Janet Yellen isn’t a political operator, but she’s one of President Joe Biden’s strongest and most credible economic messengers.
And in an election year when Biden needs all the help he can get to make his economic message break through – a majority of voters, 55%, say Biden’s policies have worsened economic conditions in a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS – the Treasury secretary is taking that message on the road.
Yellen recently went on the offensive, offering a rare pair of jabs at former President Donald Trump on infrastructure and taxes – and a concrete example of how the White House is leveraging its Cabinet members for a general election push.
“In the Trump administration, the idea of doing anything to fix [infrastructure] was a punchline, but this administration has delivered,” she said in remarks on middle-class investment to the Economic Club of Chicago, while also chiding Trump’s tax policy.
The next day, Yellen went to battleground Wisconsin, touting funding for a manufacturing training facility. And she is expected to travel to multiple states in the Midwest next week, a Treasury official said.
Her ability to stay largely apolitical and her depth of experience makes her a trusted and effective emissary in the White House’s eyes, as Biden looks to use his lieutenants as a key part of his reelection push. The president’s Cabinet consists of people who administration officials feel are some of his most effective and politically astute messengers, representing one of the ways that the president – wracked by stubbornly low approval ratings – can use the levers of the incumbency to drive his message to the American people.
By relying on younger and more diverse Cabinet members who are deeply knowledgeable about the provisions of Biden’s biggest legislative accomplishments, the administration is hoping to break through the lack of enthusiasm around the president’s run for a second term. Those younger voices may become even more crucial in the wake of special counsel Robert Hur’s report that – while not charging the president with any crimes – raised concerns over the president’s age and memory, which drew the ire of the White House.
Other Cabinet officials like Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Education Secretary Miguel Cardona are deploying to communities in key locations across the country to tout their boss’ legislative accomplishments and other priorities, aiming to put meat on the bones of the president’s agenda. They’re also leveraging their diverse personal backgrounds to connect and engage with key coalitions.
Many of them have experience as former governors, candidates, members of Congress and local officials. They can also get a different – and more intimate – perspective on the ground than the outsize footprint that comes with presidential travel.
“They’ve done this themselves – they’ve worked with mayors. They understand jobs and what that investment can do to a state, and how it can really reshape or rebuild a community,” a senior administration official who works closely with a Cabinet member said.
“They can have their ear a little bit closer to the community in an authentic way,” the official said, adding that they have the unique ability to follow up and “do the real work” of escalating any questions or specific concerns among their agencies.
Biden’s built-in arsenal of emissaries will spend the next nine months traveling to politically strategic states on taxpayer-funded official trips, though they’re also traveling to places with limited utility for building a 2024 coalition. The goal is to communicate the benefits of Biden’s legislative wins with authority, attending groundbreakings and ribbon-cuttings and listening sessions as they shine a light on the job creation and other direct impacts of the president’s policies.
“The Cabinet is the first line of defense and offense in ensuring we execute on the president’s agenda,” White House chief of staff Jeff Zients said in a statement to CNN. “They are the perfect spokespeople to talk about what we have gotten done and the work ahead.”
While their official travel continues to ramp up, multiple Cabinet officials are expected to soon head out on a tour highlighting economic investments and other measures of economic progress, administration sources tell CNN.
On the road
Cabinet travel has picked up considerably in recent months – with travel to 37 states since November 1 – as the White House works with local communities to implement bills like the bipartisan infrastructure law; the climate, health care and tax legislation; and the CHIPS and Science Act, coinciding with Biden’s own efforts to pick up the pace of his campaign travel heading into the general election.
“Biden cannot be in 13 places at once,” Caitlin Legacki, a Democratic strategist and former senior aide to Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, said. “What was clear early on in the administration is that the White House wanted to use the Cabinet as a force multiplier for telling this story.”
A trio of popular secretaries made separate recent trips to New Hampshire ahead of the state’s GOP primary: Granholm highlighted efforts to lower energy costs and boost energy efficiency, Buttigieg visited the site of infrastructure bill-funded improvements to a highway exit and Raimondo touted new investments in semiconductor chips.
There have been recent official trips by Cabinet officials to swing states that the Biden campaign is seeking to put on its 2024 map like Michigan, Georgia and Florida. But they have also visited less politically expedient places, including Tennessee, Louisiana, California, Delaware and New York.
Decisions on where to travel are made by the agencies in concert with the White House – sometimes the White House asks a Cabinet official to attend a key event that the president, vice president, first lady or second gentleman is unable to attend. Sometimes the Office of Cabinet Affairs will call on a member to go to a specific state. And sometimes it’s driven by the agency itself and where the money is being spent.
But every appearance has a singular goal: Explain to the American people what Biden has done to improve their lives – and keep reminding them.
“We’re responsible for telling a story that isn’t exactly going to advertise itself,” Buttigieg told CNN during a recent appearance from Florida, where he had just addressed an engineers’ union.
“We’re still delivering billions of dollars of value and need to make sure everybody understands that. I know that it’s our job to get that message across,” the 2020 presidential candidate said.
Limited by the Hatch Act
There are strict limits on how Cabinet officials can appear in their professional capacities due to the Hatch Act of 1939, a federal law that requires a separation of political and official activities for all federal officials, with the exception of the president and vice president.
It has limited legal teeth – if a Cabinet-level official is in violation of the Hatch Act, it falls on the president to decide the punishment. Nevertheless, the Biden White House and legal team has taken pains to ensure compliance – an effort to highlight its commitment to ethics and draw a sharp contrast with Trump, who skirted the rule with abandon.
Agency counsel is “involved in travel and event planning and ensures Hatch Act and legal compliance,” a White House official said, noting that lawyers review invitations, remarks and other public materials for any campaign events. And the Biden White House has issued “extensive guidance to and conducts trainings for agencies” on the Hatch Act and how to avoid potential missteps, the official said.
That’s a far cry from how Trump routinely and explicitly breached the law while in office as he leveraged his top officials in the final weeks of the 2020 campaign. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, delivered a speech to the Republican National Convention while on official travel in Jerusalem.
The Biden White House’s strategy has been to attempt to play by the rules and avoid the risk of any distraction that breaking them would portend, which means that Cabinet officials are largely sticking to appearances in their official capacities while the campaign focuses other surrogates on drawing more political distinctions.
“Rather than taking chess pieces off the board, it expands the number of pieces – you’ve got these messengers that are going to continue doing their jobs and talking about what the administration is working on and has accomplished,” Legacki, the former Raimondo aide, said.
Cabinet members are able to appear at campaign events in their personal capacity, and the campaign is leveraging their firepower with some key coalitions. Biden has routinely heralded his Cabinet that “looks like America” – boasting a group that includes 13 women and members who are Black, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American and LGBTQ+.
The president needs to make up ground with traditionally Democratic-leaning voter blocs such as younger voters and voters of color, whose support for Biden has weakened since 2020, according to a new CNN poll conducted by SSRS. Voters younger than 35 remain about evenly split, 49% back Biden and 46% Trump, while voters of color break 57% Biden to 35% Trump.
Cabinet members are among those leading efforts to shore up support among some of these groups, tapping into their networks and expertise.
Acting Labor Secretary Julie Su spoke to AAPI Democrats at a breakfast in Nevada last month. Small Business Administrator Isabel Casillas Guzman has visited with Latino small business owners. And Housing and Urban Development Secretary Marcia Fudge – one of the Cabinet officials who did run afoul of the Hatch Act in 2021 – recently attended the Pink Ice Gala hosted by the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority and spoke at a party dinner in South Carolina as the campaign sought to energize the Palmetto State’s Black voters.
Education Secretary Miguel Cardona has been deployed to highlight efforts to prevent gun violence. He recently visited Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, touring the site of the 2018 mass shooting.
“It’s my responsibility as an educator to step up and do more to make sure that we’re bringing awareness to this issue across our country,” he said in an interview with CNN.
Gevin Reynolds, a former speechwriter for Vice President Kamala Harris, said the administration has been very intentional about how it utilizes the Cabinet.
“Voters of color can see themselves in leaders like Secretary Cardona, Secretary Fudge, and (EPA) Administrator (Michael) Regan. Young voters and LGBTQ+ voters can see themselves in leaders like Secretary Buttigieg. President Biden was intentional about assembling a Cabinet that reflects the diversity of America, and we continue to see how that diversity translates into real political strength,” he told CNN.
There are also Cabinet officials with demographic ties that could be helpful to Biden’s electoral map: Granholm is the former governor of battleground Michigan, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, the former governor of Iowa, has deep ties to rural communities.
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