What Cabinet 'musical chairs,' and Julian Castro pick, say about Obama

Obama is tapping Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio to run Housing and Urban Development and HUD Secretary Donovan as budget director. The choices show the president's goals of diversity and management skill for top administrators.

Charles Dharapak/AP/File
San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro speaks about President Obama's signature health care law at the Families USA’s 19th Annual Health Action Conference in Washington, Jan. 23, 2014. The White House said Thursday, May 22, 2014, Obama intends to nominate San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro to become housing secretary and will tap Shaun Donovan, current HUD Secretary, as budget director.

President Obama unveils his newest Cabinet nominees Friday: San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro for the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and HUD Secretary Shaun Donovan as budget director.

Musical chairs in the Cabinet is standard operating procedure in a president’s second term. If approved by the Senate, these shifts would leave only a handful of Mr. Obama’s original Cabinet secretaries in place. Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the current budget director, is expected to be confirmed soon as secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS), where she will take over for Kathleen Sebelius.

These choices are significant not just for those involved, but also for what they say about Obama.

• He’s mindful of maintaining a diverse Cabinet. Obama’s choice of Mayor Castro, a rising star in Democratic politics, signals Obama’s interest in promoting young, Latino talent in his party. Before Obama’s announcement Friday, a White House official praised Castro’s five years as mayor of San Antonio, and said in a statement that the president is “excited about the mayor bringing his practical, on-the-ground success to scale at the federal level.”

Obama has had his eye on Castro for a while. The president tapped him as keynote speaker at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. Castro is also seen as having potential for higher office someday. A Cabinet post would ad national heft to his résumé. His identical twin brother, Joaquin Castro, is a Democratic member of Congress from Texas. Both Castros represent what Democrats hope is an increasingly blue tinge to a red state with a growing Hispanic population.

The addition of Castro would make three Hispanics in Obama’s Cabinet. The other two are Labor Secretary Thomas Perez and Maria Contreras-Sweet, administrator the Small Business Administration, an agency with Cabinet status. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, who is of Portuguese descent, also could be considered Hispanic.

• Obama seems to be making safe Cabinet choices.  The president’s relationship with Republicans on Capitol Hill is strained, and with the Veterans Affairs Department embroiled in scandal, the last thing he needs is tough confirmations for key positions. Ms. Burwell sailed through the Senate Finance Committee on a vote of 21-3 Wednesday, despite the fact that she will be running a troubled agency, HHS, and the most controversial initiative of Obama’s presidency, the Affordable Care Act.

Like Burwell, Secretary Donovan has already been through a Senate confirmation. Observers don’t expect him to have trouble being confirmed for the Office of Management and Budget.

“Like outgoing Director Burwell, Secretary Donovan has a track record of using data to make good decisions and drive results,” the White House official said.

Castro has never been through a Senate confirmation before, but Republicans are probably loath to target him for defeat without good reason, given the party’s problems with Latino voters.

• Obama needs strong administrators. Given the troubles at Veterans Affairs, where a scandal is unfolding over secret waiting lists for patient care, and HHS, which botched the rollout of Obamacare, the president needs appointees capable of managing large, complicated bureaucracies.

At HUD, Donovan has managed a $47 billion budget that helps families buy homes and avoid foreclosure, helps communities revitalize, and addresses homelessness. He also chaired the task force that disbursed hurricane Sandy relief aid. Before running HUD, Donovan was commissioner of the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development.

“He’s run a complex budget as a regulator during a very stressful time, and his work on hurricane Sandy proves he can work on complex inter-regulatory initiatives,” David Stevens, who ran the Federal Housing Administration under Donovan, told the Washington Post.

Castro is in his third two-year term as mayor of San Antonio. Ahead of Friday’s announcement, the White House praised him as “a leader among mayors in terms of implementing housing and economic development programs.”

• Obama needs Cabinet secretaries who play well with Congress. Burwell’s easy committee approval bodes well for her ability to deal with Capitol Hill as HHS secretary.

At HUD, Donovan didn’t have any blowups with the Hill, but as budget director, he’d have a bigger portfolio. Issues on his plate would include the budget, taxes, and the future of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae – an issue with which he is already intimately familiar.

Castro is a novice at dealing with Congress, but he would bring his skills as a politician to the table, and perhaps a little brotherly advice.

Of course, all of Obama’s nominees would face risks in their new jobs – perhaps Castro most of all. He will now be in the Washington spotlight, tagged as a “rising star.” And if he wants to get back into elective office, he will need to succeed at HUD.  

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) served as HUD secretary in ex-President Bill Clinton’s second term. Critics say his promotion of home ownership for lower-income people helped lead to the subprime mortgage crisis – an issue he would have to address if he ever runs for president.

Then there’s soon-to-be-former Secretary Sebelius. She came to HHS with a reputation for managerial and political skill, having been elected governor twice as a Democrat in Republican Kansas. But after the problems with Obamacare implementation, she leaves Washington a bit tarnished. 

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