Almost all of Barack Obama’s cabinet members have been outstanding. You can quarrel with Hilary Clinton’s foreign policy views or Tom Vilsack’s position on organic food or New York Fed Chief Tim Geithner’s proximity to Wall Street, but you can’t quarrel with their qualifications for the job. And Obama has managed to pull together a cabinet that represents the full spectrum of his majority coalition without a hint of tokenism. Who better than Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano to run Homeland Security or Dr. Steven Chu as energy secretary? That leads me, however, to Obama’s last two cabinet appointments, Ray LaHood as Secretary of Transportation and Hilda Solis as Secretary of Labor. I’m not saying these aren’t good people, but they don’t seem like the strongest candidates for the job. Obama’s choice of them suggests to me that he is not serious about either transportation or labor.
First of all, these were his very last cabinet picks, and they came after second level White House aides and agency heads. The order of picking means something. It was no accident that Obama introduced his economic and his national security team first. Secondly, he picked second tier House members for these jobs. Does that matter? Well, consider what the various advocates of national health insurance, like our own Jonathan Cohn, would have said if Obama had picked former Connecticut Rep. Nancy Johnson as head of Health and Human Services. Johnson is a Republican, so he would have kept his commitment to bipartisanship. She had far more familiarity with health issues than LaHood has had with transportation or Solis with labor. I suspect Cohn and others would have regarded the choice of a second tier House person as a sign that Obama wasn’t committed to passing national health insurance in his first term. (If you think the Johnson example is too tricky, then substitute a Democrat, Rep. Pete Stark, a good guy who knows health, but like Solis or LaHood, is not a heavyweight in national politics.) If you think these are important jobs, what you want is someone of national standing who can sell your and their program to the public and to Congress--and particularly to the Senate, where the Democrats are going to need 60 votes on some key issues. You also want someone who is deeply familiar with the issues.
So maybe the Departments of Labor and Transportation aren’t that important. Certainly, they weren’t important in George W. Bush’s administration. But they should be important in Obama’s administration. Transportation has a stake in America’s two biggest manufacturing industries, planes and auto. Much of the $900 billion and rising in infrastructure funding is going to go through the Transportation Department. The secretary is not just going to be responsible for shepherding this spending through Congress, but also for shaping what kind of spending occurs. What gets funded--highways, airports, rail, mass transit--and in what proportion will determine what the country looks like well into the next decades. LaHood is being touted as being pro-rail because he didn’t vote against AMTRAK, but I have heard little to convince me that he will bring any kind of vision to the job or that he will able to sell controversial provisions in the Senate. If Obama had wanted someone who had thought a lot about these issues, he could have picked Minnesota Rep. Jim Oberstar, the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell was also discussed for the job. If he wanted a Republican, there is always former Wisconsin Gov Tommy Thompson, a train nut who wanted to be Sec. of Transportation in the Bush administration and reluctantly agreed to take HHS.
As for the Labor Department, its concerns are already apparent in the fight over the auto bailout, where Southern senators from right-to-work states are attempting to blame the American industry’s plight on unions. Business groups are already running ads against the Employee Free Choice Act, which would dramatically reform labor law and halt the slide of the labor movement. And they will fight tooth and nail against any attempt to strengthen and enforce regulations on worker health and safety. Recall the battles that took place in the Clinton administration. I don’t expect Obama to push the free choice act during his first year, but if he wants to get it, he has to convince 60 senators to back it, and judging from the vote on the auto bailout, I’d say that he has at most 54. Is Rep. Solis the best person to make this case to Congress and to the American people? Does she have the clout with Obama himself to get the administration in back of a strong bill? My guess is that American workers would have been better off with former Reps. David Bonior or Dick Gephardt, both of whom had national political reputations. Don’t get me wrong--LaHood and Solis could turn out to be a great choice. Harold Meyerson, whose opinion I respect, certainly thinks Solis is a great choice, and so do some of my friends in the labor movement. But right now neither she nor LaHood look like the kind of big shots that Obama picked for his other cabinet posts. And that makes me worry about his priorities.
--John B. Judis