Presidential Inauguration

Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Obama’s Cabinet: Justice, State, Defense, Health and Human Services, Labor and Veterans Affairs

January 20, 2009
by Christopher Coats
Barack Obama has tapped several Washington veterans with years of experience at the federal level to head a number of departments. This is part one of a three-part series about the new president’s Cabinet.

Department of Justice: Eric Holder

Eric Holder, 57, grew up in New York City; he attended Columbia University and then Columbia Law School.

A well-respected prosecutor and judge, Holder served as President Bill Clinton’s deputy attorney general and formerly worked as a partner at the Washington, D.C., law firm of Covington & Burling. Holder first met Obama in 2004; he went on to co-head Obama’s vice-presidential search committee and advise the campaign on legal matters.

According to The New York Times, one of the main critiques of Holder stems from his years as deputy attorney general when he said he was “neutral, leaning towards favorable” about the decision to pardon fugitive financier Marc Rich in 2001. Rich’s wife, Denise, was a major donor to the Clinton presidential library, and critics questioned Clinton’s decision to bypass the usual procedures at the Justice Department. Since then, Holder has expressed regret that he did not devote more time to the issue and advise against the pardon.

Holder’s confirmation hearing attracted attention because of questions surrounding the Rich pardon as well as his declaration that waterboarding was torture, but after a series of delays, he was confirmed as Attorney General on Feburary 2.

Department of Defense: Robert Gates

The lone holdover from the Bush administration, Robert Gates has held the position of Defense Secretary since Donald Rumsfeld stepped down shortly after the 2006 midterm elections.

Despite his connection with the Bush White House, Gates, a registered Independent, has often clashed with the administration over pivotal issues, including sending additional troops to Iraq and opening a dialogue with Iran, something the current president has opposed.

The appointment of the 65-year-old Gates attracted initial criticism from the left, but the secretary has attracted fans from both sides of the aisle. He has echoed Obama’s views on a number of foreign policy issues, including the incoming administration’s call for “smart power,” which could potentially shift resources usually reserved for the Defense Department towards more diplomatic efforts at the State Department.

Gates was further set apart from the new Cabinet members during the inauguration ceremony in Washington, D.C.; he remained at an undisclosed location to act as a succession safeguard.

Department of Health and Human Services: Kathleen Sebelius

Initially chosen to fill the vacancy at the Department of Health and Human Services, former Senator Tom Daschle withdrew his nomination on February 3, after questions arose regarding a failure to pay taxes on a car-and-driver service.

"If 30 years of exposure to the challenges inherent in our system has taught me anything, it has taught me that this work will require a leader who can operate with the full faith of Congress and the American people, and without distraction," Daschle said in a prepared staement. "Right now, I am not that leader, and will not be a distraction."

On March 2, Obama formally announced his second choice for the post: Kansas Governor Kathleen Sebelius. Her acceptance marks a shift from her position in December, when she stated that Kansas' budget issues were too great for her to consider a Cabinet post.

Department of Labor: Hilda Solis

Four-term California Congresswoman Hilda Solis was nominated to become Secretary of Labor, capping a longstanding close association with the unions. Born to immigrant parents in 1957, Solis was raised by a Teamster father and became the first person in her family to attend college, marking the beginning of a lifetime of pioneering firsts.

Earning a masters from UNC, Solis went on to become the first Latina to win a seat in the California state senate and the first woman to win the John F. Kennedy Library’s Profiles in Courage Award.

Since winning her national Congressional seat in 2000, Solis has remained a passionate advocate for unions and earned a reputation as a tenacious fighter.

Solis faced resistance during her confirmation hearing from Republicans, including Oklahoma’s Tom Coburn, regarding what they saw as her failing to give an opinion on certain key and potentially controversial issues, such as the card-check bill, which would get rid of secret balloting by employees voting to establish a union.

However, after nearly six weeks of consideration and delay, Solis was confirmed as Secretary of Labor on February 24, by a count of 80–17; she promises a strong pro-worker stance.

Secretary of State: Hillary Clinton

The junior senator from New York, former first lady and leading contender for the Democratic nomination for president in 2008, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is the most widely known Cabinet member.

Having spent eight years in the White House and an almost equal number of years as a senator, Clinton garnered foreign policy experience as a member of the Armed Services Committee and representative on state visits across the world.

Calling for a balanced approach that incorporates the “soft power” of diplomacy with military action when merited, Clinton has attracted many admirers since being announced as the nominee in early December.

 However, critics and supporters alike will be watching closely to see if Clinton’s approach to foreign policy mirrors or contradicts that of her former political rival, Barack Obama.

Despite a delay to explore a possible conflict of interest regarding former President Bill Clinton's fundraising for his foundation, Clinton was confirmed as Secretary of State by a 94–2 vote on January 21.

Department of Veterans Affairs: Eric Shinseki

Eric Shinseki was nominated to head the Department of Veterans Affairs on December 7, the anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor. The 38-year Army veteran is a West Point graduate who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, where he lost part of his foot.

Shinseki was the first native Hawaiian and first Asian-American to reach the rank of four-star general before being named the Army Chief of Staff under George W. Bush. However, Shinseki was reportedly forced to resign after he testified before Congress, that administration estimates of troop levels needed in Iraq were far less than what was needed. After leaving the military that year, Shinseki worked as an advising director of Honeywell Industries until Obama chose him for the new administration

Citing Shinseki's experience and combat injuries, Obama said that the secretary "understands the changing needs of our troops and their families. And he will be a VA secretary who finally modernizes our VA to meet the challenges of our time."

Shinseki spent his confirmation hearing outlining how he would expand and modernize the Department of Veterans Affairs, promising broader access to health care for middle-income veterans who would not have qualified under the last administration.

Shinseki was confirmed as Secretary of Veterans Affairs just hours after President Obama was sworn in, as a part of a unanimous Senate voice vote.

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