Want to Work in the Cabinet? Avoid a Type-A President

U.S. Presidential Motive Profiles and the Cabinet

Reviewed by Chris Meyer
June 24, 2014

In her paper on presidential cabinet turnover, Carissa Flocken attempts to unify individual psychology with political science. On face, this seems a difficult task, especially given that the latter is a discipline that is unapologetic about its consideration of multifaceted causes for political events, ranging from personal motivations to broader economic, social, and political trends. As part of her examination into why presidents replace members of their cabinets, Flocken acknowledges this complexity, while also arguing that there is a dearth of scholarship examining individual and managerial traits of presidents, who are ultimately the managers to whom the Cabinet must answer. Presidents with a strong focus on personal achievement, she argues, will be more likely to jettison cabinet members that they see as detrimental to their goals or aspirations.

Flocken bases her argument on the work of political psychologist D.G. Winter, who defined three separate and empirically independent motives for individuals: power, affiliation, and achievement. In a multivariate regression, she finds that high achievement scores are directly correlated with an increase in cabinet turnover, a finding she attributes to the unwillingness of “achievement-motivated” presidents to maintain incapable subordinates. To add further specificity to this approach, Flocken uses Thomas Cronin’s distinction between the “inner” and “outer” cabinet. In the inner cabinet are the “heavyweight” advisors, such as the Secretaries of State, Defense, and the Treasury. Meanwhile, the outer cabinet is comprised of lower-level positions like the Secretaries of Veterans Affairs, Interior, and Health & Human Services. Although a multivariate regression of all presidents yielded an insignificant p-value, meaning Flocken could not definitively state which of these “two cabinets” is more prone to change, a separate regression found that outer cabinet members should be more wary of the axe under an “achievement-motivated” president.

Flocken’s work is undoubtedly innovative, but suffers from a few methodological flaws, most notably the lack of significant control variables. Indeed, the replacement of cabinet members, as mentioned earlier, can be a product of any number of political or economic circumstances that extend beyond the psychological profile of the president at the time. Flocken would have been well advised to include, at the very least, dummy variables for phenomena like war, economic recession, political scandal, or low approval ratings. Such a methodological decision may have given her important argument an added punch.

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