- The Washington Times - Monday, April 20, 2009

WASHINGTON (AP) - A president’s first Cabinet meeting, like the White House Easter Egg Roll, is a spring rite that’s more photo op than substantive event.

Barack Obama gathered his Cabinet members around a White House table Monday and asked them collectively to find $100 million in cost cuts over the next three months. That’s a fraction of a fraction of the federal deficit, and it quickly drew ridicule from pundits and Republicans.

In truth, however, Cabinet meetings have not been the place to go for serious policymaking since, say, perhaps the Lincoln administration.

Modern-day Cabinet officials help implement policies, and they can be important symbols and spokesmen in their fields, such as housing or agriculture. Those from the four most prominent agencies _ Defense, Justice, State and Treasury _ might serve as key advisers on topics that tend to dominate an administration’s attention.

But for many years, the work of making final, tough policy decisions has been handled by the president and a small group of close advisers, nearly all of whom work at the White House, not at the Cabinet agencies scattered throughout Washington. With few exceptions, Cabinet members visit the White House now and then for carefully staged events, and then return to their headquarters to await marching orders on top issues.

“There is no Cabinet government here, and there’s not going to be,” said Paul Light, an authority on White House organizations at New York University. “We haven’t had real Cabinet government since, oh, I don’t know when.”

That’s not to say Obama’s Cabinet lacks star power. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is one of the world’s best-known figures. The president also recruited four governors or former governors. Janet Napolitano of Arizona is Secretary of Homeland Security, Tom Vilsack of Iowa heads the Agriculture Department, and Gary F. Locke of Washington heads Commerce.

Health and Human Services had the only empty chair at Monday’s meeting because Kansas Gov. Kathleen Sebelius has yet to be confirmed by the Senate. Her absence was a reminder of another role that Cabinets sometimes play: producers of presidential headaches.

The HHS job was supposed to go to former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, but his failure to pay certain taxes on time scuttled his nomination.

Daschle was to be a White House-based “health czar” as well as HHS secretary. When his nomination collapsed, Obama decided to split the jobs, with Sebelius at HHS and Nancy-Ann DeParle directing the White House health reform office.

Obama still has a few czars with overlapping duties, however. They include Carol Browner, widely known as the “climate czar,” although her title is director of the White House Office of Energy and Climate Change.

It took Obama three tries to fill the Commerce Department post. If Locke is not a household name outside Washington state, he is in good company, for many Cabinet officials have kept low profiles.

Taking the trophy, perhaps, was Samuel Pierce, the Housing secretary under President Ronald Reagan, who mistakenly greeted his appointee at a reception as “Mr. Mayor.”

Obama is on chummy terms with his Cabinet, for now at least. “I’m extraordinarily proud of the quality of this Cabinet,” he said Monday, before photographers and reporters were quickly escorted out.

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