Raising the Standard.

Elaine Chao: Back in the Cabinet

Elaine Chao, then Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, signs a memorandum with former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. (DoD photo by Helene C. Stikkel)

President Donald Trump has recently selected the former Secretary of Labor under George W. Bush, Elaine Chao, to be his Secretary of Transportation.

This is not Chao’s first appearance in the public view, having been President George W. Bush’s only cabinet appointee to serve through his entire time as president (2001-2009). She was the first American woman of Asian descent to be appointed to a cabinet position. Her family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when she was eight and without speaking English. Chao went on to graduate from Harvard Business School where she received her M.B.A. Not only does she possess an undergraduate degree in economics from Mount Holyoke College, but she also is the recipient of over twenty-five honorary doctoral degrees. Her past responsibilities seem endless, including being Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation, Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, Vice President of Syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group, and a White House Fellow.

This is not Chao’s first appearance in the public eye. As George W. Bush’s only cabinet appointee to serve throughout his entire term as president from 2001-2009, Chao was the first Asian-American woman to be appointed to a cabinet position. Chao’s family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan when she was eight. Despite not speaking any English upon arrival in the U.S., Chao graduated from Mount Holyoke College with a degree in economics and eventually continued on to earn a degree from Harvard Business School, where she received her MBA. Chao is also the recipient of more than twenty-five honorary doctoral degrees. Beyond the prestige of having served as Deputy Secretary of the United States Department of Transportation for eight years, Chao has held a plethora of other prominent positions throughout her career, including Chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, Vice President of Syndications at BankAmerica Capital Markets Group, and White House Fellow.

Furthermore, Chao married Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell in 1993, providing her ample opportunities to face the general public and be subject to criticism. Stuart Bloch, the friend who introduced Chao to McConnell, described her as “made of titanium,” an attribute which is highly desirable in the Trump administration. From the beginning of their marriage, Chao actively aided her husband both financially and politically. Chao’s father was a shipping magnate, and the inheritance she received in 2007 increased McConnell’s net worth from $7.8 million to $22.8 million in 2014. During McConnell’s 2014 reelection campaign for Senate in Kentucky, Chao hosted dozens of events and helped her husband relate to the general public.

Her own record is no less impressive than that of her husband’s. As Secretary of Labor, she returned power to the states and away from the federal government, a practice she will no doubt continue as Secretary of Transportation. In 2004, Chao’s Department of Labor updated labor and business practices with the Fair Labor Standards Act, receiving praise from both labor advocates and business leaders. By the end of her tenure as Secretary of Labor, public perception changed.

Though criticized for not protecting workers’ rights, Chao’s administration increased labor union oversight. Many saw the cuts that Chao made to the Department of Labor as a de-prioritization of the average worker, especially when the decrease in spending impacted the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Many liberal opponents cite OSHA budget cuts as the biggest failure from her time as Secretary of Labor.

Chao may garner rough critiques stemming from her approach to governance, but she shares one major attribute with President Trump: she boldly makes her case without fear of reprisals or blowback. In 2007, Chao faced media attention over comments she made regarding foreign workers. She called on young Americans to wake up and realize that they are losing jobs to foreigners because of Americans’ unwillingness to work hard even in lower-paid occupations.

Chao and Trump must work together to address the illegal immigrant workers in the United States today with the mass of uncertainty and controversy surrounding Trump’s immigration and border policies. Assuming she is confirmed, Chao will face numerous challenges the moment she steps into her new role, and Trump’s campaign promises give her plenty of goals to achieve.

Despite the attacks and opposition to her nomination, Chao is expected to pass through the Senate without major opposition. Having her husband in charge of the legislative body should ensure her success. As the New York Times so eloquently reports,

‘I feel a little bit like Nathan Hale,’ Mr. McConnell said. ‘I regret that I have but one wife to give for my country.’ Ms. Chao said, ‘I will be working to lock in the majority leader’s support tonight over dinner.’”

— Michael Duckett is Associate Editor of THE ARCH CONSERVATIVE

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