All the President's Mystery Men (and Women)

While campaigns trumpet their VP picks, voters get little insight into who might staff a president-to-be's cabinet -- and help set administration policy. Should that change?

Obama and his cabinet at a July 26 meeting. (Reuters)

Paul Ryan comes into his vice presidential nomination with more policy baggage than most. We'll vet him obsessively for the next few weeks, and with good reason. But let's face it, he's still running for the second slot. Think about this: The attention we pay to who might be the next vice president of the United States dwarfs by several orders of magnitude the attention we give to the dozen or so people whose job descriptions actually include making public policy for the country -- the rest of the president's cabinet. Who might Mitt Romney pick to head up the Treasury Department? The Department of Defense? To be attorney general? Who, for that matter, would fill Hillary Clinton's shoes as Obama's second-term secretary of state? Those questions are hugely consequential to the functioning of the American presidency.

Still, voters get little insight into their answers. Who will line up alongside the president at cabinet meetings is a decision that lives only the mind of the president-to-be. Should that change?

In the sleepy summer weeks leading up to Romney's picking of Ryan, I handed that thought experiment to several academic experts in presidencies and elections. It isn't completely unheard of, some pointed out, for a presidential wannabe to hint at the makeup of his future cabinet. In 2000, Texas Governor George W. Bush floated the idea of naming the worldly and broadly popular Colin Powell his secretary of state. "I hope his greatest service might still lie ahead," wink-winked then-candidate Bush. But, more normally, we get things like the empty nod both Barack Obama and John McCain gave in 2008 to Warren Buffett as the sort of bloke they'd love to have as their secretary of the Treasury. The experts' opinions varied but can be boiled down to this: Getting a presidential nominee to signal who'd serve in their cabinet is well-nigh impossible, and it also might be a good idea.

Things work differently in other countries, of course. Nearly every one of my academics began by pointing to the "shadow cabinets" built into other ways of governing. Cal Jillson, a professor of political science at Southern Methodist University, described the full-color display the loyal opposition puts on during Prime Minister's Questions in the United Kingdom. "They're hooting and booing and hollering at his answers," says Jillson. "It helps people decide because they know who is going to be chancellor of the exchequer, secretary [of state for] defence, and all those jobs. But our system isn't set up that way."

Ours, of course, isn't a parliamentary system, but one with a chief executive. He or she is the boss. That brings up the most striking, and potentially fatal, mark against the idea: It lashes a president to decisions made as a result of the impulses of a candidate. "I think it would introduce all kinds of deals and arrangements that wouldn't bode well for the administration," says Gerald Pomper, professor of political science at Rutgers. "It would bind him to things he wouldn't want to do. You don't know what you're going to do with your administration" when you're still on the campaign trail.

It's Presidential Candidate 101 to avoid making agreements your administration is obligated to keep. The counterargument: When the country is in the middle of a war or economic crisis, a responsible nominee is naturally thinking hard about who their defense secretary or treasury secretary is going to be. The nominees are just not telling us.

There are, the academics point out, more pedestrian political risks.

There's the measuring-the-drapes syndrome. In 1976, Ronald Reagan flirted with presumptuousness when he picked Pennsylvania Senator Richard Schweiker as his running mate before the Republican convention. (He needn't have bothered; he lost the nomination to sitting President Gerald Ford.) Then there's the fact that good vetting of cabinet officials requires enormous time and other resources. Bad vetting gives opposition researchers more to chew on. Either way, cabinet picks named early become irresistible fodder for the ceaseless news cycle. Just imagine the tweets. And, of course, the Senate has final say over the president's cabinet selections. In today's hyper-partisan climate, there's real possibility that a president could be made to look the fool when the picks he's been touting for months don't pan out.

Moreover, naming names during the campaign risks annoying the surrogates, fundraisers, and interests groups whose support a nominee wants and needs. "Appointing a shadow team would be a major distraction," writes David Karol, associate professor of American politics at the University of Maryland at College Park, "and would inevitably disappoint many aspirants who would otherwise work hard to get the nominee elected in hopes of snagging an appointment." Every name that gets floated is a bummer for perhaps dozens of other hopefuls -- and for the people who want to see those hopefuls with plum jobs. "Better to wait until you're elected," writes Karol, "to disappoint most of them!"

Also, staffing up while the race is still on can also cause internal unrest. The classic example of what not to do, says Vanderbilt professor of political science David E. Lewis, is the 1976 Jimmy Carter campaign. Carter was criticized for surrounding himself with Georgians who lacked the background to run the federal government, and his winning campaign fed into a transition that his speechwriter described as "a bloody power struggle as old debts were settled" and victors fought over spoils. "The fact that anyone is doing transition planning or floating names for particular positions," says Lewis, "or carving up the new administration without your input while you're running the campaign, it generates anxiety and uncertainty. There's a sense of unfairness, like, 'We're the ones who are working day-to-day to get the president elected and you're sitting back in some cushy air-conditioned office making recommendations and decisions about who's going to staff the administration?'"

In short, it's easy to see why candidates wouldn't want to be expected to suggest who might be in their cabinets. Except in rare instances, it isn't going to help you get elected. It might even drag you down.

But things look different when you think about it from the voter's perspective.

There are, several of the academics agreed, potentially enormous benefits. The heavy lift of vetting, fears of hubris, and the trickiness of composing a balanced cabinet are all valid concerns, writes Mark Peterson, professor of public policy, political science, and law at UCLA. "That said, substantively it should be a viable idea. It would certainly inform voters to know more about what the team would look like."

There are potentially long-lasting upsides to this thing. For the new president-elect, fleshing out full cabinets -- Health and Human Services? Agriculture? HUD? -- can be an afterthought. This can, in turn, lead to something like what public affairs expert Hugh Heclo described in a book in the late 1970s called A Government of Strangers: In recent years, presidents have often come into office without much experience on the national stage. Getting the bureaucracy up and running involves a lot of fumbling in the dark. In the rush of transition, administrations get staffed with people who the president doesn't know very well, and, horizontally, often don't know each other very well. It all makes it particularly tempting to pick from the pool of folks who have already been through the ringer. "George Shultz is a gimme," says the University of Wisconsin at Madison political science professor Ken Mayer, of the man who has run Labor, Treasury, and State. "People who have served in nine different capacities are easy."

Jillson of SMU picks up the thread. "Since the president, then, doesn't know [the members of his cabinet and other executive branch staff] very well, he can't place deep confidence in them, and that leads presidents to depend upon their White House counsellors, their own close appointees." The result? An intimate, some might say insular, circle of advisers made up of people that the new president knows because they helped him get elected. Take Obama's Davids -- Axelrod and Plouffe, who worked largely as media consultants, including on Obama's pre-presidential campaigns, before taking high-ranking and enormously powerful positions in the White House. Maybe expecting presidential candidates to float some cabinet names early wouldn't help all that much to broaden the administration, but it would mean that campaigns -- and candidates -- would have to spend a little extra time getting to know who might be good at actually governing come January.

And in turn, that could provide the public with a fuller picture of how, say, a Mitt Romney would act as president. "Romney talks about what he'll do on 'Day One'," says Brandon Rottinghaus, associate professor of political science at the University of Houston. "But candidates can talk until they're blue in the face about their economic policies; if they say, here's the person that I would choose to be the next Fed chair, or here's the person I would choose to be the next Treasury Secretary, those kinds of signals matter." (Remember, we talked in the pre-Ryan era.) People come into public service with different backgrounds and strengths, and from different schools of thought. "Picking Henry Paulson versus picking Timothy Geithner matters a great deal."

Having a Paul Ryan in the White House is one thing, but whether a Paulson or a Geithner is tasked with directing our financial policy is especially critical given the modern-day scale of the executive branch in the U.S. An American president is, in a way, the decider who decides who the deciders are going to be. The president of the United States hand-picks a few dozen figures who in turn chose thousands of people who make a ton of choices, all of which adds up to a single federal government. "You have to see a multiplier effect," says Rottinghaus. Those who have been through it get that. Colin Powell, who has criticized Romney's foreign policy fixation on Russia, said recently, "It's not just a matter of whether you support Obama or Romney, it's who they have coming with them." Or, to borrow a Reagan-era slogan, personnel is policy. When we don't know the former, we don't really know all we could about the latter.

What's worrisome is that in that vacuum we get Buffettism -- vague words and blue-sky pledges that trick us into thinking we know more about a presidential ticket than we really do. "That wasn't a serious choice," says Vanderbilt's Lewis about both Obama and McCain naming the Oracle of Omaha as the American they'd like to see running Treasury. But it's a serious matter, because the people who surround the president of the United States matter a great deal. "For voters, it'd be nice to know who you're staffing your cabinet with," says Lewis, "because cabinet secretaries are making hugely important decisions all the time. They're writing regulations. They're deciding whether mountaintop mining is going to be viable or not. They're determining what drugs are going to be on the market. They're determining what aspects of civil rights laws are going to be enforced more vigorously than others."

"You're not just electing a president," adds Lewis. "You're electing more or less a 3,000-person corporation to run the country for at least four years." But who's going to help the president manage it remains largely a mystery.