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Former Cabinet Members On Being Part Of The President's Team


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington; Neal Conan is away. President Obama is quickly filling the open seats on his Cabinet. On Monday he made two national security nominations, Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, John Brennan for CIA director. And just a few minutes ago, a third nomination, Jack Lew for treasury secretary.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: And over the years, he's built a reputation as a master of policy who can work with members of both parties and forge principled compromises. And maybe most importantly, as the son of a Polish immigrant, a man of deep and devout faith, Jack knows that every number on a page, every dollar we budget, every decision we make, has to be an expression of who we wish to be as a nation, our values, the values that say everybody gets a fair shot at opportunity and says that we expect all of us to fulfill our individual obligations as citizens in return.

HEADLEE: Currently Jack Lew is serving as Mr. Obama's chief of staff.

JACK LEW: If confirmed I look forward to joining the Treasury Department, whose people are legendary for their skill and knowledge. It's a team that I've collaborated with closely over many years and have come to respect greatly. Finally thank you to Ruth, Shoshie(ph), Danny(ph), Zahava(ph) and the kids for your endless tolerance with the demands of the schedule, the tests all family faces.

And thank you, Mr. President, for your trust, your confidence and friendship. Serving in your administration has allowed me to live out those values my parents instilled in me, and I look forward to continuing with the challenges ahead.


HEADLEE: If he is confirmed, Lew will replace Timothy Geithner, who is planned to leave the White House as of the end of January. Later in the show we'll talk with former Cabinet members Elaine Chao and Madeleine Albright about what it takes to put a good Cabinet together.

And we're asking you: What's the most important thing you consider when you're building a team? Is it intelligence, experience, problem-solving or must play well with others? Our number is 800-989-8255. The email address is And you can join the conversation at our website. It's, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

But first NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax joins us in Studio 3A to talk about Jack Lew. Marilyn, welcome back to the program.


HEADLEE: So tell us about this guy, the nominee for treasury secretary. Who is he?

GEEWAX: He's very well-known here in Washington. He's very much a creature of Washington. He went to Georgetown Law School, and in the 1970s, he was already working as a legislative aide on Capitol Hill. By the 1980s, he was a policy advisor to the House Speaker Tip O'Neill, and he was very engaged in a lot of those budget battles that President Reagan had with Congress.

So he's battle-hardened, been around and all of that.

HEADLEE: And although he has experience, he worked for Citi, as well.

GEEWAX: Yes, he had - in the '80s he was on the Hill. In the '90s he was in the Clinton administration. But during the George W. Bush years a decade ago, he took some time out then and went to Wall Street. So he got some experience with Citigroup. He worked in their global wealth management area. So he has a little bit of Wall Street experience but pretty quickly came back to Washington as soon as President Obama was elected.

He's been with - he's worked with Secretary of State Clinton, and he also was a budget director for President Obama and most recently a chief of staff. Now the thing that's kind of interesting about him is he seems to be thoroughly cycle-tested. In the 1990s, he was in the Clinton administration during a time when we were running budget surpluses.

There was actually a time, freakish as this sounds now, when people actually talked about what if we paid the whole national debt down, and we wouldn't have any treasury bills because we wouldn't need to borrow any money. That thought was actually going around as recently as 1999.

Well, he's been back in the Obama administration in the aftermath of the 2008, '09 financial crisis, when the deficits have been huge, annual deficits of a trillion dollars or more. So he knows what it's like to have a surplus, he knows what it's like to have a deficit.

HEADLEE: All right. So there have been a number of rumors going around about Jack Lew and what this nomination means. Can I float some of these by you? Number one, when the fiscal cliff negotiations were going on, Republican, some Republicans at that point said look, we compromised on the fiscal cliff, we're going to expect some compromise in return over debt ceiling.

Some people say that Jack Lew means no compromise for Republicans, no bending on the debt ceiling.

GEEWAX: He's a very great defender of things like help with Medicaid. He does not want to see cuts in that area. And he's really very much out of the New Deal tradition. He's someone who does believe that government does have a role to play in helping the poor.

HEADLEE: Safety net, yeah.

GEEWAX: So he will be pretty darn tough of those things, and I think that's one thing that Republicans are concerned about is that he knows the budget so well, when you read any articles about him, ask anybody what's he like, everyone says he's just a total expert, complete wonk on the budget. He just understands it better than anyone.

And that means that he really, he can't be pushed around easily. He'll stand his ground, and he knows what he wants, and what he wants is continued spending for some of those social safety net programs. Now we are about to be met on yet another great battlefield of the budgets, where in coming weeks we have some really huge fights coming over whether or not Congress should raise the debt ceiling.

Congress also has to do something about those automatic spending cuts that...

HEADLEE: Sequestration.

GEEWAX: Is known as sequestration. There's also at the end of March the current, continuing resolution that keeps the government going is going to expire. They'll either have to come up with a budget or another resolution to keep things going. So between Valentine's Day and Easter, there are going to be huge battles, and it is pretty clear...

HEADLEE: We're all going to be wishing we paid more attention in economics class, right.

GEEWAX: Yeah, we're all going to wish that, like, we had never heard of the fiscal cliff in the first place.

HEADLEE: Already wish that, currently.

GEEWAX: We have several more little cliffs to get over. But, you know, this is going to be a really crucial time dealing with budget issues, and he's a real budget wonk.

HEADLEE: OK, so let's kind of dive into what exactly that means. With Jack Lew kind of following so closely on Obama's philosophy, the president's philosophy, where does Jack Lew fall on the idea of stimulus versus spending cuts.

GEEWAX: Well, I think he's going to certainly reflect the president's overall approach, which is that we should be focused on finding ways to reduce the national debt over time in future decades. Let's look at long-term spending, but for right now while the job market is still so weak, they want to see continued help for the social safety net.

For example we just got through this battle about extending unemployment benefits. And yes that costs the government money, but it does give people who are unemployed some cash so they can go to the store to spend it, and that was considered a fairly effective stimulus, or at least seen that way by the Obama administration.

So Lew is very much in that tradition. He is absolutely a hardcore Democrat. In fact his first rush with politics he worked for Bella Abzug, the...

HEADLEE: Holy cow.

GEEWAX: Yeah, a staunch Democrat from New York City. So he's very much out of that tradition. I don't think anybody can expect anything different there. But, you know, I want to put out that that doesn't mean that liberals necessarily love this guy because although on that sort of social safety net end of things, he's in - he's very much in line with progressive thinking there.

HEADLEE: Hands off Medicaid, all that.

GEEWAX: But on the other hand, there are some people who think that the Obama administration has been way too easy on Wall Street. Now Secretary Geithner came in at a time when there was a big financial crisis. There was - the banking industry was really in dire shape. And it's much stronger these days, but some people feel that it really hasn't been reformed all that much.

HEADLEE: OK, but in that - anyone, many people criticized the choice of Geithner as being a creature of Wall Street, right, part and parcel of that entire environment. So what does it mean that Geithner is departing, and we now have Lew? Where will he fall on this whole deregulation-regulation?

GEEWAX: I think it really suggests how things have evolved in - four years ago, when the president first came to office, the focus was very much on this financial crisis. The world was really teetering on the edge of really chaos in financial markets. And Geithner's background had been as a banker. He had been with the New York Federal Reserve, where he focused on regulating Wall Street. So he was the go-to guy at that time.

But as I say, the banks are in much more stable condition now, although liberals very much question why they are still so big, so opaque, shall we say. We don't really know what's inside of all those banks. What are they taking risks with? So there are lots and lots of questions about are they regulated enough, should they have been broken up.

But still right now, it's clear that President Obama considers the highest priority to be not so much continuing to clean up that banking mess but rather to move on to this budget mess, and try to fix that.

HEADLEE: Right, if he's choosing Jack Lew, who people joke, and I don't even know if it's a joke, but people say he has the budget memorized, right, that he can recite it line-by-line, which may in the end be true. But with this choice of Jack Lew as treasury secretary, which just occurred, if Jack Lew is confirmed, that sounds like President Obama is really turning his sights to domestic issues.

GEEWAX: Very much so.

HEADLEE: Not worrying about Europe, as you say, not worrying about the banks but really worrying about everything the government spends its money on.

GEEWAX: And these things are all woven together, in a sense. You know, on the one hand you could say yes, that banking was the focus of the first time, and the budget is separate. But think of it this way. If there's not a resolution of the debt ceiling crisis that is looming, we are actually already hitting against the debt ceiling, and it's been the Treasury's practice to use sort of they call it extraordinary measures, you know, reach around in the couch, find some coins, you know, look under - look for some ways to pay the bills and keep going.

But those extraordinary measures will run out at around the time of - sometime around Valentine's Day, maybe a little bit longer.

HEADLEE: That's a nice little Valentine.

GEEWAX: Yeah, right. So it - we're coming very close to reaching this big problem where we don't have the borrowing authority to continue to pay people who have lent us money. So if that were to happen, if the United States were to default and say we simply can't pay all the people that we owe money to, I mean, that would be the biggest financial crisis. That would make 2008 and '09 look easy, if you were to roil financial markets by saying the world's safe haven is not safe at all.

Another debt downgrade to the United States is certainly a possibility.

HEADLEE: Which is what happened last time we...

GEEWAX: Last time, and it just freaks people out. In the global system, there has to be some sense of trust for the whole thing to work. And the basic trust there is in the U.S. dollar. They have to believe around the world that if you put - give money to the U.S. government, you will get it back.

HEADLEE: Because we're not talking about new debt, we're talking about paying the debt we already have.

GEEWAX: So this is a really - this is a financial crisis wrapped inside of a budget battle. So it's kind of interesting...

HEADLEE: Great, you're really making me look forward to Valentine's. Thanks. After a short break, NPR's Ron Elving and Elaine Chao, who served as secretary of labor under President George W. Bush, will join us. But we want to hear from you. If you've put a team together ever, what's the most important quality that you ever considered? 800-989-8255. Or send us an email to We've been speaking with NPR senior business editor Marilyn Geewax here in Studio 3A. We'll have more in a minute. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee.


HEADLEE: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Celeste Headlee in Washington. Earlier today, President Obama announced he's nominating his current chief of staff, Jack Lew, as treasury secretary. Before the break, we heard about Mr. Lew's career.

We're shifting gears a little bit now. We want to talk about what it takes to put together a good Cabinet. And we want your advice here. What is the most important thing you consider when you're building a team? Is it intelligence, experience, problem-solving skills, ability to play well with others? You can call us at 800-989-8255. Our email address is Or join the conversation at our website. It's, and then click on TALK OF THE NATION.

And we actually already got an email from Brian(ph). He is in Oklahoma, and he says: The most important characteristic for putting together a team are individuals who work well with others and are good listeners. So give us your advice, as well.

But joining me now in Studio 3A is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elvin. Ron, welcome.

RON ELVING, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Celeste.

HEADLEE: So we just heard about Jack Lew's nomination. But President Obama has obviously made a number of Cabinet nominations in recent days, John Kerry for secretary of state, we had Chuck Hagel for secretary of defense, John Brennan for CIA director and now Jack Lew, of course treasury secretary. What is - broadly, what does this tell us about President Obama's strategies for his second term?

ELVING: The president appears at this point, and we're only talking about a handful now of the Cabinet, and there are more than 20 members of the Cabinet. But the president appears to be quite serious about redefining the mode and style of his presidency. In other words, he looks to be putting a team in place that is not particularly well-known for diplomacy and negotiation, John Kerry perhaps to one side.

Most of these people are pretty tough bargainers. Most of these people are, if you will, tough customers. They like to cultivate an image of being tough customers. Look at John Brennan, for example, at CIA. This is an unsmiling and, apparently, but all reports, humorless man who is the national daddy. He is the guy who is supposedly safe from terrorists of the al-Qaida variety, from all forms of violence, from all forms of natural phenomena.

He is the man who reports to the president and tries to give some sort of national security sense to every minute and every hour of the American day, if you will. That's been his job.

HEADLEE: But doesn't blink at extraordinary measures.

ELVING: That's correct, and as we know, he has a reputation for countenancing extreme techniques of interrogation, which many people would call torture. He has been the man largely responsible for the drone program of dealing with suspected terrorists around the world. He is somebody who has been the tough guy for the president so that the president can be a somewhat more accommodating and a somewhat less tough-appearing guy but still get the benefits of someone being out there being, as I say, the national daddy.

HEADLEE: But OK, you're talking about people not being good negotiators. But at the same time, I mean, many of them are known as - are well-respected by both sides of the aisle. But there is another criticism of the Cabinet as Obama has chosen it, and we've heard a lot about the fact that they're all white guys, these new appointments.

ELVING: So far. We only have a handful. Mainly what people are talking about...

HEADLEE: How many left?

ELVING: Well, it depends on how many leave. I mean, we have more than 20 members of the Cabinet. The president has had the most diverse Cabinet in terms of race, ethnicity and gender of any president we've had to date. Bill Clinton was right there behind him. And this has been an extraordinary Cabinet for its diversity. So any loss of diversity is going to be notable.

And certainly when you start at the top, the secretary of state has always been acknowledged as the number one position in the Cabinet. And you take that away from Hillary Clinton, well she's actually retiring, it's not being taken away from her. She's stepping off the fast track.

HEADLEE: No but we had African-Americans in that position.

ELVING: That's right. We haven't had a white male in this position for something like 20 years? So it's eye-catching. It's eye-catching for suddenly the country to look up and say oh, hey, we have a white guy back at secretary of state. Now I don't think that's going to knock the whole world into a loop, and because John Kerry is in so many respects a natural for this position and certainly not a reach for this position, there probably will be a certain amount of notice taken of his gender and ethnicity, and then I think we'll move on.

If the president continues down the road to appoint people in the place, say, of Hilda Solis - who's leaving at the Labor Department, or Lisa Jackson who's leaving at EPA - if those jobs go to white males, and if some of the other jobs that have been held by people of color or women go to white males, then there's really going to be quite a bit of pushback.

HEADLEE: All right, we're talking about the Cabinet this hour. And our question for you out there listening is what is the most important thing you consider when you're building a team, and you can call us at 800-989-8255. But here to discuss that with us, how Cabinets work from the inside, is a former Cabinet member, Elaine Chao, President Bush's secretary of labor from 2001 to 2009. Secretary Chao, welcome to the program.

ELAINE CHAO: Thank you.

HEADLEE: So first of all, let's talk about exactly how Cabinets work and whether it's not - it's important that you get a group of people that works well together, that collaborate together. Or are they just simply individual heads of their department?

CHAO: I think it varies by administration. Some administration are more tightly controlled from the White House. Others are not. But in any case, a collegial atmosphere is of course, you know, very desirable. And the secretaries do have great latitudes over their departments.

HEADLEE: So you were the only member of President Bush's Cabinet that actually stayed through all eight years.

CHAO: Yes.

HEADLEE: I wonder, over the course of those eight years, what were the biggest challenges? What were the things that came to the Cabinet that really, in which you really ended up having to rely on the individual members?

CHAO: I think there was a tradition of each Cabinet member having the fine - you know, having pretty much the final say over other Cabinet colleagues on a particular issue. So there was not so much discussion of your Cabinet at the Cabinet meetings but rather larger issues that affected the country and, you know, what was going on at the time.

HEADLEE: Well, let's go to this issue of diversity that I was just talking about with Ron, then. You were the first Asian-American woman that was appointed to a president's Cabinet. Does diversity matter when it comes to picking Cabinet secretaries?

CHAO: Sure it does. I mean, you know, over half of our workforce and population are women, and people of diverse backgrounds bring a different kind of perspective. Our country is now 42 percent nonwhite. Our current population consists of 14 percent African-Americans, 17 percent Hispanics, six percent Asian and five percent Native Americans. That totals out to be 42 percent.

And in one generation, the nonwhite population will become the majority. So not to have a Cabinet that reflects the workforce or the country I think is something that is causing a great deal of discussion that we're hearing today.

HEADLEE: We're speaking right now with Elaine Chao, President Bush's secretary of labor from 2001 to 2009. And the question that we've been asking our listeners is: What is the most important thing you consider when building a team. Let's take a call right now. This is from Paul(ph) in Park City, Utah. Paul, hi.

PAUL: Hi, how are you?

HEADLEE: And - I'm doing well, thanks for calling in. What is the most important quality, do you think?

PAUL: Well, Mrs. Chao hit it on the nose, you know. There's a lot of diversity that's brought to the table and humility before honor, absolutely, everybody piece - you know, brings a piece of their puzzle and to be, you know, at least an apt listener and be able to decide amongst themselves as a team of stewardship instead of ownership, it leads the way to better ideas and more equality at the table.

You know, there's no superiority in equality. There's only equality in consensus and cooperation.

HEADLEE: Yeah, that would be great if that worked that way all the time. Paul from Park City, Utah, thank you so much. But let me take that to you, Secretary Chao. Humility doesn't seem to me - I wouldn't think of that among the qualities of many...

CHAO: Oh, no, I do think - I think, you know, most of the people who serve in the federal government, I mean, they are great patriots. They believe in public service. And they're trying to make their country better, make our country better. So, you know, I always think of Cabinet members - every president I'm sure emphasizes this.

President George W. Bush always emphasized this, especially in the second administration, second term of the administration, that humility is very important. We are here to serve the American people. But I do want to add one thing. Let's not forget, you know, we're not talking about just appointing people because of their color or because of their gender.

We're talking about selecting leaders from a larger pool of people. And we have more diverse leaders. Their networks are different. They're - the people that they know are different. So a larger pool of qualified people become available or noticed to be tapped for public service.

HEADLEE: That's a very good point.

CHAO: And so we're not talking, you know, we're not talking about, like, just numbers. We're talking about competent people that don't seem to be - that are not affirmatively reached out as aggressively as they...

HEADLEE: Yeah, they don't get accessed.

CHAO: ...yeah, as they should be.

ELVING: That's right. You know, the secretary makes a good point here. These people are running enormous, enormous enterprises - the Department of Transportation, Department of Education, the Department of Defense - enormous responsibilities. And they have responsibility over that particular function of the federal government, and then they're reporting to the president on what they're doing. Of course, they're trying to carry out his policies. Of course, they're trying to execute the laws that are made by Congress.

But within that context, they have tremendous authority. They have a lot of decision-making authority. So sometimes, they're brought from that world they've spent their whole world - their whole time, rather, in one particular specialty. But more often, they're people who have proven themselves as executive talents or as special leaders whom the president then taps to do a particular kind of function in his Cabinet. It's not like a jury. These aren't people who are chosen just for their representation. They are also chosen for their proven ability to lead.

CHAO: Right. Another example I give, you know, our world is so diverse. Our world is so complex, and things are moving so quickly, each of one of us sees the world or sees reality in its very narrow prism despite our very best efforts. So when you have a diverse team, people with diverse experiences, you know, all of their, you know, different genders, ethnicity, each one of us sees reality in its slices. And if you put that - those slices of perceived reality together, you get actually a much better and informed picture as to what the real reality is.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with Elaine Chao, President Bush's secretary of labor from 2001 and 2009, and also with us is Ron Elving, of course, NPR's senior Washington editor. And we're asking you: What is the most important thing you consider when you build a team? You can call us at 800-989-8255 or email to Michael, in Boise, writes: Character, chemistry and competency in that order. That's his priority. And on the phone here is Cathleen(ph) in Naples, Florida. Cathleen, the single most important quality for building a team is?

CATHLEEN: Honesty in communication.

HEADLEE: You mean being honest with one another when you're speaking to somebody else?

CATHLEEN: That and also no gossip, no backstabbing and just confront the situation whatever it may be the decision that was made. If you don't like it, let's get it out in the open...

HEADLEE: I'm glad you...

CATHLEEN: ...and let's just be honest.

HEADLEE: ...brought that up, Cathleen. Thank you, Cathleen in Naples, Florida. Secretary Chao, let me bring that both to you because...

CHAO: I think it, you know, at that level, you're pretty honest.

HEADLEE: Really? There's...

CHAO: Yeah. I do...

HEADLEE: Because...

CHAO: ...because, you know, if you can't get things done and you don't get along with your colleagues, I mean I don't think it's a much - a kindergarten, a sandbox situation...

HEADLEE: But let me just...

CHAO: Yeah. Mm-hmm. Sure.

HEADLEE: ...ask you quite frankly, there were so many rumors abounding especially in your Cabinet about personality conflicts, whether or not Colin Powell got along with Donald Rumsfeld, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. How often does that impede the business of...

CHAO: But that's gossip on the outside. I think there's bound to be differences of opinions, and so those differences of opinions are, you know, aired, and they go up and down the whole, you know, hierarchy. People in the mid levels, you know, adopt kind of like the tone of their principal. And so there's a lot of - it's not as backstabbing as it seems. I mean there's a lot of open discussion with a lot of disagreements.

HEADLEE: That's actually reassuring. I'm glad - yeah.

CHAO: It is, and I think what happens also but the rule is, you know, you may disagree in private, but you should not disagree with the president, nor with your colleagues publicly.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Let's take another call here. This is Naim(ph) - I hope I'm pronouncing that correctly - in Austin, Texas. Naim, what's the most important quality when you're putting together a good team?

NAIM: I would say, you know, at a baseline, you need all of the basic things - experience, skill set and all that - but I think one of the big difference here is their primary skill set that I look for is effective firefighting. The statement that was just made...

HEADLEE: Dealing with stress.

NAIM: Yeah. The statement that was just made about how our world continues to be more and more complex. If you have a team that understands beyond the basics how to mitigate and manage the day-to-day fires that erupt in any job or field, then essentially that's what, you know, that's what is going to keep your team rolling forward, is to be putting out those kinds of issues in an appropriate and effective manner.

HEADLEE: OK. Well, that's another good point. Thank you so much, Naim in Texas. Secretary Chao, let me bring that to you because oftentimes although people like to see outsiders get inside the White House maybe having the experience, having been through it before is a very important quality.

CHAO: It really is. Your, you know, your listeners have really given wonderful qualities that should be present in any leader or any Cabinet member. And I'm just really impressed. Now, I think the experience really helps. For most of - if you notice, there's recycling of people from one administration to another. There's a reason for that because, you know, Washington is a pretty high-intensity, high-pressure place. And if you've never been in that kind of environment and if you don't know people who you can tap for the informal as well as the formal news and also to get things done, it's a very, very intense and stressful environment.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao who served under President George W. Bush, and also with us is NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving. You know, Ron, I haven't asked you the $10 million question which is: Do you think any of these nominations, despite all of the hullabaloo and criticisms, do you think any of them will actually be held up?

ELVING: In the end, I think that Hagel will be the toughest battle in the Senate, at least of the people we've seen named thus far. But we were talking earlier about whether or not these people are negotiators. I don't mean to suggest they're not good negotiators. I mean to suggest that they are not easy to get around or to manipulate. And I think that all of these people have made their reputation as being tough bargainers, very difficult people to deal with. So I think Jack Lew will get a lot of questions because of that. He has bruised some feelings and some egos in the Senate. I think Chuck Hagel is a quite different situation because he comes from the Senate.


ELVING: He served two terms in the Senate as a Republican from Nebraska. He bruised some egos back then. He has said and done some things since that time, including backing a Democratic candidate in his own home state for the Senate seat that was just filled back in November, plus he also supported Barack Obama for president twice, including in 2008 when he was running against Chuck Hagel's Senate colleague John McCain. So there are a lot of bruised and personal feelings in the Senate about Chuck Hagel. That's why I think he'll have the most difficulty.

But in the end, while he may have multiple votes against him, I don't believe they will filibuster him, and if they don't, they can't stop him.

HEADLEE: All right. Let's take another call here from David in Grand Rapids, Michigan. David, we're talking about what is essential to put a good team together. What do you think?

DAVID: Diversity, as the secretary has defined it, is a very important part because you get a different perspective. What we know from the research, from places like Stanford University, is that cognitive diversity is the most important determinant of innovative solutions that come from teams. People who approach a problem, for example, from more of a database or objective point of view are going to look at things very differently than someone who's going to look at context or from a values point of view, and they're going to bring conflict to the table in how they look at a situation.

And that kind of disagreement or differing approaches to problem solving causes tension, but it brings more of a broader angle and view of a problem. So...

HEADLEE: That's a fair point. Thanks so much. That's David calling from Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can call us too at 800-989-8255. Secretary Elaine Chao and NPR's Ron Elving are my guests. We'll take a short break, and then another former Cabinet member joins us: Madeleine Albright, who was a secretary of state under President Clinton. What's the most important quality that you consider when you're putting together a team? Let us know, 800-989-8255, or email at Stay with us. I'm Celeste Headlee. It's TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


HEADLEE: We're talking about how presidents assemble their Cabinets, what factors they consider when they put together a team and what characteristics make a team successful. President Obama is taking a little heat right now in the press for naming so far four white men to his second-term Cabinet. That may be less than ideal, but it's not exactly uncommon. So far, the U.S. Cabinet has had 25 female officers. The first, Frances Perkins, served President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the 1930s.

In other firsts, Robert Weaver became the first black Cabinet secretary in 1966. 1988 saw the first Latino secretary, Lauro Cavazos. And in 2000, Norman Mineta became the first Asian-American Cabinet secretary. So we want to ask you: What is the most important quality you consider when building a team? Maybe it's diversity. Give us a call at 800-989-8255. Our email address is, and you can join the conversation at our website. Go to Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao and NPR's Ron Elving are my guests, and we're joined now by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright by phone from her office in Washington, D.C. Secretary Albright, welcome to the show.

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Great to be with you. Thank you so much.

HEADLEE: Well, you were the first female secretary of state, and I wonder what value do you think diversity alone brings to the Cabinet?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that diversity alone may not be the most important criteria. I do think it's important to have a Cabinet reflect what America is about. But what you want in a Cabinet are people that can operate as a team and serve the president by providing a lot of diverse views. So it's that combination of being able to work as a team but at the same time presenting diverse views, and diverse views sometimes come from physical diversity and sometimes from just a different approach to issues.

HEADLEE: Something that one of our listeners called cognitive diversity. I wonder if two people didn't get along, just didn't like each other, would that - do you think that would preclude them from nomination, from inclusion on the Cabinet?

ALBRIGHT: No. But I think - and I think Secretary Chao can speak to this very well too, is you actually are in so many meetings together, it doesn't help if you have personal animosity because there are - there's just kind of constant interaction. What I do think is important is respect for each other's views if you don't agree, which is different than personal animosity because if I were president and I certainly found this in just people that I had around me as secretary of state or even now in my life is you - I treasure and appreciate when people do not have - are not giving me exactly the same advice all the time. I don't appreciate and didn't appreciate when they just didn't like each other.

HEADLEE: Well, let me go then to former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, and address that question to you. How do you solve - if this problem arose - and I'm not going to ask you for specific incidents. I don't want you to tattletale on anybody. But when this problem arose of personal animosity, how do you fix it? I mean you certainly can't do it while you're all sitting there at the table, right?

CHAO: No. Generally, when you're at the Cabinet table, you know, the issues that were - that are raised...

HEADLEE: How do you fix it? I mean, you certainly can't do it while you're all sitting there at the table, right?

CHAO: No. Generally, when you're at the Cabinet table, you know, the issues that were - that are raised have pretty much been, you know, surfaced and worked through the interagency process. Because, you know, you're in the presence of the most powerful man on earth, and you want to make sure that the opinions - or at least the issue that is being discussed - has been well-thought-out and has been clear with your colleagues and it's worked out well. Then you can discuss it. But not to have any of the preparatory work beforehand does an injustice to the president.

But overall, if you don't agree with one of our colleagues, like, you know, Secretary Albright says, you have to get along. That's part of the job description. You cannot let personal animosity cloud your judgment or how your people act with one another. So to sort it out - and then there'll probably be some teams on your side, you know, some emissary on your side, some emissary on their side, and you try to work it out at the staff level first.

HEADLEE: Well, Secretary Albright, we have a question here from Lisa in Birmingham, Alabama, if I can make this work. Lisa, you had a question for the secretary.

LISA: Yes. Why is it not the norm for a Cabinet member to serve the entire length of an administration?

HEADLEE: Great question. Thank you, Lisa in Alabama. Can you answer that for us, Secretary Albright?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think that different reasons for different people. I think some - I mean, you serve at the pleasure of the president. That's what this whole thing is about. And there are times, I think, that a president might find that X person as secretary has done enough work, or there has been some major disagreements. In some cases, what you have is a secretary who - and this is the case of Secretary Clinton - has decided that four years was enough.

In the case of President Clinton, what happened, Secretary Christopher felt that he would serve only one term, which is when I came in on the second term. So it's all up to the president, frankly, and that's the - that's how it works out. If I could go back on something that Secretary Chao said, is I think different presidents like different things. When I - President Clinton actually liked to have us present different views in the Cabinet meetings. He liked us to argue. That's different than personal animosity. It's something where he wanted to hear the views and wanted to hear how the secretary of defense might react to something that I might have been suggesting. That is actually what happened on Kosovo.

So it just depends on what the president wants, which in some ways responds to the question I was just asked, is we are there at the president's pleasure. That is what this is about. This is the president's team, and he has the right and the responsibility to have a team around him that he wants to have, and to have them behave in a way that suits his decision-making style.

HEADLEE: Well, let me take this to you, Secretary Chao, because you were there for the entire eight years. We see so many people who they're - they've had enough, they've done their duty and they want...

CHAO: It's hard.

HEADLEE: Yeah, they want to get back home.

CHAO: It's a very hard job, and it's stressful. And you have to be alert 24/7, even though, you know, you have these wonderful people who are your colleagues, your staff. I mean, ultimately, the buck stops with you. These are very stressful jobs, and especially on a 24/7 news cycle. It's extraordinarily stressful.

If you look at Robert Reich, for example, he was secretary of labor in the first part of the Clinton - President Clinton's administration. You know, he was living in Washington while his family lived in Boston, or in Massachusetts. So he was commuting for three years. And there are many, many instances like that. There are also instances of where people had salary cuts. And so there are a number of issues as to why there's a shortened tenure to why someone stays in these posts.

HEADLEE: We're speaking with former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao, former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. And NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving is with me, as well. Our question for listeners out there is: What's the most important thing you consider when building a team? And here we have Luke in Jamestown, New York. Luke, the most important quality for a team member is?

LUKE: Thanks for taking my call. I think, most definitely, it's character. Without character, without knowing that people are going to be doing what they need to be doing when supervision is not around, I think that's huge.

HEADLEE: OK. That's James(ph), in New York. Madeleine Albright, your response?

ALBRIGHT: Oh, I agree. I do think that you need somebody that has a compass that works as a moral character, and that they are fulfilling their responsibility. The part that I think people need to understand a little bit about how a Cabinet secretary works: The secretary actually is responsible for a whole department. And it's a huge managerial job and a responsibility towards your own department, as well as serving the president. So it kind of has a double view of things.

And I have always felt that it was important as secretary of state - and I'm sure that secretary of labor, the same thing - is to represent your department in an honorable, honest way and manage it at the same time. So those are the kinds of things you look for.

HEADLEE: You know, I wonder - and I'm going to ask this to both of you - your thoughts over all this political chattering gossip abut Secretary Clinton and health issues. I mean, I know a lot of people found it, in some ways, offensive that people would question her health or the fact that she would, you know, not show up for the hearing because she had a concussion. I wonder what you think if that's fair for people to even get involved in that kind of debate, or whether it's gotten too politicized. What do you think, Secretary Chao?

CHAO: Well, she had the final word, didn't she? I mean...

HEADLEE: Yeah. She often does.

CHAO: She certainly did. But I think also, when you're in these public, you know, positions, you have to get used to, you know, all sorts of unfair gossip and comments. Unfortunately, that's just the way we are these days - or maybe this is the way we've always been. So the ability to concentrate focus on what's important and not let some of these, you know, outside noise kind of distract you and to have a real solid, inner core I think is very important.

HEADLEE: Madeleine Albright?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I do think it was outrageous what went on, totally. And as Elaine says, you know, Secretary Clinton had the final word. But I think that you do become a little bit public property, and there are many, many advantages and a great honor to be a secretary of a president that you admire. But there are certainly some things that are kind of the liabilities, and being a public object, I think, is one of them. But it comes with the job.

HEADLEE: How much - Secretary Albright, how much does the president listen to you? I'm sure it varies from president to president. But in your case, under President Clinton, how much power, how much influence does a Cabinet member have?

ALBRIGHT: Well, I think - as a I said, I think an awful lot of it depends on the president himself, and maybe someday herself. But I think that the bottom line is that there is a whole - Secretary Chao was saying, you know, inner-agency aspects. There are thousands and thousands of decisions made every day in the United States government, and they are made according to a policy that the president has laid out. And the harder the decision, the more likely it is to be kicked higher up. And so there are many decisions that are made at the secretary level that are then presented to the president. So depending upon the issue, you do have a lot of power.

I mean, a lot of it is worked out in - and this has to do more with the national security part of the system - within meetings that are called principals meetings of the National Security Council, where each of the members, the secretary of state, secretary of defense, speak - give their views, and the national security adviser is the one who makes sure that the views are presented, and then present it to the president. So there is an awful lot of power in setting policy with a president who wants to take that kind of advice. And - but a lot, again, depends on how the president wants to operate and get his advice.

HEADLEE: I mean, Ron - I'm looking at Ron Elving expectantly - NPR's senior Washington editor - expecting you to know what my question is. But my question is do we really pay - I mean, we've had so much attention paid to Cabinet members. Do we pay enough? Considering what Secretary Albright just said, these are people who have incredible influence, and they're not elected. They're appointed.

ELVING: Unfortunately, most of the attention that's paid is paid in a moment of crisis or a moment of scandal. If something goes wrong, if something comes under question, suddenly, everybody beats a path to the door of the secretary, and that can be the door of their office in Washington, D.C. or it could be the path to their door in their private home. There is no privacy at that moment. And the rest of time - when the secretaries are working very hard and many times making great sacrifices - no one pays much attention to them at all. It is the nature of the beast that we turn around and look at certain elements of the government only when they're not functioning properly. If they're functioning properly, we ignore them.

The other thing to bear in mind here is that the Cabinet is not the only group of people around the president, not the only people he would listen to in a moment of crisis. He also has a staff of his own in the White House that's there more or less constantly with him. Some of the members of the Cabinet - or people who have Cabinet rank - are part of that discussion, and many of them are not. Many of them are there for the regular Cabinet meetings and they run their departments, but they're not necessarily there at every moment, say, when the president is preparing to approve the strike that killed Osama bin Laden, or something of nature. So there is another group of people. There is a chief of staff. Jack Lew, who is now becoming secretary of treasury and going to be part of his Cabinet...

HEADLEE: If he's approved, right.

ELVING: ...if he is approved, or that - if he is confirmed by the Senate. He has been part of these kind inner discussions as a member of the president's innermost staff there in the White House, and a few other people who will probably never be on any Cabinet are also part of those discussions. So the president has, if you will, another board of directors, another group of people around him that he also listens to.

HEADLEE: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

Let me take this to you, Secretary Chao, because we have a mix of different people appointed this time around. My last question for you is: Should - do politicians make good Cabinet members? Or does their experience in the Congress hamper them in some way?

CHAO: I think we benefit from a Cabinet - as we do a legislature - comprised of people with very different and diverse experiences. But it is true that for someone coming out of the private sector or the nonprofit sector who has never worked in the public sector, it's a pretty steep climb. I do want to return to what was said about the White House staff. I think part of what surprised people about that initial photograph of advisers in the Oval Office surrounding the president was the lack of women.

But if you'll notice, most of those people in that photo were White House staff. So the diversity in the White House staff is just as important. President Bush, during his administration, there was Karen Hughes as the domestic - as the communications, you know, council. There was Margaret Spellings, who was head of domestic policy. There was Condi Rice, who was head of National Security Council. So, in fact, that was a very good point, that the White House staff around the president, the inner circle, is very important. And there needs to be diversity there, as well.

HEADLEE: So the secretary - current secretary of labor, Hilda Solis, stepped down. Any recommendations, Elaine, if you were going to give someone a nod?

CHAO: No. It's a tough job, I think, especially in a down economy when it's so difficult to parse any good news out of these monthly employment reports.

HEADLEE: Secretary Albright, any recommendations to fill Hilda Solis' shoes?

ALBRIGHT: No. But I do think it's very - we have to keep in mind that the Cabinet is not complete, and that there are very many qualified women and women of - or - and men of diverse backgrounds. And that's true within the White House staff, too. So I think that we are looking at a period in transition, and there are a number of great women around President Obama. And so I think that it's important to look at the picture as it is being completed. Just because it's been captured on the front page of the newspaper doesn't mean that the story is over.

And I do think, again, one of the important parts is the way that a president likes to make decisions. And what I can see from having seen how President Obama goes about it, he likes to have a lot of diverse views. That is how he makes his mind.

HEADLEE: Diverse views. All right. That's former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, served in President Bill Clinton's Cabinet. She was the first female secretary of state in U.S. history. And former Secretary of Labor Elaine Chao was the only Cabinet secretary to serve during both of President George W. Bush's two terms. She's now a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. We spoke to her by phone. We spoke to Secretary Albright by phone also from her office in Washington, D.C. And NPR's senior Washington editor Ron Elving was here with me in Studio 3A. Thanks to all of you.

Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY. Join host Ira Flatow for a look at how doctors are mining genetics for new ways to fight cancer. And Neal Conan returns Monday. This is the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Celeste Headlee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.