Joe Biden's cabinet picks: what we've learned from his choices so far

The president-elect has gone for experience and diversity in his first slate of picks – but it also doesn’t hurt to have worked for Obama

On Tuesday, Joe Biden formally introduced his first slate of picks for cabinet posts.

One Senate Republican said Biden’s choices “went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumés, attend all the right conferences and will be polite and orderly caretakers of America’s decline”.

Another scoffed that the list of names resembled a guest list for a “Georgetown dinner”.

But most, less partial, observers agreed that after four years of chaos under Donald Trump, himself a self-proclaimed outsider, a dose of insider knowledge and institutional stability might be just what Washington needs.

Here are five things we’ve learned so far about Biden’s choices.

Experience counts…

“If not household names,” the Washington Post opined, “Biden’s picks are steeped in the ways” of the capital, knowing the place as Donald Trump’s collection of political allies, businessmen, donors, grifters, gadflies and relatives did not.

Secretary of state nominee Tony Blinken, for example, worked for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and for Biden when he was Obama’s vice-president. Janet Yellen, now heading for the treasury, was chair of the Federal Reserve. John Kerry, the climate envoy, was a Massachusetts senator for 28 years, ran for president in 2004 and was secretary of state in Obama’s second term.

Nor are those named for less prominent positions callow or untried. National security adviser pick Jake Sullivan is “only” 43 years old but he worked for Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state and for Biden when he was VP. Avril Haines, named director of national intelligence, is a former deputy chief of the CIA, deputy national security adviser and deputy chief counsel to Senate Democrats.

…but so does having worked for Obama

Experience can also bring baggage. Biden worked for the 44th president and so did many of his hires, to the extent, Politico reported on Tuesday, that some who worked on the Biden campaign this time round are feeling a little cheesed off.

“The Obama staffers are now cutting out the people who got Biden elected,” the website quoted a senior Biden official as saying. “None of these people found the courage to help the vice-president when he was running and now they are elevating their friends over the Biden people. It’s fucked up.”

Another Biden adviser who worked on the campaign, Politico said, called that criticism “very valid”.

Big positions, among them secretary of defense and attorney general, remain to be filled. Contrary to many progressive dreams, they will not be filled by Obama himself. Promoting his memoir, the former president has ruled out taking any role under Biden. If he did, he says, his wife Michelle would leave him.

Internationalism is back

One potentially positive side of a reliance on Obama alumni is to be found in the fact that Obama was a world president, intent on strong relationships with allies as well as engagement with traditional foes, an approach far removed from Trump’s attacks on America’s friends and alarming habit of cosying up to dictators. In short, the likes of Blinken, Yellen and Kerry already have strong relations with government leaders and officials in the international centre who are desperate for a reset.

“Tony Blinken’s ties to Europe are lifelong, deep and personal,” Politico Europe wrote on Tuesday, discussing his near-flawless French, past life in Paris, skepticism about Brexit and status as “a fierce believer in the transatlantic alliance”.

“On every major foreign policy issue – terrorism, climate, pandemics, trade, China, the Iran nuclear deal – he has a recurring mantra: the US should work with its allies and within international treaties and organisations.”

Diversity matters …

The Post called Biden’s win “something akin to the revenge of the Washington establishment”, but the Democrat has so far also lived up to his promise to name an administration which reflects American diversity far more strongly than Trump’s did.

Alejandro Mayorkas, right, with then vice-president Joe Biden and Amy Pope of the National Security Council in this 2015 picture. Mayorkas is the nominee for homeland security chief.
Alejandro Mayorkas, right, with then vice-president Joe Biden and Amy Pope of the National Security Council in this 2015 picture. Photograph: Gary Cameron/Reuters

Biden’s nominee for secretary of homeland security, Alejandro Mayorkas, is a Cuban American who has spoken of his experience as the child of immigrants. Linda Thomas-Greenfield will not be the first woman of colour to be ambassador to the United Nations – Susan Rice and Nikki Haley both filled the post – but she was the most senior black US diplomat until Trump fired her.

Biden was reported to be close to appointing Michèle Flournoy as the first woman to be secretary of defense, only for her to be conspicuous by her absence when the first names were named. Reports now say Jeh Johnson, homeland security secretary under Obama, could become the first black defense chief instead.

… but so do policies

Many of Biden’s picks played prominent roles in developing and implementing policies pursued by previous administrations which Trump used as rocket fuel for his grievance-based rise to the White House.

“They helped negotiate the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal,” the Post wrote, of Biden’s nominees. “They advocated for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal that was part of a strategic pivot toward Asia. All were shredded by Trump.”

Now, “amid the coronavirus pandemic and the simultaneous economic collapse, that populist streak has not lessened. Trade deals will be harder to pursue than they were years ago, and the nation seems to have little appetite for foreign intervention.”

Biden has become the first president to receive more than 80m votes. But Trump only got 6m less. That’s a lot of Americans for Biden and his staff to win over.


Martin Pengelly in New York

The GuardianTramp

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