WASHINGTON — Earlier this summer, White House chief of staff Jeff Zients told every member of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet it was nearing time to decide whether they plan to stick around through the rest of the term, according to five administration officials.
Cabinet members should report back around Labor Day, he said, according to the officials. And, while some of Cabinet members were tempted to leave, they all opted to stay, the officials said. Their decisions solidify the lineup of top Biden administration surrogates who will be selling Biden’s agenda, particularly for the economy, across the country as he campaigns for re-election.
So far, voters haven’t bought their message, with polls showing a majority of Americans don’t feel they’ve benefited from Biden’s economic policies. The Biden 2024 campaign recently launched a multimillion-dollar ad campaign to try to change voters’ perception of the economy, while Biden and members of his Cabinet have been headlining events across the country to highlight key legislation and executive actions he has secured.
“There’s more work to do to finish the job, and this Cabinet is committed to getting it done,” Zients said by email, describing the team as “low-ego, driven to deliver for the American people, and accountable to making progress for communities across the country.”
The relative stability across Biden’s Cabinet — though officials caution it is always possible unforeseen circumstances could change that — is something the White House hopes will project strength heading into an election year, according to senior officials, who also note it’s in contrast with former President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, which had a high turnover rate.
So far just one of Biden’s 15 Cabinet members in the presidential line of succession has left his administration. Former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh took what officials called his “dream job” at the NHL Players’ Association.
Having gotten past the Labor Day marker, a senior administration official said Zients plans to host a picnic for Cabinet members this weekend.
Officials acknowledge that part of the reason for a lack of turnover is the political reality in Washington that it would be nearly impossible to secure Senate confirmation for any new nominee. They point to Biden’s pick to succeed Walsh, Julie Su, who has been acting secretary for months with her nomination stalled in the Senate and not expected to move any time soon.
Several of Biden’s key Cabinet members, including Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas, also have been under fire from Republicans in Congress, who’ve at times threatened to impeach them. But that process hasn’t materialized yet.
While Biden has retained 94% of his initial Cabinet, according to the White House, turnover has been higher among his senior-level administration officials — 58%, said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who compiled the data for the Brookings Institution.
And more administration officials may leave early next year for a role helping the re-election effort, officials said.
“All presidents experience turnover amongst their most senior staff — the pressure, demanding hours and opportunities in the private sector make it difficult for presidents to retain even the most loyal of aides,” Tenpas said by email. “President Biden’s turnover amongst the Cabinet (only those positions in the line of presidential succession) is the lowest going back to President Reagan.”
White House officials in part credit Cabinet Secretary Evan Ryan, who runs weekly virtual meetings with the group, for the group’s cohesion.
Holding a Cabinet position is a demanding role to sustain for four years, and senior officials wouldn’t name which Cabinet members contemplated leaving.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen dismissed speculation late last year that she was leaving, saying publicly that she “certainly” plans to stay through Biden's first term. And she told him as much in a private meeting, an administration official said.
Yellen and other Cabinet members have been key emissaries for Biden, traveling far more than he and Vice President Kamala Harris have to showcase his agenda to convince Americans the economy is trending in a positive direction.
During the first half of the year, the Cabinet took a combined 445 trips — 338 domestic and 107 international — visiting 207 cities and 52 countries and generating more than 1,700 media clips, according to the White House.
Despite the administration’s efforts, a recent poll found 71% of Americans said they had heard “little” or “nothing at all” about the Inflation Reduction Act, Biden’s signature climate and economic package. Biden himself has said it might have been better to have branded it differently so more people understood what it could do for them.
He is known to pepper members of his Cabinet with questions about their interactions with voters, officials said, regularly asking them “What are people saying on the ground?” and “What can we do better to communicate?”
Chris Lu, who was White House cabinet secretary during President Barack Obama’s first term, suggested Biden’s approach derives from his time as vice president, when he was tasked with overseeing the Cabinet’s efforts to implement provisions of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
“Biden very much understands that the real power of the federal government is in the agencies,” Lu said.