Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein



Voters have only two choices for electing the next U.S. government: Donald Trump and Joe Biden. Each is well-known to most Americans, because Trump has been president for nearly four years and Biden was vice-president for eight during Barack Obama presidency.

But we know next to nothing about who will be their key cabinet officers, those that run the executive departments and agencies that employ several million civil servants and military personnel. The most important are the departments of State, Defense, Justice, Treasury, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services. Our system of government doesn't require candidates to name cabinet members until after the election.

That's in contrast to the parliamentary system followed in Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, and other countries. In that system, the opposition party includes the potential new prime minister and his or her cabinet. They are members of parliament and are known to voters. When Justin Trudeau, Canada's Liberal Party prime minister, faces a national election, voters already know who the opposition Conservative Party's likely cabinet members are.

Trump's choices

In considering Donald Trump's cabinet if he is reelected, he may desire a new team. Some political observers wonder whether Secretary of State Mike Pompeo would choose to stay for a second term. He appears exhausted from frequent travel, constant criticism from the press over his handling of the department's career officers, and the president's comments on policy that make it difficult to follow his leadership.

Another key player in Trump's cabinet, is Secretary of Defense Mark Esper. He replaced two other secretaries who Trump decided to drop, notably General James Mattis who held the job for nearly three years before deciding he had enough. During his one year in office, Esper has done a commendable job of managing the huge defense department. But Trump reportedly expressed dissatisfaction with him because Esper opposed using U.S. troops to quell rising violence in several cities, notably Seattle, Washington, and Portland, Oregon.

Biden's choices

Selection of key cabinet posts by him is an open question. Pundits speculate that he'll be obliged to repay Bernie Sanders for his support by appointing people who agree with the Vermont senator's leftist ideas. The same may apply to Elizabeth Warren: she has strong ideas about reining in the influence of Wall Street and its sway over policies of the Treasury Department. Warren will insist that Biden appoint people who agree with her determination to bring changes to the department and may want the top job herself. Biden will surely appoint prominent blacks and other minorities who supported him early. And as vice president, Kamala Harris would have her list of minorities who should be appointed to top jobs.

New presidents usually choose a well-known foreign policy expert as secretary of state. They include members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and John Kerry in Obama's administration is an example. Washington Post columnist George Will proposes another member of that committee for Biden's secretary of state: Senator Chris Coons of Delaware. He is not well-known outside Delaware, however.

A second cabinet member who deals with national security affairs is the defense secretary. Here Biden would need to be careful to reassure the country that he doesn't favor major cuts in the defense budget. even though he'll be pressured by Sanders and Warren to do so. Biden might emulate Obama who asked Robert Gates, the incumbent from George W. Bush's second term, to remain on the job and provide continuity. Biden should consider doing the same with Mark Esper.

The reality

This may in fact be wishful thinking. Our constitution doesn't require a presidential candidate to say who will fill important cabinet posts. The reality is that American voters are obliged to trust the good judgment of the two candidates nominated by Republican and Democratic parties. In Donald Trump's case, we have nearly four years' experience to understand where he wants to take the country if reelected. His appointees would likely to be more conservative.

In Joe Biden's case, we have to trust that his long experience in government, including eight years as vice president, give him the capability to turn the country in a different direction, to a more collaborative view toward opposition members in Congress. How will Biden prevent far-left factions in his party from pressuring him toward Sander's priorities depends on whether he is elected by a large majority.

In reality voters are required to "roll the dice" on who will become the key policy makers and implementers of America's domestic and foreign policies. That will change only when voters demand it.

File last modified on Monday, 12-OCT-2020 09:10 AM EST

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