Episode 24 (formerly 1612): The President’s Cabinet


The President of the United States has a group of advisors that he depends on to run the country. This group of advisors is known as the president’s Cabinet. The Cabinet is established by the US Constitution. However, the Cabinet is only referred to indirectly in the Constitution as “executive departments” that advise the president. Its organization isn’t directly specified. Today’s Cabinet is a result of custom, necessity and tradition.

The Cabinet consists of the vice-president and the leaders, or secretaries, of 15 executive departments. Secretaries are appointed by the president and must be approved by the Senate. Only the president can fire them, and they are expected to resign when the president leaves office. The secretaries in the Cabinet are in the direct line of succession for the presidency if the president or vice-president cannot perform the duties of president.

The president meets almost every week with the Cabinet. Also included in the regular Cabinet meetings are the White House Chief of Staff and the secretaries of six additional Cabinet-level departments.

The first Cabinet meeting was held by George Washington, the country’s first president. However, the word “Cabinet” wasn’t used until the fourth president, James Madison, said it. It comes from an Italian word meaning small, private room.

Here is a list of the Cabinet executive departments in order of succession to the Presidency, along with their responsibilities:

  • Department of State (formerly Department of Foreign Affairs)
    Established 1789
    Responsible for international relations and international travel, including passports and visas. Hillary Clinton was Obama’s Secretary of State.
  • Department of the Treasury
    Established 1789
    Collects taxes, manages the country’s money; produces currency; promotes financial stability
  • Department of Defense (formerly National Military Establishment)
    Established 1947
    In charge of the military forces; headquarters are in the Pentagon building in Washington, DC
  • Department of Justice
    Established 1870
    Enforces laws via the court system; responsible for the Supreme Court
  • Department of the Interior
    Established 1849
    Deals with natural resources and cultural heritage, especially for Native Americans; manages national parks, geology, oceans, mining, rivers, dams and forests
  • Department of Agriculture
    Established 1862
    Regulates food safety, farms, nutrition standards and rural development
  • Department of Commerce
    Established 1903
    Creates conditions for economic growth and opportunity; helps business
  • Department of Labor (formerly part of the Department of the Interior)
    Established 1913
    Promotes workers’, job seekers’ and retirees’ rights; improves working conditions and benefits
  • Department of Health and Human Services (formerly Health, Education and Welfare)
    Established 1953
    Enhances and protects health and well-being, medicine, public health and social services, including “Obamacare” administration
  • Department of Housing and Urban Development
    Established 1965
    Helps ensure affordable housing for all
  • Department of Transportation
    Established 1967
    Oversees the national transportation system, including air, rail and cargo transportation, as well as infrastructure for private automobiles and public transportation
  • Department of Energy
    Established 1977
    Conducts programs to find clean, efficient, renewable energy and manages the US oil reserves
  • Department of Education (formerly part of Health, Education and Welfare)
    Established 1979
    Deals with public education standards and statistics plus financial aid programs for university students
  • Department of Veterans Affairs
    Established 1930 (elevated to Cabinet level 1989)
    Deals with benefits and programs for veterans
  • Department of Homeland Security
    Established 2002
    Protects the country from terrorism

The following positions have the status of Cabinet-rank:

  • Environmental Protection Agency
    Concerned with environmental issues
  • Office of Management & Budget
    Largest part of the Executive Office of the President; helps implement presidential policies; concerned with national budget, procurement, IT, research for decision-making, communication review, Executive Orders and Presidential Memoranda
  • United States Trade Representative
    Negotiates trade agreements with other nations
  • United States Mission to the United Nations
    The US delegation to the UN
  • Council of Economic Advisers
    Offers the President economic advice about domestic and international economic policy
  • Small Business Administration
    Helps small businesses via financial programs, training, technical assistance, and other areas

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Episode 22 (formerly 1610): The US Presidential Election Process


America holds a presidential election every four years. The date is in November on the first Tuesday after the first Monday of the month. In 2016, election day is November 8. Election day is not a federal holiday.

Election day is the end of a long process that begins with many candidates declaring their intention to run for president in the summer of the year before the election. After that they campaign with much advertising, debating and traveling around the country to meet voters.

Then, from January to June of election year, each state holds either a caucus or a primary election to choose a candidate to represent each political party. In most cases, only voters registered as members of a specific political party can participate in that party’s caucus or primary. The two major political parties in America are the Republican and the Democratic parties.

In a caucus, voters show their support for a candidate publicly. In a primary, voters use a secret ballot. It is up to the individual states whether to have a caucus or a primary. Most states hold primaries. Only 11 states use caucuses.

From July to early September in an election year, political parties hold conventions and select their official presidential candidates. The official candidates of any political party are said to be on that party’s ticket. The party’s official position on issues is called the party’s platform. Over the next two months, the official candidates choose their vice-presidential running mates, participate in presidential debates and continue to campaign right up until election day.

Now it gets a little complicated. Instead of choosing the president by the majority of the popular vote, the US uses the Electoral College.

  • The Electoral College consists of people called electors from each state. There are 538 electors in all. See the Slow American English blog at SlowAmericanEnglish.net for a diagram of the electors for each state.
  • The number of a state’s electors is based on the number of members of Congress each state has. For example, Florida has 29 electors (two members of the Senate + 27 members of the House of Representatives).
  • Each state counts its popular vote after the election. The candidate that wins the popular vote in that state receives all the electoral votes for that state. Therefore, the candidate with the most popular votes in Florida receives all 29 electoral votes, even though not all the people voted for that candidate.
  • A candidate must receive a majority of all the electoral votes, or at least 270, to win the election and become president. If no candidate receives a majority, the House of Representatives chooses the president, and the Senate chooses the Vice-President.
  • Although everyone knows who will win the election, the electors don’t officially cast their votes until December of election year. Congress officially counts the electoral votes in January, and the chosen president is inaugurated on January 20th.
  • Because of the configuration of the Electoral College, it is possible for a candidate to receive the majority of the popular vote nationwide but still not be elected president. This has happened four times in the history of the United States.

Many consider the Electoral College process unusually complicated. However, the Founding Fathers included it in the US Constitution as a compromise between the group that wanted the president chosen by popular vote and the group that wanted the president to be chosen by Congress. To change the election system, America would have to go through the process of amending the Constitution, a long and difficult procedure.

The Constitution also stipulates that a president must be at least 35 years old, must be a natural-born American citizen and must be a resident of the US for at least 14 years. The Constitution’s 22nd Amendment imposes a two-term limit on the president, meaning a person can only be president for two terms, or eight years total. The only president who ever served more than two terms was Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Constitutional amendment imposing term limits was added after he died.

Diagram of the number of electoral votes for each state (from USA.gov):


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