Scandal, charges of incompetence and sudden resignations have left President Obama’s Cabinet in a state of flux these days, but in two corners of the federal government, the White House has found unusual stability.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan and Agriculture Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack soon will be the only two remaining secretaries — out of 15 — to have been with Mr. Obama since Inauguration Day 2009. Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. also has been on board since day one, but he has announced his resignation and will officially step down sometime in the coming months.
While turmoil has become commonplace across much of the administration — evidenced most recently by the unexpected resignation of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel amid reports of conflict with the White House, marking the third Pentagon washout of this presidency — Mr. Duncan and Mr. Vilsack have, to a large degree, been able to fly under the radar and have avoided major scandal.
Both men can lay claim to a strong relationship with their boss.
For Mr. Duncan, the friendship stretches back to the president’s home city of Chicago, where the secretary formerly served as chief of city schools. The two also have frequently played basketball together.
“Duncan has, by all accounts, a very strong relationship with President Obama and is one of his people from Chicago. My sense is that he is part of the inner circle, and that may help a bit. He has the president’s ear,” said Matthew Dallek, a political science professor at George Washington University who specializes in political leadership and the presidency. “Maybe he feels a particular loyalty to the president that maybe some other members of the Cabinet [don’t]. Not to say they’re not loyal, but their relationship doesn’t stretch back more than five or six years. In Duncan’s case, it goes back a decade, maybe longer than that.”
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Neither the Education Department nor the Agriculture Department provided comment to The Washington Times.
Administration officials also said recently Mr. Obama has become close with Mr. Vilsack, with the two bonding over a mutual love of sports and also given to deep, detailed discussions of agricultural policy. The former Iowa governor has earned the trust of Mr. Obama, officials say, and the two have worked closely on efforts to prepare rural communities for the effects of climate change and on other issues.
“It’s not like he’s just drafting in the peloton here,” White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough recently told USA Today, borrowing an analogy from bicycle racing. “He’s [throwing] his effort across a wide range of issues, and you’re seeing really good progress in rural America, and I know that is something that the president takes pride in.”
Should either Mr. Duncan or Mr. Vilsack remain in their posts for the duration of Mr. Obama’s time in office, they will become oddities in Washington: It is rare for Cabinet secretaries to remain on the job for two full terms.
During former President George W. Bush’s administration, only Labor Secretary Elaine Chao served eight years.
During the Clinton administration, four Cabinet members stayed on for all eight years: Attorney General Janet Reno, Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt, Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala and Education Secretary Richard Riley.
President Reagan had just one Cabinet member remain with him for eight years: Housing and Urban Development Secretary Samuel Pierce.
But political specialists say it’s even harder these days for a secretary to work for eight years without burning out, becoming frustrated due to a lack of power over policy or being scapegoated for failure or scandal.
“Given the nature of the media, there are more shots coming at them from different angles than there ever were before,” said Stephen Hess, a senior fellow in the governance studies program at the Brookings Institution and former adviser to Presidents Ford and Carter.
Under this president, Cabinet secretaries frequently have taken the brunt of blame following mishaps.
Earlier this year, for example, Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric K. Shinseki resigned after a scandal surrounding wait times for medical care at VA facilities and reported efforts by officials to mask the problem. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius left her post just months after the botched rollout of healthcare.gov last year.
While Mr. Duncan and Mr. Vilsack have survived for six years and, by all accounts, retain the full trust of the president, they also have seen some criticism.
Mr. Duncan has faced charges of wielding too much power over education policy, with federal efforts such as Race to the Top pushing — or coercing, as critics charge — states to embrace the administration’s favored priorities, such as the Common Core school standards.
Mr. Vilsack largely has avoided controversy, but he did come under fire in 2010 after abruptly firing Agriculture Department employee Shirley Sherrod after she allegedly made racist comments. It was later revealed her words had been taken out of context, and both the secretary and the White House apologized to her for their handling of the controversy.