As the head of the executive branch, the president must enforce legislation and, in some cases, Supreme Court decisions favorable to their administration. That’s a lot of law for just one person to study and enforce. To meet the office’s demands, hundreds of federal agencies and departments have been created during the many presidential administrations in American history to help the president with these responsibilities. Although the president sits at the top of the executive branch, the Cabinet takes responsibility for the various offices and departments that keep the country running daily.
The Cabinet of the United States originally consisted of the vice president, secretaries of state, treasury, and war (which was later changed to defense), and the attorney general. Later, the secretaries of the interior, agriculture, commerce, labor, health and human services, housing and urban development, transportation, energy, education, veterans affairs, and homeland security were created that make up the full Cabinet today. Various presidencies added these departments as a way for the president to oversee and manage new challenges to the country. Many have criticized that these new positions and agencies have created a bureaucracy that gives the president too much power. Still, Congress and the American people have generally accepted this reality over the last century and a half in exchange for quicker problem-solving.
The various Cabinet members all serve as the heads of their agencies and departments. The original Cabinet’s members and responsibilities are broken down individually. The State Department is the federal department in charge of anything related to foreign policy and international diplomacy. The head of the department is considered the country’s top diplomat and often takes foreign trips to improve relations with other countries. The Treasury Department is the official treasury for the federal government, oversees printing our currency, collects taxes, manages the national debt, and supervises banks throughout the country. The head of the Treasury department usually advises the president and Congress on economic policy aside from overseeing department operations. The Attorney General is the federal government’s top lawyer and manages the Department of Justice, which enforces federal law throughout the country. It has multiple agencies like the FBI, DEA, and ATF that are important in enforcing federal law. Finally, the secretary of defense is the Department of Defense leader and has primary command of the U.S. military only after the president. The Department of Defense is typically associated with the Pentagon, its headquarters that serves as an office building for our military branches and their hierarchy.
These original Cabinet positions represent the way presidents have maintained and exerted control over the executive branch. These positions are often used to make statements on a presidential administration’s goals for the next four years. President Clinton’s Cabinet was filled with many women, a first for presidential administrations that typically did not include women at the highest positions of power that was meant to represent “a Cabinet that looked like America.” President Obama’s Cabinet was important, but the president also had many “czars” or policy experts that would advise him separately on issues that were often very different from advice that came from his Cabinet. President George W. Bush had one of the most powerful Cabinet members in executive branch history. His vice president, Dick Cheney, influenced domestic and international policy so significantly that many consider him the most powerful vice president in American history.
It is important to note that while the Cabinet is mighty and helps manage the country, the president ultimately holds power in the executive branch. A president will not willingly pick a Cabinet that opposes his real legislative plan, even if their public statements say otherwise. While bureaucrats are extremely powerful nowadays, they still answer to the president at the end of the day.