USC Price School of Public Policy

USC Studies Ideology of Presidential Cabinets

USC Studies Ideology of Presidential Cabinets

By Merrill Balassone

Anthony Bertelli Study co-author Anthony Bertelli

As coverage of the 2012 presidential race gains steam, so begins the hypothesizing: What would a Mitt Romney administration look like? Would a second term for President Barack Obama mean a cabinet shakeup?

While conventional political wisdom holds that presidents surround themselves with allies who are in lockstep with their political beliefs, a new USC study shows the opposite more often is true.

Relying on millions of pages of congressional testimony, the USC study showed that 85 percent of cabinet members in the Bill Clinton administration had ideologies that diverged significantly from the president himself.

Among former president George W. Bush’s cabinet appointees, 69 percent of appointees differed from Bush.

The study also includes a graph of 63 top cabinet secretaries and their appointing presidents, ranked on a statistical scale of liberal to conservative ideologies. Among the findings:

  • John Ashcroft, despite his public perception as a staunch conservative as attorney general under Bush, was ranked far more moderate than the former president.
  • Federico Peña, Clinton’s secretary of transportation and later secretary of energy, was found to be the most liberal cabinet member of any during the three presidencies studied.

The study, in the October issue of the American Journal of Political Science, compiled the first statistical portrait of political ideology among cabinet members during the George H.W. Bush, Clinton and George W. Bush presidencies.

“Cabinet members are really not just allies of the president,” said co-author Anthony Bertelli, associate professor and holder of the C. C. Crawford Chair in Management and Performance at the USC School of Policy, Planning, and Development and the USC Gould School of Law.

“Most people assume the cabinet will have ideological allegiance to the president, but these administrations were much more diverse,” Bertelli said.

The study also found that the political party in control of Congress influences the ideological makeup of the president’s cabinet.

That may be because a cabinet head more closely aligned with congressional policy preferences means greater budgetary authority to that department, said study co-author Christian Grose, assistant professor of political science at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

“The president has to make a nod to Congress,” Grose said.

In addition to using cabinet picks as a bargaining tool with the legislature, the president also may have an incentive to nominate those differing from his ideological bent to counteract pressure from interest groups, Grose said.