Obama’s own approach falls somewhere in the middle. With a few prominent exceptions—Gates, whom he held over at the Pentagon, to broad acclaim; Clinton, who has become a highly effective secretary of state; Timothy Geithner, who left the Federal Reserve Bank of New York to become the influential Treasury secretary and part of the president’s inner circle (but also a lightning rod for criticism that the administration is too deferential to Wall Street); and Leon Panetta, an old Washington hand who first ran the C.I.A. and is now secretary of defense—Obama has surrounded himself mostly with a team of loyalists. They range from the very competent (Janet Napolitano at Homeland Security) to the perennially controversial (Eric Holder at Justice) to the underwhelmingly anonymous (could anyone but a union leader pick Labor Secretary Hilda Solis out of a lineup?). In the main, Obama relates to his Cabinet the way he relates to the rest of the world. “He’s a total introvert,” the former adviser told me. “He doesn’t need people.” So it hardly matters that Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, is widely seen as quietly capable; she was not front and center in Obama’s public push for health-care reform, a topic that another former senior administration aide now calls the Lord Voldemort of policy questions, the issue that must not be named…

The larger truth is that modern presidents, with a few exceptions, don’t need, and don’t use, Cabinet members as privy councillors on the most important questions. They have other people for that. Presidents do need competent, even if anonymous, executives to run the vast machinery of the federal government, but most Cabinet secretaries don’t really do that either—at least not in the classic C.E.O. sense—leaving such work to their deputies and the professional civil-service staffs. In fact, experience has shown, it is hard for modern presidents to attract private-sector C.E.O.’s to serve in the Cabinet because of the financial and personal sacrifices required. Hank Paulson, George W. Bush’s Treasury secretary, once told me that if he’d known how arduous the confirmation would be for his own non-controversial appointment to the post he would never have left Goldman Sachs. The Cabinet these days amounts to a kind of demographically balanced assembly of team mascots, with increasingly ill-defined roles. The Constitution stipulates only that 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.” Maybe Obama should ask for an occasional postcard and leave it at that.