government’s major departments will have an impact on all issues, from Africa policy to zero-tolerance criminal sentencing.
In These Times asked its editors and writers to suggest their top progressive choices for a potential Obama Cabinet. We asked that contributors weigh ideological and political considerations, with an eye toward recommending people who have both progressive credentials and at least an arguable chance at being appointed in an Obama White House.
This group of people would represent at once the most progressive, aggressive and practical Cabinet in contemporary history. Of course, it is by no means a definitive list. It is merely one proposal aimed at starting a longer discussion about the very concept of a progressive Cabinet–and why it will be important to a new administration, especially if that administration is serious about change.
Energy: Dan Reicher
Climate change and America’s fossil-fuel dependency are two of the biggest challenges an Obama administration will face. Ironically, the job of energy secretary is ill-suited for tackling them. Most of the Energy Department’s $25 billion budget goes toward maintaining the nation’s nuclear-weapons stockpile and handling waste disposal – leaving only a fraction for developing alternative energy sources. It’s tough to direct a clean-energy revolution with that portfolio.
Still, there’s room for improvement. Under the Bush administration, the department has abandoned many of its successful partnerships to boost efficiency and curb emissions in dirty industries, while prioritizing costly clean-coal and hydrogen fuel-cell boondoggles that have achieved little.
California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has voiced interest in this position, but a head-cracking superstar like him might be better slotted in a new “climate czar” role. After all, the task of de-carbonizing the U.S. economy will be so titanic that someone will need to coordinate all the different agencies – from agriculture to transportation.
The Energy Department needs a smart manager who values sound research and understands the importance of efficiency – the cheapest, quickest way to curb our carbon output. Over the past year, Dan Reicher, a former assistant secretary of energy under President Clinton, has been doing just that – as head of Google’s new climate and energy fund, seeding innovative projects across the country, from geothermal research to plug-in hybrids. His recent congressional testimonies have smartly laid out how better federal policy could spur trillions in private investment toward cleaner and more-efficient technologies – just the questions the department should be obsessing over.
Labor: David Bonior
Obama’s best choice for secretary of labor would be David Bonior, who from 1976 to 2002 served as the progressive congressman from the Macomb and St. Clair County suburbs outside Detroit – the famous district of Reagan Democrats. During his tenure, Bonior championed unions, opposed trade agreements like NAFTA, and criticized both President Reagan’s Central American counter-insurgency policies and President Clinton’s civil liberties policies.
After Michigan Republicans re-drew his district in 2000 and he lost a bid for governor two years later, Bonior became chair of American Rights at Work, a labor-sponsored coalition of non-union groups advocating worker rights, especially the freedom to organize unions.
That work bolsters his credentials for pushing one of organized labor’s top legislative goals: the Employee Free Choice Act. The measure would provide for union recognition when a majority of workers in a workplace sign cards indicating they want a union, increase penalties for labor law violations and guarantee access to arbitration to establish a first contract if employers refuse to bargain seriously.
Leaders on both sides of the AFL-CIO/Change To Win divide respect Bonior, who managed John Edwards’ presidential campaign. Bonior’s time as party whip for a decade gives him experience working with Congress for what will be a tough fight on behalf of the Employee Free Choice Act, even with a large Democratic majority. And his stature would guarantee a strong voice in Obama’s Cabinet for both unions and broader workers’ interests, from the local workplace to the global economy.
Transportation: Earl Blumenauer
Last summer, as Congress wrestled with energy legislation, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) offered a simple, $1 million proposal to encourage bike commuting. To his disbelief, the plan was ridiculed by a number of Republicans, including Rep. Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.), who called two-wheelers “a 19th century solution to a 21st century problem.” In a prospective Obama administration, Blumenauer should get the last laugh.
An eco-friendly labor advocate from Portland, Blumenauer couldn’t be more representative of his liberal district, which he’s served since 1996. In the Oregon legislature and later on the Portland city council, Blumenauer helped direct Portland’s planning renaissance, championing bike lanes, light rail and streetcars. He brought his emphasis on smart growth to Washington, advocating for high-speed rail and launching the Congressional Bike Caucus. In fact, nobody in his congressional office applies for a parking permit.
An early and vocal supporter of Obama, Blumenauer could be tapped as transportation secretary, a post that will undoubtedly grow in importance as the United States grapples with rising energy prices and climate change. He seems to be preparing for the role. In July, he co-wrote a substantive energy bill that subsidizes telecommuting, public transit and transit-friendly affordable housing.
But the biggest challenge facing the new transit guru will come next year, when Congress revisits the Transportation Bill. If Blumenauer can redirect more revenue from the nation’s gas tax to alternative forms of transit, he’ll be laughing his way to a future where Americans live better with less oil.
U.S. Trade Representative: Marcy Kaptur
Polls show the public overwhelmingly opposes America’s NAFTA-style trade policies, and Obama has committed to reforming those policies as president. Part of doing that means naming a fair-trade voice as his lead trade negotiator – and no voice for trade reform has been more dogged than Rep. Marcy Kaptur’s (D-Ohio).
A 13-term House member, Kaptur serves on the Appropriations Committee – one of Congress’ most powerful panels. As Toledo’s representative, she has seen firsthand the devastation that comes with unfair trade pacts, and has led the fight against every major lobbyist-written deal that has come through Congress – from NAFTA to China PNTR to CAFTA.
That personal connection to the trade issue would serve Kaptur well in international negotiations where compromise too often means selling out the American worker. Similarly, Kaptur’s longtime experience in the House would be critical in powering fair-trade deals through what remains a corporate-dominated Congress.
Presidents of both parties have treated the trade representative position as an ambassadorship to a banana republic, appointing go-along-to-get-along hacks – such as former Clinton campaign chairman Mickey Kantor – who use the department as a taxpayer-funded training program for their post-government career in the corporate whorehouse.
Kaptur would be far different.
Head of EPA: Daniel Kammen
To head the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Obama would make a smart choice with University of California, Berkeley, public policy professor Daniel Kammen.
A senior energy and environmental aide to the Obama campaign, Kammen is the founder and director of the school’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory, which designs, tests and disseminates renewable energy systems for industrialized and developing nations. He is also co-director of the Berkeley Institute of the Environment, which looks at environmental problems and their solutions.
At 46, Kammen signals the kind of youthful vitality the EPA needs. And as someone outside the Washington bubble, he hasn’t been tainted by the political wranglings that have screwed up U.S. environmental policies for so many years.
As someone with a background in environmental issues and a primary focus on energy, Kammen has the necessary experience to address the two-headed beast of sound energy and climate policy.
He was also a coordinating lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports, which means that, unlike the current political appointees in the EPA, Kammen is well aware of the significance and urgency of this threat.
Federal Reserve Chair: Marion or Herbert Sandler
Firing up the printing press at the U.S. Mint and handing over billions in cash to Wall Street con artists isn’t a serious monetary policy – but that’s been Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke’s response to the housing and credit crisis. When Bernanke’s term expires in 2010, either Marion or Herbert Sandler would be a welcome replacement.
Over four decades, the husband-and-wife team built Golden West Financial into one of the most stable and successful mortgage companies – and they did it through the kind of responsible lending practices that the greed-is-good crowd mocked.
As the Wall Street Journal reported in 2007, “Golden West historically had very low levels of bad loans, which Mr. Sandler has attributed to his bank’s careful vetting of borrowers and their credit.” Indeed, the Journal noted that the Sandlers were “frequent critic[s] of competitors who required no down payment, set interest rates that reset quickly at high rates and sold bundled loans to far-off investors.” They also spoke out against “the lax lending practices that pervaded the industry for the past few years – even writing a letter to federal regulators last year in support of tighter standards.” That’s precisely the kind of foresight America’s bank of banks desperately needs.
What’s more, the Sandlers are about as progressive as bankers come – and they put their money where their politics are. Their foundation underwrites, among others, the Center for Responsible Lending and the National Women’s Law Center.
A Federal Reserve chairperson with a vague familiarity with – much less a connection to – such groups would inject a populist perspective into an institution whose secrecy and insularity has made it one of the elite’s most reliable weapons in the class war.
Defense: Sarah Sewall
Admittedly a long-shot candidate, Sarah Sewall should be the next defense secretary.
During the Clinton administration, Sewall served as the first deputy assistant secretary of defense for peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance.
Currently the executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University and a lecturer in public policy, Sewall also directs the Center’s program on national security and human rights.
Sewall has worked at a variety of defense research organizations. In addition to writing the introduction to the University of Chicago edition of the U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual (2007), she has written widely on U.S. foreign policy, multilateralism, peace operations and military intervention. She currently focuses on civilians in war, facilitating dialogue between the military and human rights communities on the use of force.
One of the biggest challenges facing our country today is recognizing – and adequately responding to – the broad spectrum of threats we face in our globalized world. That includes environmental changes and disease pandemics that are contributing to global conflicts. It also includes the weaponization of space; the proliferation of nuclear weapons; and the extravagance of bloated military budgets – while our schools crumble and nearly 46 million Americans go uninsured.
The mindless use of military might – at the expense of meaningful diplomacy – has left the United States much disliked today. America seems to have lost its moral compass and with it, the ability to lead by example – once a hallmark of our nation.
With Sewall’s extensive background in policy, defense and national security, she understands these challenges and would work to restore American leadership.
Commerce: Margot Dorfman
For decades, the Department of Commerce has represented the interests of the U.S. global business elite to the detriment of healthy and sustainable commerce.
Since the ’80s, the department has done little to abate the destruction of Main Street enterprise, the collapse of our manufacturing base, the looting of our public infrastructure, massive global outsourcing of jobs, and rampant tax shifting to overseas tax havens.
A prospective Obama administration should nominate Margot Dorfman for secretary of commerce. Dorfman would advocate for Main Street, not Wall Street, and for business owners and employees, not absentee shareholders. She would support high-road enterprise that encourages real investment and healthy growth, not speculation, outsourcing and exploitation.
As CEO of the U.S. Women’s Chamber of Commerce, Dorfman has supported sustainable business development, durable economic policies, community entrepreneurship, worker education, and small business development for women and people of color. Prior to that, Dorfman worked for General Mills and several small enterprises.
When the U.S. Chamber of Commerce led the fight against raising the federal minimum wage in 2007, Dorfman and the Women’s Chamber led the fight to raise it. “We all lose when American workers are underpaid,” she said. She has been a leading voice with Business for Shared Prosperity, a national network of forward-thinking business leaders.
Sub-appointments: Van Jones, of the Ella Baker Center, to direct the Commerce Department’s new “green jobs initiative,” and John Arensmeyer, of Small Business Majority, to oversee the economic development administration.
Interior: Susan Williams
The most serious challenge facing the new secretary of interior will be the bureaucratic mayhem that politicians have created. Worse, many of these lawmakers still fail to recognize Native people as part of true sovereign nations, especially in relation to the United States.
Susan M. Williams – a member of the Sisseton-Wahpeton Dakota tribe – would help untangle this mess. Her commitment to the environment and her involvement in civic affairs make her an excellent choice for the post.
After getting a degree from Harvard Law School (and working there as a lecturer), Williams worked in firms committed to Native law and served on boards that focus on improving relations between the federal government and tribes.
Typically, the Interior Department oversees efforts to uphold treaty rights and agreements with the federal government. What’s at stake for Native people is the right to live on healthy land, have access to clean water and maintain control over their natural resources. The department also assists Indigenous tribes in creating a sustainable future for themselves.Williams lobbied for amendments that affected tribes’ water rights and tax status.
Add to this résumé Williams’ membership in various bar associations – the American Bar Association, District of Columbia Bar, New Mexico Bar and the U.S. Supreme Court Bar – and she couldn’t be better qualified for the position.
FDA Commissioner: David Blumenthal
For Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner, the pick should be Dr. David Blumenthal, director of the Institute of Health Policy at Massachusetts General Hospital and a professor at Harvard Medical School.
One of the top issues the next commissioner will face is regulating the pharmaceutical and medical-device industries.
Under the Bush administration, FDA scientists have been beset with low morale and widespread concern that they cannot do their jobs without risk of inappropriate political interference.
This decade, Blumenthal has shown independence from the pharmaceutical industry. He is a critic of detailing, drug-makers’ use of salespeople to pressure physicians to prescribe their most expensive medicines. He supports government use of drug formularies, which is an effective way of negotiating lower drug prices and protecting access to needed medicines. Blumenthal also advocates for comparative effectiveness research – an approach to studying the safety and efficacy of medicines that could save many lives.
Blumenthal was the founding chairman of AcademyHealth, the national organization of health services researchers. From 1995 to 2002, he served as executive director for the Task Force on Academic Health Centers at the Commonwealth Fund – a foundation whose goal is to improve healthcare quality for low-income people, the uninsured, young children, people of color and the elderly.
Director of National Intelligence: Ellen Laipson
For director of national intelligence, President Obama should nominate Ellen Laipson, president and CEO of the Henry L. Stimson Center – a nonprofit public policy institute that focuses on peace and security issues.
I worked with Laipson at Stimson for four years and I know she values the knowledge found inside the bureaucracy – even if that knowledge can be difficult to extract. As director, Laipson would modernize the institution so that the intelligence community is the best information resource in government.
From 1997 until 2002, Laipson was vice chair of the National Intelligence Council. Before that, she was special assistant to the U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations. She has had stints working for the Congressional Research Service, on the policy planning staff of the State Department and as a policy director at the National Security Council, giving her an invaluable perspective on policy.
In 2000, Laipson was responsible for one of the most forward-thinking public documents on intelligence and national security: Global Trends 2015, which pointed out transnational threats like criminal networks and terrorism. It remains highly relevant today.
Successful intelligence gathering in the coming years will require mending international good will. In that regard, Laipson’s U.N. experience will serve her well. More importantly, her expertise lies in the Middle East – especially Iran, Iraq and the Arabian Peninsula.
As director of national intelligence, Laipson must restore Americans’ trust in its intelligence agencies. She can do this by working to resolve concerns about torture and surveillance, by putting a stop to the privatization of intelligence, by including Congress in the dialogue, and by communicating with Americans to build mutual understanding and respect.
In These Times Editors and Contributors
David Sirota is a senior editor at In These Times and author of The Uprising: An Unauthorized Tour of the Populist Revolt Scaring Wall Street and Washington (Crown Publishers). For a full list of biographies, click on "More Information."