Miller Center

American President

A Reference Resource

Elaine Chao (2001–2009): Secretary of Labor

Soon after he became President-elect, George W. Bush picked Elaine Chao to serve as his Secretary of Labor. Chao has a background of moderate conservatism that made her palatable to both labor and business leaders. She served for all eight years of the Bush administration.

She was born in 1953 to Chinese parents who had moved to Taiwan and came to the United States in 1961. Chao attended high school in an affluent suburb of New York City, earned her B.A. from Mount Holyoke College, and received her master's in business administration from the Harvard School of Business.

From 1979 to 1982, she worked in international banking at Citicorp in New York, and she served as a White House fellow in the Domestic Policy Council during 1983 and 1984. When she subsequently moved to San Francisco to serve as vice president to BankAmerica Capital Markets Group, she became active in California Republican politics.

In 1986, she was appointed deputy administrator of the Maritime Administration, and she served as national chairman of Asian Americans for Bush/Quayle in 1988. Chao became chairperson of the Federal Maritime Commission in 1988 and then was appointed deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Transportation in 1989.

President George H.W. Bush appointed Chao to head the Peace Corps in 1991, but with his failed 1992 bid for reelection, her tenure was a short one. In 1992, she was named President of the United Way of America, by all accounts a position she filled with distinction.

Following her time with the United Way, Chao became a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation. She has also served on several corporate and nonprofit boards, such as Northwest Airlines and the National Association of Security Dealers Inc., parent company to the Nasdaq Stock Market.