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John Bryson Isn’t the Only Cabinet Member You Don’t Know

As a reported double hit-and-run thrusts the Secretary of Commerce into the national spotlight, we round up a few more of Obama’s under-the-radar Cabinet members.

If you’re like most Washingtonians today, you woke up to surprising news about President Obama’s Cabinet—not so much that John Bryson was allegedly involved in a bizarre hit-and-run in California, but mainly that Bryson is, evidently, the US Secretary of Commerce.

The onetime cofounder of the Natural Resources Defense Council turned utility executive replaced Gary Locke last year, when Locke became the US ambassador to China.

Bryson has maintained a low profile since, keeping with the tradition of President Obama’s Cabinet writ large, which, apart from a few high-profile names— Hillary Clinton and, until last year, Robert Gates—has been mostly anonymous. That phenomenon is actually the subject of a new essay in the July issue of Vanity Fair by experienced Washington observer Todd Purdum, who wrote about how Obama’s Cabinet hasn’t exactly lived up to its once-vaunted “team of rivals” moniker.

Here are six other people you’ll be surprised to know are in Barack Obama’s Cabinet:

Ray LaHood.

Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood

LaHood, a former Illinois congressman, checked off the “Republican appointee” slot in Obama’s Cabinet. The transportation czar has been extremely low-profile in Washington. He’s even a mystery to the folks at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue: I stood behind him last year in line to enter the White House, and he had to show his ID not once, but twice, to get past the guards at the gate. Perhaps his biggest scandal as secretary? He didn’t know what a hipster was. 

Erik K. Shinseki

Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric K. Shinseki

Even though his office is right across the street from the White House, the retired Army general ranks as one of the Cabinet officials who has visited the White House the least. Shinseki has been doing yeoman’s work trying to raise the profile of veterans’ issues in a country struggling (and largely failing) to meet the needs of a decade’s worth of soldiers returning from two wars. Just in the past few weeks, he teamed up with Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan (yes! another Cabinet member!) to say the government isn’t on track to meet its deadline of ending veterans’ homelessness.

Tom Vilsak.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack

The former Iowa governor has only had one major turn in the Washington spotlight during his three years heading the USDA: the debacle surrounding the firing of Shirley Sherrod after a selectively edited video surfaced that appeared to show her making racist comments at a public forum. After that experience, maybe Vilsack is lucky he’s once again faded into the background.

Eric Holder.

Attorney General Eric Holder

Okay, it’s not so surprising that Holder is the head of the Department of Justice—it’s just surprising he’s lasted as long as he has. His first months were rocky, and few people would have bet that Holder would, at least at this point, appear on track to survive until the end of President Obama’s term. According to Daniel Klaidman’s new book, Holder came close to resigning. He’s evidently had some dramatic fights with the White House, too. 

Lisa Jackson.

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson

Yes, actually the EPA counts as a “Cabinet-level” post, although Jackson isn’t included in the presidential line of succession. A chemical engineer by training, Jackson is the first African-American to be the head of the 17,000-strong EPA.

Karen Mills.

Small Business Administrator Chief Karen Mills

One of the only reshuffles President Obama has made in his Cabinet involved the January elevation of the SBA to “Cabinet-level” status, as part of a broader push to streamline the way government supports the private sector by combining the Commerce Department, the SBA, the semi-controversial of late Export-Import Bank, the Office of the United States Trade Representative (which also has Cabinet rank), the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, and the Trade and Development Agency. Confused? So are most business leaders.

Photographs courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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