If I Were a Member of the President's Cabinet

The United States Constitution requires the president submit his nominations for appointment for Senate confirmation.  Members of the Cabinet and independent agencies fulfill the executive role of enforcing the laws passed by Congress. Each supervises its areas of responsibility, collaborates on shared interests and handles complex issues. Real examples are illustrated through the U.S. relationship with Mexico and Canada. 

After giving his second inaugural address, President Obama went to the Capitol’s President’s Room to conduct ceremonial duties, a tradition that was begun by President Ronald Reagan. He signed “National Day of Hope and Resolve, 2013,” a proclamation commemorating inaugural day. Then using several pens, he signed documents confirming his nominations of Sen. John Kerry to secretary of state, Jack Lew as secretary of treasury, John Brennan as CIA director and former Sen. Chuck Hagel to defense.

The members of the Cabinet advise the president. President George Washington had only four secretaries: Secretary of War (now Defense), Henry Knox; Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton; Secretary of Foreign Affairs (now State), Thomas Jefferson; and, after the Judiciary Act of 1789, Attorney General, Edmund Randolph. According to Article II, Section 2, of the U.S. Constitution, the president “may require the Opinion, in writing, of the principal Officer in each of the executive Departments, upon any subject relating to the Duties of their respective Offices.”

As the country grew, so did the Cabinet. Today there are 15 Cabinet secretaries. Each has an area of specialty on which to advise the president. They also carry out policies of the president and administer federal laws. In addition, numerous independent agencies, most in the Executive Branch, carry out federal programs and policies.

Activities in this guide encourage students to get acquainted with the duties of the Cabinet and individuals who serve in these offices. Students role play being members of the president’s Cabinet, confronting real issues. With a focus on Canada and Mexico, students examine our relations with our closest neighbors, and the decisions and programs that cross and intertwine the lines of Cabinet responsibilities.


February 2013

The Cabinet and Agencies
Resource Graphic 

Activities suggested in this section focus on the Cabinet, its leaders and its reason to exist. 

Study Vocabulary
English, Government, Social Studies, U.S. History
The Word Study focuses on the etymology of "culture." Give students "A Word About Culture” to learn about this word's meaning's transformation from cultivating land to its 1800s use to define cultivated individuals and traits of a society.

In the Know lists terms related to The Washington Post articles and suggested activities. Students can be asked to find these terms in context or to define the terms as they relate to government.


Get Acquainted with the Cabinet
Government, Social Studies, U.S. History
At the beginning of an administration’s second term of office, change in Cabinet position is inevitable. Some individuals want to return to the private sector. Others will take other positions of leadership. “Who Composes the Cabinet?” asks students to focus on the person who is leading each of the 15 departments, the succession to the presidency and Cabinet-rank offices.


Watch the Cabinet’s Transition
Government, Journalism, Social Studies, U.S. History
Meet the Cabinet,” an informational graphic, pictures the 15 Cabinet positions. The secretaries who are remaining in office or been confirmed are presented at 100%. Those whose portraits are ghosted have resigned.

Students are to read the newspaper to follow the Cabinet to discover whom the president will nominate and the Senate confirm to the offices to be vacated. Ask students to paste the picture of the individual who is taking over leadership and to write in the correct name.


Inform the President
Government, Journalism, Social Studies, U.S. History
The United States Constitution established the role of a Cabinet in the Executive Branch. Article II, Section 2 states the President may require “the opinion, in writing, of the principal officer in each of the executive departments, upon any subject relating to the duties of their respective offices.”

This role playing activity encourages students to learn about the department they select or the teacher assigns. They will get acquainted with the varied activities of the secretary as well of agencies within each department. Students will practice using the search feature of The Washington Post’s e-Replica edition to gather information to report to the president. Teachers may require the report be written or mock Cabinet meetings could be held with each verbally reporting to the chief executive.

Give students “I’m President. What’s Happening” for the assignment.

Teachers in other disciplines could give this assignment with a focus on the economics, business and labor, science and mathematics involved in the events, actions and meetings.


Listen to the President
Government, Journalism, Social Studies, U.S. History
Every year the president is required by the Constitution to present a State of the Union report. Presidents Washington and Adams gave theirs as speeches. President Jefferson wrote his report and sent it to the clerks of the House and Senate to read. Not until Woodrow Wilson did a president again appear before the combined Congress to give this speech.

As President Obama presented his report to members of Congress, also in attendance were members of the Supreme Court, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all but one member of his Cabinet. In the galleries were guests of the first lady, members of Congress and diplomatic corps.

Assign students different roles as members of the Cabinet. They are to listen to the president's State of the Union address for areas under their supervision. What is the president telling the nation — and them — that he wants to happen? The Washington Post in "Obama: Middle class is job one" broke the speech into six main areas: foreign policy (16%), economy/jobs (16%), budget (11%), education (8%), gun violence (8%) and immigration (4%). 

By the way, which Cabinet member did not attend the 2013 State of the Union address? Why was this Cabinet member absent?

Be a Cultural Ambassador
Arts, Government, Social Studies, U.S. History
One aspect of diplomacy involves person-to-person, civilian-to-civilian, exchanges and sharing. “American Cultural Ambassadors” gives an overview of the traditional and newer programs that give these opportunities. Discuss the goals of these programs, benefits and drawbacks with students. Have any students been involved with these programs?

Plan a Cultural Exchange” encourages students to become members of a department who are suggesting new activities. They may also be employees of an independent agency who are suggesting a way to bring their areas of oversight to life.

Keystone XL Pipeline Debate
Resource Graphic 

Activities suggested in this section focus on the relationship of the United States with its two closest neighors — Canada and Mexico. Resources in "Cabinet Members Collaborate" enhance an understanding of how the different departments work together on some projects, while each has its particular area of responsibility.

The United States shares two northern borders with Canada and its southern border with Mexico. These are two important countries with which we hold complex and numerous relations, treaties and agreements. Project One focuses on the Cabinet's relations with Mexico. Project Two is limited to the extension of the Keystone XL pipeline, the different perspectives held and the debate on its benefits to both countries.

Consider Collaboration of Cabinets
Government, Journalism, Social Studies, U.S. History
Collaboration is a key to success whether working on the areas of oversight within one department, working with another Cabinet member where areas overlap, or facing complex issues and projects that require multiple departments and agencies to coordinate and utilize their expertise. Resources in “You Are a Member of The President’s Cabinet” help students to understand the independent yet inter-related relationships among departments.

Give students “Secretaries Collaborate on Common Goals” to read and discuss. These examples are real and clearly illustrate the professional bonds that can take place in the Cabinet.

Students could be asked to read The Washington Post for articles about department activities. Are the secretaries of different departments attending the same meetings, co-signing agreements or working on projects together?


Research U.S.-Mexico Relations
Government, Social Studies, U.S. History
Relations Between Mexico and the United States Are Addressed in Many Arenas” is a beginning point of research into the many arenas in which U.S. Cabinet departments work with Mexican officials. Read and review the areas for study.

Drugs and violence, immigration policies and border security get the most attention, but trade, transportation, forests and marine resources are also viable topics. The articles and resources found in Working With Mexico could be reviewed for the information they contain, the angles for study they suggest and leads to further research. When were Washington Post foreign correspondents reporting from Mexico? How does having an eyewitness add credibility to reporting?

Follow the Pipeline
Ecology, Geography, Government, Journalism, Photography
The Washington Post reporter Steven Mufson does eyewitness reporting by taking a road trip that begins in Hardisty, Alberta, Canada. He and Post photographer Michael S. Williamson follow the route of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. Keystone: Down the Line is the collection of blogs, photographs and articles that resulted.

Videos by videojournalist Whitney Shefte accompany the reporting. Hear and see the people and places, reflect on what they reveal and consider what should be done.

Use the map of the original proposed route of the pipeline to locate the beginning point of this road trip. Continue to follow the route taken by Mufson, Williamson and Shefte as indicated in their blogs, articles and images. Although the road trip begins with the June 24, 2012, article, “On the road, at last,” begin reading with “Mining for oil,” June 18, 2012.

Give students “On the Road With Steven Mufson and Michael S. Williamson.” This handout provides a chronological listing of selected articles and blogs with a representative photograph. The Keystone: Down the Line website is extensive and could be overwhelming to a student. These selected pieces give different perspectives from which to view the Keystone XL pipeline proposed project. 


Read on for more ways to use this rich resource.

Keep a Journal
English, Geography,Government, Journalism, Photography
As you read the series of articles by Steven Mufson, follow the route he and photographer Michael S. Williamson took on a map. What are students’ impressions of the terrain they cover?

Assign students to keep a journal of their reactions to sights seen, people met and points of view expressed. How do these influence their understanding of the Keystone XL pipeline project?

June 18, 2012        Mining for oil
July 11, 2012          "The triumph of the little guys"
July 15, 2012          "Behind the Salty Dog Tavern in Steele City"
July 16, 2012          "In South Dakota, skirting the reservations"
July 18, 2012          "North Dakota boom has a price
July 27, 2012          "Whose land is it? Ranchers fight back as TransCanada assers eminent domain"
August 6, 2012       "Oil and water: Scientists, activists at odds over routing pipeline through Ogalla Aquifer"
August 17, 2012     "Pipeline spans tricky terrain: In Nebraska and beyond, issue crosses party lines and inspires unlikely allies"
September 17, 2012    "Pipeline's path cuts across Indian Country and history"
September 18, 2012    "Keystone XL pipeline raises tribal concerns"
September 20, 2012    "A refiner awaits Keystone boom"
September 21, 2012    "Awaiting a new gusher: The Texas refineries at the end of the Keystone XL line" 

How Do Photographers Report?
English, Geography, Journalism, Photography
Photographer Michael S. Williamson’s work accompanies this series. View his work and discuss how the photographs enhance the written coverage.

For each of Mufson’s articles, ask students to select one to three of Williamson’s images that make an impact. What photographic qualities does he exhibit? How does his attention to the technical details assist in the visual reporting? Does he capture the personality of the people, land, and industry? In what ways?


Read Tom Toles
Art, Career Education, Ecology, Government, Journalism, Visual Arts
Be sure students understand the role of the editorial cartoonist. While the editorial presents the opinion of the newspaper, the editorial cartoonist presents his or her point of view. This visual commentary utilizes knowledge of current events, history and symbols.

Give students “Tom Toles | January 22, 2012.” Five questions are given to guide “reading” of the editorial cartoon. What story is told in the details?

Advise Secretary Kerry
Government, Social Studies, U.S. History
Secretary of State John Kerry will approve or disapprove the proposed extension of the Keystone XL pipeline in the United States. Having read The Washington Post series Keystone: Down the Line and other sources, write a commentary, editorial or letter to the editor in which you succinctly and persuasively argue for approve or disapproval of the project.

Read About the Cabinet

Activities suggested in this section provide an introduction to the independent agencies. 

Learn About Independent Agencies
Civics, Government, U.S. History
In “The President’s Cabinet” students are introduced to the concept of presidential succession and function of Cabinet members. This review page provides the contrast to the independent agencies. Though both fulfill the executive role of enforcing the law, the independent agencies are more autonomous.

Give students “May I Introduce Independent Agencies?” The vital role of the numerous independent agencies is explained. Funding these agencies is presented in “What About the Money?

For a case study or closer look at an independent agency, teachers may wish to discuss the decision of the U.S. Postal Service to end Saturday mail delivery,  beginning March 2013. When an independent agency is providing a service, but not balancing its budget, what must be done? Discuss the service provided by the USPS and the reasons it went into the red. Debate this decision. Present answers to the dilemma.

Follow the Federal Reserve
Economics, Government, Social Studies, U.S. History

On December 23, 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the Owen-Glass Act, creating the Federal Reserve System, an independent agency of the U.S. Government. The Fed, which began its operations in November 1914, is chaired by Ben S. Bernanke

Give students “The Federal Reserve,” an overview of one of the nation’s most important and influential agencies. A short bio introduces Chairman of the Board of Governors Dr. Ben Bernanke. He will serve as chairman until January 31, 2014.

Additional resources for study of the Fed’s response to financial crises, economic data and other classroom resources are available online

Read About Independent Agencies
Government, Reading, Social Studies, U.S. History

After discussing the role of independent agencies, give students “Get Acquainted with Independent Agencies and Their Leaders.”

Five Washington Post articles are given to students to better understand the leaders and roles of independent agencies:
• “Leading the Federal Election Commission: An interview with Chairman Caroline Hunter”
• “Federal Reserve calls pause in growth temporary, stands by steps to try to reduce unemployment”
• “EPA head Lisa P. Jackson to resign post”
• “FTC Chairman Leibowitz to announce departure”
• “Obama nominates Mary Jo White as SEC chair”

Students will learn that information may be found on THE FED PAGE and throughout the A section. Teachers may wish to assign other independent agencies — there are enough to give everyone in the class a different agency — to students to report on current happenings in each.

Jackson Diehl’s February 4, 2013, commentary on Radio Liberty is an example of behind-the-scenes insight gained from reading The Washington Post.


Think Like a Reporter
Government, Journalism
The Think Like a Reporter standing feature of the Post NIE curriculum guides focuses on knowing the workings of the department and agencies. Give students “Know Who Does What.”  

Students could be asked to guess which of the Cabinet departments would oversee the ten topics. Have them give their reasons. Then do the research, following the directions on the activity sheet. 

The next part of the assignment is to localize the topics. In what ways could they relate to your school community?

Find a Job
Career Education
The federal government is a major employer. The executive branch had 2,776,744 federal civilian employees in 2010, according to the 2010 census. Of these 827,466 worked for independent agencies. Thousands of jobs in a wide variety of fields are available. These span art to zoos, security and protection to medical and public health, math and foreign languages.

Have students search five different fields in which they are interested. What are the openings in the federal government?

Resource Graphic 
In The Know 
 Act  Federal
Advise The Federal Reserve
Ambassador Independent Agency
Attorney General International
Cabinet Judicial Branch
Confirmation Legislative Branch
Congressional oversight Nomination
Culture Presidential succession
Department Regulation, regulatory process
Executive Branch Secretary

ANSWERS. Tom Toles | January 22, 2012

1. Details in the editorial cartoon include hard hat-wearing supervisors (foreground) and workers (center), the workers appear to be using graphic language, pipe segments to extend the lines are on both sides, lightening in the distance, movement from the north to south, labeled pipelines to define the two sides.

2. “It’s in the pipeline” means that items/projects/decisions are backed up somewhere in the process or in a queue. It can also mean that projects/products are being developed or in the works. Is a decision on what to do about both of these issues in the pipeline?

3. Responses will vary. Toles clearly sees the clash coming to a junction when a decision has to be made.

4. Responses will vary. Toles’ alter ego states that somebody (not both) is “being unreasonable.” Notice he uses a period, not a question mark as end punctuation.


ANSWERS. Know Who Does What

1. Department of the Interior, National Park Service

2. Department of Labor, DUA

3. Department of Homeland Security

4. Department of Commerce, NOAA, National Climatic Data Center

5. Department of the Treasury, Resource Center

6. Department of State, Bureau of African Affairs

7. Department of the Agriculture, Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010

8. Department of Energy

9. Department of Defense

10. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity


ANSWERS. Who Composes the Cabinet?

1. The individuals holding these posts or nominated to them, at the time this lesson was posted, are:

Secretary of Agriculture            Thomas J. Vilsack
Secretary of Commerce            Rebecca Blank, acting secretary
Secretary of Defense                Chuck Hagel is nominated to replace Leon Panetta
Secretary of Education              Arne Duncan
Secretary of Energy                   Steven Chu
Secretary of Health and Human Services            Kathleen Sebelius
Secretary of Homeland Security                         Janet A. Napolitano
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development   Shaun L.S. Donovan
Secretary of the Interior            Sally Jewell nominated to replace Kenneth L. Salazar
Secretary of Labor                    ??? to replace Hilda L. Solis
Secretary of State                     Sen. John Kerry replaced Hillary Rodham Clinton
Secretary of Transportation      Ray LaHood
Secretary of the Treasury         Jack Lew is nominated to replace Timothy Geithner
Secretary of Veterans Affairs    Eric K. Shinseki
Attorney General                      Eric H. Holder, Jr.

2. Washington’s Cabinet consisted of Secretary of War (now Defense), Henry Knox; Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton; Secretary of Foreign Affairs (now State), Thomas Jefferson; and, after the Judiciary Act of 1789, Attorney General, Edmund Randolph.

3. In order of succession after vice president: Secretary of State, Secretary of the Treasury, Secretary of Defense and Attorney General.

4. The seven positions holding Cabinet-rank are White House Chief of Staff, Environmental Protection Agency administrator, Office of Management & Budget director, United States Trade Representative ambassador, United States Ambassador to the United Nations, Council of Economic Advisers chair and Small Business Administration administrator.

5. Answers will vary.

District of Columbia Public Schools Academic Content Standards 

U.S. Government: Students analyze the unique roles and responsibilities of the three branches of government as established by the U.S. Constitution.

4. Discuss Article II of the Constitution as it relates to the executive branch, including eligibility for office and length of term, election to and removal from office, the oath of office, and the enumerated executive powers. (12.3, 4)


Maryland Academic Content Standards 

Government: Students will understand the historical development and current status of the fundamental concepts and processes of authority, power, and influence, with particular emphasis on the democratic skills and attitudes necessary to become responsible citizens. (Standard 1, Political Science)

f. Describe how the Constitution provides for checks and balances, such as Legislative overrides of vetoes, the limitations on the powers of the President and the appointment process (Expectation 1, Objective f)

a.     Describe how executive departments and agencies enforce governmental policies that address public issues, such as the Center for Disease Control (CDC), Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), Environmental Protection Agency (EDP), Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) (Indicator 3, Objective a)

e. Evaluate the effect that international, national, and regional interests have on shaping environmental policy, such as logging forested areas, oil drilling, pollution, nuclear power, or alternative energy sources (Indicator 3, Objective e)


Virginia Academic Content Standards 

Virginia and United States Government: The student will demonstrate mastery of the social studies skills responsible citizenship requires, including the ability to
a)     analyze primary and secondary source documents;
c)     analyze political cartoons, political advertisements, pictures, and other graphic media;
e)     evaluate information for accuracy, separating fact from opinion;
f)     identify a problem, weight the expected costs and benefits and possible consequences of proposed solutions, and recommend solution, using a decision-making model;
g)     select and defend positions in writing, discussion and debate.

Virginia and United States Government: The student will demonstrate knowledge of the Constitution of the United States by
d)    illustrating the structure of the national government outlined in Article I, Article II, and Article III (GOVT.4)


Common Core Standards 

Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12: Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem. (Integration of Knowledge and Ideas 7)

Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12: Write arguments focused on discipline-specific content (Text Types and Purposes)

Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12: Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation. (Research to Build and Present Knowledge 7)