Breakingviews - Cox: U.S. cabinet picks have never been as crucial

ZURICH (Reuters Breakingviews) - One anecdote in “Rage”, Bob Woodward’s recent book about Donald Trump is required reading for anyone considering a job in his administration, should he gain a second term as U.S. president in November’s election. It’s the chapter where Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the former chief executive of Exxon Mobil, is summarily sacked by the president on Twitter without clear explanation. It’s an astonishing, but not unique, example of Trump’s imperious and impulsive management style.

U.S. President Donald Trump stands with members of his Cabinet as he makes an announcement about U.S. trade relations with China and Hong Kong in the Rose Garden of the White House in Washington, U.S., May 29, 2020.

And it is the reason why so many executives and former public servants allied with the Republic Party I have spoken to off the record in recent months say they would be unlikely to work for the Trump White House. Their general concern is that they would have too little influence on the direction of policy and risk the downside - like Tillerson and others – of having their reputations publicly besmirched by the commander-in-chief.

Trump’s personal battle with the coronavirus is a reminder that the presidency, for all the power and pulpit it provides, is not a one-man band. To govern the world’s largest economic and military power requires a team of competent managers capable of running complex bureaucracies like Tillerson’s former department; the Pentagon, now under its third chief including an acting boss - former Raytheon Technologies lobbyist Mark Esper; and the Treasury, uniquely still led by the same secretary, Steven Mnuchin.

As Trump undergoes treatment at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Americans want to know that the federal government, with its nearly $5 trillion annual budget, will function seamlessly. That’s why the question of recruitment and retention of talent is arguably more important than in any previous presidential election. With Trump, at 74, in the hospital, and Joe Biden, at 77, the oldest Oval Office contender in history, the team they can put together matters.

On economic issues, as my colleague Gina Chon recently argued, Biden has the edge even though more people approve than disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy in a recent Real Clear Politics composite of polls. That appears to fit with readers’ responses to a series of questions that Breakingviews asked on Twitter regarding potential cabinet and other economic policy positions as part of the quadrennial release of the Economic Dream Team Machine.

The responses are not scientific, by any means. But, taken as a whole, they suggest a broader familiarity with some of the potential nominees for economic policy roles in a Biden administration than with those who might serve under a Trump redux. That may point to a relative paucity of options for Trump, who is on his second director of the National Economic Council, Larry Kudlow of CNBC fame, and has two current vacancies on the three-member Council of Economic Advisers.

The poll questions presented three names of candidates, and an option for “other”, for six important positions: Treasury secretary, the head of the Federal Reserve, secretary of Commerce, U.S. trade representative, National Economic Council director and chair of the Council of Economic Advisers. In every case but the Fed chairmanship, respondents picked “other” over named candidates for Trump administration jobs, even in cases where the current occupant of the position was on offer. That happened in only one instance when it came to the selection of potential nominees for a Biden White House.

This is somewhat surprising. For example, Mnuchin has been a steady hand at the Treasury for Trump’s full term. Yet only around 32% of respondents chose him for the job in the Twitter poll. While that beat out Fox anchor Lou Dobbs, at 15%, it was well below the 44% garnered by “other”. Similarly, Kudlow received votes from just 29% of the nearly 12,000 cast for his role as director of the National Economic Council, well below the near-52% that went to “other”.

Meanwhile, on the Democratic side there was more consensus, or perhaps wishful thinking, on Twitter. On the Kudlow job, effectively the chief voice on economic policy to the president, just over half of the 15,450 respondents picked Marc Cuban, the Texas basketball team-owning entrepreneur, over BlackRock boss Larry Fink and Jared Bernstein, who actually advised Biden on the economy when he was Barack Obama’s vice president.

There was even greater enthusiasm for Andrew Yang, who campaigned for the Democratic nomination, to run the Department of Commerce. He garnered 78% of the 14,408 votes cast. And Elizabeth Warren, the Massachusetts senator who also sought the nomination, snagged 62.6% of the more-than-20,000 votes cast for Treasury secretary, ahead of Fed Governor Lael Brainard and Roger Ferguson, the chief executive of investment manager TIAA, and a former Fed vice chairman.

These polls are anecdotal, and the choices somewhat arbitrary, though all are drawn from the Breakingviews Economic Dream Team Machine. But they may be interpreted as suggesting there is less awareness of some of the potential names available to a second Trump administration. That may have something to do with the president’s managerial style.


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