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Why Are Tom Vilsack and Janet Napolitano in the Obama Administration?

This is a good post from Matt Yglesias:

One could imagine a world in which instead of serving as Secretary of Agriculture, Tom Vilsack was running for the US Senate seat currently held by Chuck Grassley. Vilsack would probably lose such a race, but one reason he would probably lose such a race is that Grassley could badly undercut his campaign by reaching an agreement with Senate Finance Committee chairman Max Baucus to produce a bipartisan health care reform bill.

Similarly, if Janet Napolitano were running for senate instead of serving as Secretary of Homeland Security that might be giving John McCain some incentive to deal.

This is one of those ways in which I don't understand the appointments process. I understand that given other career options, like an appointment to a Cabinet position, Tom Vilsack might not want to run against Chuck Grassley and Janet Napolitano might not want to take a shot at John McCain. Both of them could lose, and then they're unemployed and electorally tarnished. But the thing about an appointment is that the president can make it at any time. So why not just assure Tom Vilsack and Janet Napolitano that if they lose their elections they will be appointed secretary of agriculture and secretary of homeland security, respectively? Maybe they still don't want to run for Senate. But maybe then the president doesn't want to appoint them at all because they clearly don't care for his agenda all that much.

On the other side, it's not as if there's some massive benefit Obama got from choosing the former governor of Arizona to be the secretary of homeland security as opposed to, say, Bill Bratton. As far as I can tell, appointing popular politicians who could mount a credible Senate campaign is pretty much all downside.

By Ezra Klein  |  August 12, 2009; 4:07 PM ET
Categories:  Obama administration  
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Crazy idea - maybe he thought they were the best people for the job?
The Senators who need to be pressured to support Obama's plan are Democrats like Baucus, Nelson, Lincoln, and Bayh. A unified Democratic caucus can pass whatever legislation they want, assuming Kennedy and Byrd are available when necessary.

Posted by: TXAndy | August 12, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

And who would be the seat holders who would take the job for only two years knowing that, no matter how effective they were, they would be replaced. That would seem to undermine their incentive to make changes that are needed. It is not the same as sitting in for a Senator's position (Byden) where you are one of 100 and could not be effective for ten years even if you wanted to be.

Posted by: regis18 | August 12, 2009 5:31 PM | Report abuse

It's pretty normal for cabinet members to cycle in and out after a few years. There's no real reason to think that a civil servant in that position wouldn't be effective. Administration policy and bureaucratic competence are more important than simple force of personality or preexisting prestige.

Posted by: Ezra Klein | August 12, 2009 5:48 PM | Report abuse

What a weird question. I suppose the 200,000 employees at DHS and the whole of Agriculture is just supposed to sit on their hands until it's all figured out?

And what sap would put the time in to run the joint temporarily? What disruptions would they have to suffer through if failed elections resulted in an abrupt change in leadership? Would the candidates steward the placeholder or something?

Posted by: roquelaure_79 | August 12, 2009 5:52 PM | Report abuse

On top of all the other pretty good points people have made- Obama would have no reason to make good on such a promise. Once Vilsack or Napalitano lost, they'd have no other political chits. And they're obviously decent enough politicians, so they'd know this. So why would they agree to such a bum deal?

Posted by: colby1983 | August 12, 2009 6:25 PM | Report abuse

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