During his final debate with Senator Bernie Sanders, Democratic Party presidential nominee Joe Biden vowed, “If I’m elected president my Cabinet, my administration will look like the country.” With Biden’s selection of Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, he has taken an important first step toward representing the diversity of the Democratic Party and the nation.
If Biden wins the election in November, his Cabinet will represent an opportunity to rally underrepresented groups and interests around his administration. As Biden considers candidates for these positions past presidents can offer him a helpful road map for creating a successful Cabinet. The best Cabinets throughout the history of the United States have been filled with competent, engaged and disciplined secretaries who present diverse views and actively disagree with the president.
The historical importance of a diverse Cabinet
In 1789, President George Washington set this precedent for effective leadership by selecting men who represented different regions of the country, backgrounds and ideological interests. Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was a wealthy plantation owner from Virginia, owned hundreds of enslaved people, and brought critical diplomatic expertise to the administration. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton was born in the Caribbean, before making his home in New York City and cozying up to the merchant and mercantile elite in cities. Jefferson and Hamilton disagreed on almost everything and Jefferson later described their Cabinet meetings as a “cock fight,” evoking the bloody, brutal nature of their disagreements. While Jefferson hated these confrontations, Washington knew that he benefited from having both perspectives and pleaded with Jefferson to stay and provide “the check of [his] opinions in the administration in order to keep things in their proper channel and prevent them from going too far.”
Other presidents were bold enough to follow Washington’s model. In 1861, President Lincoln famously fashioned a “team of rivals” from his Republican Party competition. Lincoln’s Cabinet encouraged him to pursue some of the greatest achievements of his presidency because they didn’t always agree. The more strident abolitionist voices in his Cabinet, including Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, pushed Lincoln to consider the abolition of slavery earlier than he might have otherwise. Additionally, by picking secretaries from New York, Ohio, and Missouri, as well as three former Democrats, Lincoln encouraged different regions and factions to feel invested and represented in his administration and the Union. Lincoln was less concerned about checking the power of one side, and more focused on demonstrating party unity and hearing from different voices in the Union.
From the very beginning of his administration in 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt chartered a new Cabinet path. First, he followed Washington’s model by organizing a precedent-setting diverse Cabinet. He was the first president to appoint a woman as a department secretary. Roosevelt selected Frances Perkins as the secretary of labor as a nod to the other half of the American population that had previously been unrepresented in the Cabinet.
As the United States inched toward World War II, Roosevelt adopted Lincoln’s strategy. In 1940, he filled critical military departments with experienced, pro-war Republicans. While Secretary of War Henry Stimson, and Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox frequently disagreed on Roosevelt’s social policy, they supported the war effort. More recent presidents have also adopted this bipartisan approach. In 1988, President Ronald Reagan appointed Lauro Cavazos as Secretary of Education and Jeane Kirkpatrick as Ambassador to the United Nations, both Democrats. When President Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he retained Robert Gates, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense and a registered Republican, to provide continuity and stability during a tumultuous time.
Some key appointments Biden could make
Biden could follow these models by making a few key appointments. He could follow the Lincoln plan by selecting nominees from his primary opponents, such as Julian Castro, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren. Since 1789, when Alexander Hamilton was appointed the first Secretary of the Treasury, no woman has ever filled that position. Warren would break that streak.
He could follow FDR and Obama’s example and select a moderate Republican for a Cabinet position to provide party diversity. Governor of Massachusetts Charlie Baker has rejected the more extreme flanks of his party, favoring centrist positions on women’s rights, environmental protections, and immigration. Like FDR and Stimson, and Reagan and Kirkpatrick, Baker and Biden wouldn’t agree on all issues, but they could probably find common ground that would recreate the successful partnerships enjoyed by FDR and Reagan.
Finally, Biden could follow Washington’s precedent by selecting secretaries who offer fresh ideas and geographical diversity. As a former veteran and Secretary of State of Missouri, Jason Kander would make a perfect secretary of veteran’s affairs. Kander has spoken openly about his challenges with post-traumatic stress disorder and would be an effective advocate for veterans’ issues. He would also provide important geographical diversity and help shore up support for the Biden administration in Missouri. Alternatively, there has never been a female secretary of veteran’s affairs and Senator Tammy Duckworth would be a remarkable first. Former Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman would be an inspired choice for secretary of the army. His recent retirement ensures civilian authority over the military and would help restore morale in the armed forces after their recent politicization during the Trump administration.
Whomever Biden appoints, he should pursue a Cabinet that has two qualities in common with those appointed by Obama, FDR, Lincoln, and Washington. First, Biden should appoint nominees with different perspectives. Successful presidents have enhanced their decision-making when their closest advisers have challenged their positions. Second, he should request the advice of his advisors, even when the conversations were uncomfortable or the recommended actions are difficult. As president, Biden would have the final determination, but he should first gather all of the information before making a decision. If he follows these precedents, Joe Biden will forge a better Cabinet and be a stronger president.
Lindsay M. Chervinsky is the author of "The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution" and a scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: With Kamala Harris as VP, Joe Biden builds a team that looks like us