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Why Obama is banning Cabinet members from speaking at the Democratic convention

Democratic National Convention: Day 1
Julián Castro at the last Democratic National Convention.
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

Hillary Clinton has considered at least two current Cabinet secretaries — Housing and Urban Development’s Julián Castro and Labor’s Tom Perez — as potential running mates, and Castro was reportedly still in contention as of Monday.

But President Obama has thrown up a strange obstacle to picking one of them: He’s not letting incumbent Cabinet members address the Democratic National Convention this summer.

This is not a legal requirement. The White House, in making this announcement, was very clear that they do not think any legal restrictions — such as the Hatch Act, which bans executive branch officials from engaging in certain political activity — preclude Castro, Perez, and the like from participating in the convention this summer.

And sure enough, five sitting Cabinet members — Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan — addressed the 2012 convention. There was no apparent legal fallout from their participation.

The explanations of the order given to the New York Times by administration spokespeople were fairly vague. Jennifer Friedman, the deputy press secretary, said the rule was designed to "send a signal about the primacy of the Obama administration’s responsibility to manage the government and serve the American people." Josh Earnest, the press secretary, explained, "This is largely an effort to delineate as clearly as possible the public, official governing responsibilities we have at the White House, and separate that from politics."

Both of those are reasonable stances to hold, but they don’t say anything about why Obama failed to "delineate as clearly as possible" the divide between public office and political activities, and failed to "send a signal" about the important of public duty, in 2012. Nor do they really explain why it’s okay for Obama to publicly campaign for Clinton, and for Castro and other Cabinet members to endorse her before the primaries had even started, if Cabinet member speeches at the convention are not kosher.

So what explains this somewhat bizarre restriction? Here are a few possibilities.

1) Obama wants to avoid convention scheduling drama

This seems like the most banal but also the most plausible explanation. There are only three nights for the convention, and there are a lot of VIPs who have to deliver speeches. There’s Hillary Clinton, of course, but also Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Joe Biden, Jill Biden, the VP pick, the VP pick’s spouse, etc. Bernie Sanders will probably get a primetime speaking slot. Jimmy Carter will probably speak at some point or another. There’s a keynote slot for a young rising star in the party like Cory Booker or Kirsten Gillibrand.

That makes the amount of time available for Cabinet officials scarce, and if they’re eligible, convention planners have to make awkward choices. Does John Kerry get a slot because he’s a former nominee? Or does Vilsack get another run to help him set up for a Senate bid in a few years? Or does Castro get asked back after his keynote address last time?

One way to deal with those questions is to just cut the Gordian knot and say Cabinet officials are ineligible.

2) Fear over politicizing government functions is higher now

The Obama administration has always been cautious to a fault, and while in 2012 the appearance of Cabinet officials at the convention wouldn’t have necessarily looked like a conflict of interest, with Donald Trump attacking Clinton as a corrupt actor who abused her powers as secretary of state, the appearance that other Cabinet actors are abusing the status of their office by being at the convention might be more harmful this time around.

Furthermore, in the past four years the IRS endured a significant scandal in which Republicans alleged it had been politicized and made to target conservatives. That’s likely made the Obama administration even more hesitant about inviting charges of politicizing executive agencies.

That being said, this doesn’t fully explain Obama’s permissiveness in letting Cabinet members endorse in the primaries and otherwise campaign for Clinton.

3) It’s an attempt to keep Perez and Castro engaged and in office

Both Perez and Castro have spent their time in office shepherding through significant federal rules changes on a range of topics, such as banning smoking in public housingexpanding Section 8 benefits in wealthy neighborhoods, mandating more overtime payments, banning investment advisers from recommending bad investments to get kickbacks, etc.

Some of that’s through the rulemaking process now and just needs to survive in the courts, but some of it is still working its way through. The Obama administration might want to keep Perez and Castro focused full time on implementation rather than be distracted by a campaign.

4) The Obama administration prefers some other VP candidate

Obama has a lot of personal loyalty to Tim Kaine, whom he picked as Democratic National Committee chair from 2009 to 2011 and who endorsed him all the way back in early 2007, back when it looked like Obama would lose to Clinton in a landslide. It’s at least conceivable that the president would, on the margins, be attempting to increase Kaine’s stock by reducing the viability of his rivals, in this case Castro and Perez.

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