I know they haven't taken office yet, but it's not too early to have formed a few opinions, so here's my take on the Obama cabinet, now more or less complete. I'm treating rank incompetence or outright venality as an F, so forgive me if it seems like I'm grading on a curve. I can't give someone an F just because they're not Mother Jones.
Labor, Hilda Solis -- I can say, from my dealings with her and her office as a journalist, that she's seriously, ass-kickingly good. She pays attention to the street-level details that most Congressmen snooze their way right past, especially where obscure concepts like environmental justice are concerned (the idea that pollution disproportionately affects the poor, which is true pretty much everywhere). So she gets an A. More here.
Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki -- An easy A. Not only does Obama give the last laugh to Paul Wolfowitz's whipping boy, he finds a decorated military man whose first priority is the troops rather than contractors or the fun of war or the neoconservative agenda.
HHS, Tom Daschle -- Another A. Daschle will sell Obama's health care plan to the Senate like no one else could, and he'll make sure the final version is as good as it can get. He's become a geniune wonk on the issue since leaving Congress, and it seems pretty clear that he was the consensus best choice. Howard Dean would have been an interesting pick, and I still think he also would have made a good Labor secretary, but Daschle will do an excellent job.
Defense, Robert Gates -- I know Daily Kos was kind of pissed about this, because it supposedly reinforces the "Republicans are tougher" mantra, but it was the smartest thing Obama could have done at this point. Gates has famously done a good job of cleaning up Rumsfeld's gigantic mess, and military continuity is key in 2009 if only to give Obama cover while he tries to fix the economy. (If he'd brought in someone like Wesley Clark, on the other hand, I think you'd see more nitpicking and second-guessing in Congress and the media, fairly or not). Gates will be gone in a year and we'll be able to talk about a longer-term pick then. Until that day, I give this an A-. I'd give an A for an outside-the-box pick who nonetheless silenced the critics from day one, and who promised to cut back on military spending, but I'm not sure where you'd find anyone like that. As with the financial meltdown and the Treasury pick (see below), we need to think about the short term first.
HUD, Shaun Donovan -- B+, from what I've read. More information here. It's a little hard to judge without knowing more of the nitty-gritty, but he's obviously eminently qualified and seems to have good ideas.
Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano -- Somewhere between a B+ and an A-. She understands the need for immigration reform of the not-racist variety, and she cares about the fate of immigrants and border populations, which is a huge step up from Michael "The Undertaker" Chertoff and his non-existent agenda. Hopefully she can get the various agencies under her umbrella working together better, and from seeing her in action in Arizona, she can definitely pull it off. She's just the right kind of tough: serious without being off-putting, smart without being superior, personable without being a pushover. I think she could actually do a lot of good in the next four years.
Treasury, Tim Geithner -- Hard to say until we see him in action, but I'd give him a B. Everyone agrees he's solid and has the needed expertise. I know he's "one of the people" who steered the economy where it is in the first place, but his role in the real screwups never seemed to be central and he's obviously committed to fixing it rather than dawdling or covering his ass. A really transformational figure would have been great, but we need triage first.
Attorney General, Eric Holder -- About a B. His apparent priorities are good: he's against the death penalty and joined an amicus brief in favor of DC's city-wide gun ban (which the courts overturned, as we know). He's represented a few turds in private practice (Chiquita Foods, Merck) but from what I've seen and heard of him, his legal and political instincts are worth our trust until he proves otherwise. His main job will be to restore the peoples' trust in the department and the staff's trust in the higher-ups, and I think he'll do well.
Commerce, Bill Richardson -- Right now, a B. I'm not sure what good the Commerce Secretary can do independent of the president's wishes, frankly. Richardson is there because he's good at shaking hands and doling out jobs and largesse in a friendly way, which is what a president wants in his chief commercial point man. The department is a weird hodgepodge of employment stimulus, patent oversight, NOAA (yeah, NOAA), the National Institute of Standards & Technology, minority employment programs, the census. . . It's a real grab bag. In general, this is a glad-handing, business-savvy post where you need more personality than brains, and Richardson is ideally suited to it for that reason.
EPA, Lisa Jackson -- She has such a limited profile that I'm tempted not to give a grade, but I'll give this one a B- for now. That may seem low, but there were a lot of better candidates out there. Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, a premier outlet for governmental whistleblowers, thinks she's a bad choice, although one of their reasons (the federal EPA took over some Superfund cleanups in New Jersey) is disingenuous because it happens in a lot of states. The Sierra Club thinks she was a good choice, but they like the totally uninspiring Vilsack for Ag too so their opinion isn't of enormous value. We'll have to wait and see. I would have picked someone like Jan Schakowsky, a Rep. from Illinois, who sits on the House environment subcommittee of Energy & Commerce and is a big ally of the progressive wing of the party.
Agriculture, Tom Vilsack -- Meh. B- as well. He's not going to completely screw the pooch, but there are a lot of environmental as well as economic issues that Ag needs to sort out, and while somone like Vilsack probably knows the agriculture "players" just fine, he doesn't strike me as a guy blowing in on the west wind with a lot of fresh ideas. There's little reason to think that on his watch, the Ag department will set out rules for fully sustainable agriculture, and that's what we need right now. It's also unclear what he and Obama will do about ethanol, and I wish they'd talk more about what a big piece of the environmental puzzle ag reform is going to be.
Interior, Ken Salazar -- Gotta give this a C+. Raul Grijalva from Arizona would have been a clearly superior choice from an environmental standpoint. Salazar is a conservative Democrat and no watchdog of the mining industry in Colorado. He's worked with environmental groups on mitigating the worst abuses they bring to his attention, but he's nothing like the new sheriff the department needs (or Grijalva would have been).
Energy, Steven Chu -- Mixed: A- for policy, C for personality. The guy is basically a genius, and clearly knows what needs to be done on global warming, but he's also got more than a whiff of scandal about him that I don't like and could end up embarrassing Obama unnecessarily. He accepted unusual and unreported honoraria from the University of California, and his partnership with BP (already on hold when he was announced) could be viewed as a greenwash, although I'm not convinced he completely sold out. I think he could end up being a great mind on alternative energy but a potentially indifferent manager of the department's various other responsibilities, including the nuclear weapons stockpile and the environmentally disastrous national labs. He's probably one of the best choices Obama could have made for the post, but he comes with a few risks.
State, Hillary Clinton -- I honestly don't know, not because I like or don't like Hillary but because I don't know what Obama's priorities will be and how she'll carry them out. The job, although everyone thinks of it as a marquee post, is basically to be the president's traveling salesman, and doesn't allow for a lot of day-to-day freelancing the way a lot of other departments demand of their managers.
Transportation, Ray LaHood -- NA/Impossible to grade. The story line emerging is that he was picked because his part of Illinois is undergoing massive highway renovation and he understands the need for the scale of infrastructure Obama is proposing, plus he's a fairly moderate and non-crazy Republican to grease the skids in Congress on certain things. And he's good friends with Rahm Emanuel, which should help further. But still, kind of bizarre.
Education, Arne Duncan -- NA. Someone else, maybe Bently, will have to weigh in here. I don't know what the Education secretary does for a living. Duncan seems like a smart guy, but whether he's suited for the role Obama will ask him to play, I'm unqualified to say. E. J. Dionne has a fairly in-depth look at this question here.