The next ambassador to China…and the next Secretary of Commerce

The past few days have provided a rare instance where the Department of Commerce comes under the media spotlight. One reason? President Obama named Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke as the next US ambassador to China. Ed O’Keefe, writing in the Federal Eye, was quick to explain why this makes sense. [Turns out that the logic is powerful indeed! With China on the ascendancy, that particular ambassadorship is not any ordinary post. Locke, the former governor of the state of Washington, is a Chinese American. The symbolism in this gesture will not be lost on the Chinese. Boeing, largely housed in Locke’s home state, is a pivotal player in US-China trade. Locke has a well-established track record of success in this arena. Other factors come into play.]

Then, this morning, the Washington Post featured an article by Anne Kornblut on how White House Chief of Staff William M. Daley is working to improve relations and collaboration between the White House and the Cabinet. The article notes Secretary Locke’s departure, and Daley’s prior role as Secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. [Daley knows how it feels to be a Cabinet member!] Ms. Kornblut refers to Cabinet-level frustration with lack of access to the President, and President Obama’s sense of isolation – wishing he could meet with his cabinet more frequently.

The problem is not new. As government has grown more complex, the White House staff has grown commensurately. This staff coordinates across the full span of White House activities. But it also micro-manages the Cabinet Departments, and at the same time cuts off Secretarial access to the President.

[By the way, this is inherent in such growth; it’s not an easily-corrected misstep or dysfunction. C. Gordon Little, my former lab director, used to say, “Each layer of management does three things. It delays, distorts, and attenuates all messages. It’s a classic filter.”]

Cabinet Secretaries, as they find their words chosen for them, their actions suppressed, and calendars reshuffled, often on little or no notice from the White House, can be forgiven for feeling that they are no more than glorified mid-level managers. And these men and women are used to – and capable of – much more. Given their accomplishments prior to assuming Cabinet positions, they can be forgiven for being frustrated. Those who do best encumber the higher-status Cabinet positions – State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice. Others adjust well because they’ve been in other Cabinet positions before. They know what they’re getting into! In any event, both Republican and Democratic administrations struggle to make this machinery work.

One upshot is that President Obama and Chief of Staff Daley have a new appointment to make – the next Secretary of Commerce. In making their selection they’ll need no help from you and me.

But they might be interested in two conversations, one during a Republican administration, the second during a Democratic one.

At one point during President George Herbert Walker Bush’s tenure, he needed to replace an outgoing Secretary of Commerce. John Knauss was then the Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, and NOAA Administrator. He was holding a monthly leadership meeting with his Associate Administrators and a few senior staff. In the open discussion I said, “John, you’re in the only institution on the planet where the person in charge of 60% of the organization isn’t first in line for the boss’ job when that becomes vacant.”

John rolled his eyes heavenward, and said, “Thank God!” The room erupted in laughter, and we went on to other things.

The second conversation took place a few days in to the Clinton Administration. Ron Brown, the newly-sworn in Secretary of Commerce, was making a round of the offices in the Hoover Building. He stopped by the NOAA headquarters suite. In speaking with us, he said this. “You know, I’m not like a lot of my predecessors, who got this job because it was the only Cabinet position left. I could have had any of these positions. But I chose Commerce, because sustainable development is going to be the national agenda for the 21st century.”


Get the idea? Jane Lubchenco, the current Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere, might understandably share the sentiments of her predecessor. But the fact remains she and her portfolio deserve thoughtful consideration. The Commerce Department offers unique connections to the full range of American business, and to scientists, engineers, and other innovators. It is at the same time tightly coupled  to the real world – the world of natural resources; of  environmental vulnerability, endangered species and habitat; of so many natural threats, from hurricanes and floods to drought and tsunamis. The Department’s energy and talents lie latent, ready to be harnessed and exercised. Commerce could indeed become a powerful national tool for bringing in corporations, environmentalists, and innovators to make this yet another American century. [For more on the possibilities, see the August 12 and September 9 posts.]

All it takes it the right person, and the right words of encouragement from the White House! So let’s wish Secretary Locke well in his new post – effective collaboration with China matters to us! And let’s look forward to that next Commerce appointment, and let’s prepare to get behind him or her.

Commerce might still rarely make the news – but make this small step, and the world’s news would over time progressively grow a bit rosier.

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