Government Experience and President Trump’s Domestic Policy Cabinet – American Enterprise Institute

Key Points 

  • In this brief, we compare the combined government experience of President Donald Trump’s initial domestic policy cabinet appointees to that of the first confirmed officials of the previous three administrations.
  • Trump’s domestic cabinet appointees have fewer years of experience in government service than the previous administrations analyzed. Six of Trump’s appointees have no government experience, while previous administrations had a maximum of two nongovernment appointees.
  • However, Trump’s choices are conventional regarding experience in congressional positions, state-level elected office, and senior federal appointed positions.
  • Trump’s appointees are unique in their lack of local government experience and experience in other policy-implementation positions.

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Much has been made of President Donald Trump’s virtually unprecedented lack of government experience; his belief that so much recent government activity, such as with trade, immigration, and health care, has failed; and his promise to “drain the swamp.” Taken together, these facts suggest that the new president may have little faith in those who have served in governmental institutions and may rely less on those with public-sector experience when staffing his administration. Indeed, several of his early choices, such as Secretary of State nominee Rex Tillerson and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development nominee Ben Carson, built careers entirely outside of the government.

If this proves to be a consistent theme across senior levels of the Trump administration, it is reasonable to believe it would have a meaningful influence on policymaking. That is, whether it is a positive (we get to make use of fresh thinking and other types of professional experience) or a negative (progress is inhibited by leaders lacking knowledge of governmental content and process), it should affect how Uncle Sam conducts the public’s business. Whether that would be a net positive or negative effect will take years to determine, but in the meantime, understanding how Trump’s appointments differ from those of other recent presidents should be of interest to students of political science and history, journalists, and those concerned with potential policy reforms.

Our analysis finds that there are differences. But the full story is more complicated, more interesting, and probably more consequential than the emerging narrative that Trump’s choices to lead major federal agencies have a paucity of government experience. In some key ways, Trump’s nominees are actually similar to their predecessors; in other less obvious but significant ways, such as the kind of government experience they possess, they are quite different.

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