WASHINGTON – Marty Walsh remembers what it was like when a cabinet secretary came into town.
“It’s a really big deal. They give you dates, and you just set your schedule,” said former Boston mayor Walsh.
He remembers packing 300 people into a room to listen to Julian Castro, the then Housing and Urban Development secretary. “He was speaking on behalf of President Obama and Vice President Biden, and people hung up on every word.”
“It is clear that the administration has decided to take his message on the road,” said Ravi Perry, head of the political science department at Harvard University. “The amount of trips, how much they have traveled … has really made a difference.”
Around the beginning of May, Biden’s cabinet members made dozens of TV shows and tours across the country, promoting the Biden agenda with an ambitious roadshow.
“I don’t know if I can think of an equivalent to such a rollout,” said HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge, who has traveled to Newark, New Jersey in recent weeks; Kansas City, Missouri; and Tulsa, Oklahoma. “We are an extension of the administration. We are pursuing the agenda of the President.”
The cabinet outreach campaign is particularly striking in the context of the country’s gradual recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. Although restrictions on mass gatherings are being lifted across the country, several cabinet secretaries said the national mood is not quite ready for big political rallies.
“You’re not going to find crowds, of course,” said Walsh, who recalls the intimacy of work lunches without the restrictions of social distancing. “It really restricts what you can do. You want to be around people.”
Most of the travel has been done by Biden’s Jobs cabinet: Walsh, Fudge, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo.
Buttigieg, who said he was “itching to be on the road from day one,” said the cabinet secretary’s presence in particular gravitated. Perhaps more than any position in the government, he said, cabinet secretaries are a direct extension of the president and his policies.
“You represent the administration and the president, writes Big,” said Buttigieg, who has traveled to North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee. “It’s a way of letting people know that they are important.”
Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, recalled, “It was a huge deal if a regional administrator for a federal agency came into town, much less a cabinet secretary.”
The campaign is proceeding with the active coordination of the White House. Fudge said her department is planning their itinerary, but the White House regularly requests her to be present at certain locations or to arrange for joint appearances with another secretary. Biden announced an informal Jobs cabinet grouping in April, telling reporters that the quintet would be asked to “take special responsibility for interpreting the plan to the American public.”
Biden’s senior adviser Anita Dunn said cabinet members were confined to long-distance television interviews for the first few months of the administration.
“It’s all been virtual until recently,” she said.
Dunn described cabinet members as “perfect people who represent the administration and allow us to expand our reach.”
It also helps that many secretaries are former mayors, such as Buttigieg and Walsh, or former governors such as Granholm and Raimondo, enabling them to find easy common ground with local officials and stakeholders.
“It’s a huge advantage for the administration,” Dunn said.
The logistics and cost of planning a secretary’s visit are also far less daunting than those of a president or vice president. Dunn said secretaries travel on a mix of government planes and commercial airlines, and cabinet secretaries have their own security details, but not Secret Service security. As a result, the administration can obtain the effect of a presidential envoy directly for very little cost and hassle.
In some cases the role of the secretary is to empathize and promote speed; In others they want to reassure panicked audiences in deeply Republican states that the Biden agenda will not overtake them.
Speaking on the phone during a visit to West Virginia, Granholm said his primary goal on that trip was to reassure citizens of a state dependent on coal mining that Biden’s clean energy plan would not destroy their economy. A former Michigan governor, Granholm compared West Virginia to his home state when the auto industry began to contract.
“I get that fear and panic when the entire identity and economy of a state is wrapped around a sector that is shrinking. I get it when a community is on its knees,” she said.
“His presence in West Virginia means that the President of the United States cares deeply,” Granholm said.
The approach represents a direct departure from the previous administration. Former President Donald Trump’s cabinet secretaries did their share of pre-pandemic speaking engagements, but Trump generally preferred to be his own emissary and promoter via Twitter, with interviews with sympathetic media outlets and centerpieces. In the famous raucous rallies with myself.
“It’s a huge change in how cabinet members are being used by the president,” Perry said. “What we are seeing here is a more decentralized executive branch. In some ways, this is a return to normalcy in terms of domestic diplomacy.”