Firing Of Presidential Cabinet Members A Rarity

This past week, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, testified once more before Congress about the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. Because of the rocky rollout of that law, some in Congress and in the media have said Sebelius should lose her job. Sebelius is not the first member of President Obama's cabinet member to hear that demand In fact, several members of the cabinet have heard calls for their resignation. But according to presidential historian Michael Beschloss, presidents very rarely go so far as to fire a cabinet member. Host Arun Rath speaks with with Beschloss about this historical precedent.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

The Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius, went back to Capitol Hill this week. She was there to testify about the implementation of the president's health care law. Some have called that rollout disastrous. Others have called it just flawed. But there are still very few people who have said things are going well for the Affordable Care Act, or for that matter, for Secretary Sebelius.

From Congress and the media, there have already been calls that she lose her job.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: It's time for the president to ask the Secretary of Health and Human Services to resign.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Should President Obama fire her?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: The #fireSebelius?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #4: He wants Kathleen Sebelius fired.

RATH: Kathleen Sebelius is not the first member of the Obama Cabinet to hear that kind of demand. Before that, there was Attorney General Eric Holder.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: The Republican National Committee has called on Holder to resign.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: Should he be fired? I mean, what should happen to Eric Holder, the attorney general?

RATH: There was then Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

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GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: He wants Secretary Steven Chu to be fired.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #5: ...called on Chu to resign.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #6: ...resignation of Secretary Chu.

RATH: And last year, there was Susan Rice, then the ambassador to the U.N.

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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #3: ...lawmaker to call for U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice's resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #7: There have been calls for her resignation.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #8: ...Rice should resign.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #4: ...to resign...

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #9: ...Rice to resign.

STEPHANOPOULOS: ...to resign. Your response?

RATH: In all of those cases, the president's response has been no way. And despite a fair number of scandals and mistakes, the president has avoided firing members of his Cabinet.

Michael Beschloss is a presidential historian, and he joins me now to talk about the history of controversial Cabinet members. Michael, thanks for being with us.

MICHAEL BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Arun.

RATH: So just how common is it for members of Congress or people in the media to demand that a Cabinet secretary be fired?

BESCHLOSS: It happens almost hourly, and it's happened more in the last couple of years, because they know that if they get a scalp, that's sort of a confession of mistake by a president of the United States. And for the same reason, presidents are very disinclined to do it.

RATH: So how often do presidents go that far and actually fire someone at that level?

BESCHLOSS: Extremely rarely. And probably the biggest case that we can all think of would be Jimmy Carter in the summer of 1979, July. He fired four of his Cabinet secretaries, saying that he wanted a new start. That was a time in which inflation was roaring, there was an energy crisis. He wanted to show that he was changing the terms of his administration. It completely backfired. His polls plunged. People thought that that was a confession of the fact that Carter was saying that he was going down in flames.

RATH: Is the reluctance to get rid of Cabinet members something that's more of a modern phenomenon?

BESCHLOSS: I think there is. For instance, in the summer of 2010, it was not very widely reported, but there was some talk within the Obama administration that there should be a change of Treasury secretary and perhaps economic advisers in the White House because unemployment was still so doggedly high. That was dismissed pretty quickly because they looked back at history and said almost every time that a president has produced a new team in the fashion of Jimmy Carter, it's wound up hurting him.

RATH: And I know you followed how presidents interact with the media. How much does our modern news cycle with 24-hour news and now Twitter and all that speed this up?

BESCHLOSS: If a president fires a Cabinet secretary, it's going to be a big event. It's a human event. People will look for the look on the face of the secretary who is departing. So you're not likely to see this very often in the future unless you have a case like, for instance, Richard Nixon fired his attorney general, Richard Kleindienst, who had gotten so involved in Watergate that that was inevitable.

RATH: I wanted - does this modern reluctance to fire controversial Cabinet members - are there implications here for governance that if a president is going to maybe stick with someone longer than they should because of that reluctance?

BESCHLOSS: You are probably going to have a situation in the future where presidents saddle themselves with people who should be fired, and they're afraid to do it because they're afraid it's going to hurt them politically. And they're also, in many cases, afraid that if that person goes and you appoint someone new, the confirmation hearings will be something that no president would ever want to wish for.

RATH: Hmm. Michael Beschloss is a presidential historian. He joined us from our studios in Washington. Michael, thank you.

BESCHLOSS: My pleasure, Arun.

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RATH: This is NPR News.

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