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May 22, 2014 5:06 PM How Incompetent Can a Cabinet Secretary Be?

By Jonathan Bernstein

The debate about whether President Barack Obama should fire Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki is an opportunity to look at the question of when presidents should get rid of top officials.

Presidents must fire cabinet secretaries and other political appointees in two situations: when the official openly resists a high-profile policy, and when the president has determined the official can no longer carry out policy competently.

The most famous example of the former was Harry Truman’s dismissal of General Douglas MacArthur; perhaps the best instance of the latter was George W. Bush’s decision to cashier FEMA Director Michael Brown. Bush’s decision to replace Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld may have been a bit of both, and certainly came very late.

In all other cases, the president has to compare the costs and the benefits in situations in which the upside usually amounts to the sketchy and amorphous advantages of “sending a message,” or “showing the president is serious” or “changing the narrative.” Still, the notion that mistakes have consequences probably isn”t meaningless, and it is helpful for presidents to show they’re paying attention when federal bureaucrats are figuring out what they can get away with.

However, the costs are real, too, beginning with the plain fact that firing someone means finding a replacement, and that’s not easy, even without a broken executive branch nomination process. There are transition costs involved in bringing a new person up to speed, too. And the signaling effects aren’t all positive: firing someone to make the press happy won’t necessarily make everyone else work more effectively. Instead, it might breed insecurity among those who remain in the administration (or might be recruited for future positions) and rattle their faith the president is behind them.

Again, if the president has lost faith in a cabinet officer, that person should be replaced (though plenty of presidents — from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to Bill Clinton — have found that difficult to do). And sometimes it’s a closer call; something has gone wrong, but it’s not clear who is at fault. It can be difficult to figure out what’s going wrong in an executive branch department or agency. Presidents need to be able to ignore meaningless hype and scandal-mongering in the media, but they also need to learn to read leaks and investigative reporting for clues to what’s really happening. That’s one of the reasons why presidenting takes a lot of skill. Good intentions and strong beliefs aren’t enough.

The focus should always be on long- and medium-term policy and governing, rather than one-day press stories. Cleaning house just to send a message may not always be a mistake, but, generally, better options are available.

[Cross-posted at Bloomberg View]

Jonathan Bernstein is a political scientist who writes about American politics, especially the presidency, Congress, parties, and elections.

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