What Biden's Cabinet picks signal about his presidency

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What’s happening

Any incoming president’s Cabinet selections are always a source of debate, but President-elect Joe Biden faces a particularly thorny set of decisions as he looks to build out his administration with officials who can satisfy the broad coalition of Democratic Party interests that helped elect him.

Biden has promised to build “the most diverse Cabinet in history,” a pledge he appears poised to keep. His nominees for secretaries of Defense, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, and Homeland Security are people of color. His choice to run the Treasury, Janet Yellen, would be the first woman to hold the position. Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s nominee to run the Department of Transportation, could be the first LGBTQ person to be confirmed to a Cabinet seat by the Senate.

As demographically diverse as his choices have been, there is a great deal of ideological cohesion between them. Most of his nominees fit within the center-left political philosophy that Biden himself represents. Biden has also placed a strong emphasis on familiarity. At least a dozen of his picks for top jobs in his White House — including secretary of state, chief of staff and national security adviser — previously worked for the Obama administration.

On top of the challenges that the typical administration faces, Biden’s Cabinet will be tasked with addressing the public health and economic crises caused by the coronavirus pandemic. With Congress likely to limit the scope of legislative solutions available to him, Biden’s Cabinet will play a critical role in carrying out his agenda.

Why there’s debate

To many political observers, Biden’s Cabinet selection process serves as a microcosm of what his approach to governing will look like once he takes office. His clear preference for experienced “insider” politicians and bureaucrats echoes his campaign message of a return to normalcy after four years of a Trump Cabinet at times defined by turnover and scandal.

The selection process has shown the delicate balance Biden must strike to make decisions that will appease both the moderate and left wings of the Democratic Party that can also get through a Senate potentially controlled by Republicans. Biden’s admirers say his choices show his ability to navigate the complex influences of Washington to find answers that are acceptable to all parties. Biden’s critics say his penchant for compromise is a recipe for half measures that will do little to solve the nation’s many problems.

What’s next

Biden has yet to name his nominees for some of the most important Cabinet positions, including attorney general. Most of his nominees must be confirmed by the Senate, a process that could potentially be hamstrung by Republicans if the GOP holds on to its majority after the upcoming runoffs in Georgia.


Biden’s Cabinet signals a dramatic shift from the chaos of the Trump presidency

“It is a sharp contrast to President Trump, who assembled a dysfunctional collection of cabinet members he barely knew. After an initial honeymoon, they spent their time constantly at risk of being fired. With nearly half of Mr. Biden’s cabinet and many key White House jobs announced, his administration looks more like a close-knit family.” — Michael D. Shear and Shane Goldmacher, New York Times

Biden wants his administration to speak in one, unified voice

“He’s not putting together a team of rivals, he’s putting together a team. … He’s not interested in conflict as much as he wants to have people who have done the job before and they can all work together to get all the work done.” — Democratic strategist Mary Anne Marsh to Politico

Biden prioritizes diversity, but not to the level some progressives want

“Even as it becomes clear that there will be vexation all around, it appears that Biden is taking the feedback of allies seriously. The Cabinet won’t be as diverse as perhaps it could have been, but it is set to be as diverse as promised.” — Sean Collins, Vox

Biden’s choices show that he isn’t willing to take the bold action the country needs

“He’s gathering a Cabinet that mirrors his own strengths — sane men and women, each one likable and competent. … Biden’s challenge is that after cooling the national fever, literally and figuratively, he needs to shake things up. The federal government is a mess.” — David Ignatius, Washington Post

Biden has shown he’s willing to invite conflict with Republicans

“President-elect Joe Biden is daring Senate Republicans with Cabinet picks and nominees who have grated on the party but also have flaws that could now give the GOP an easy out for rejecting them. Familiar faces … may be comfort food for the president-elect’s soul, but they’re flashbacks to an era wherein Republicans sought to obstruct Democratic people and policies.” — Glen Johnson, Axios

Biden won’t be the far-left “Trojan horse” some Republicans fear he’ll be

“Because the Senate is so closely divided and Biden may need Republicans to back some of his picks to get them confirmed, Biden is choosing more moderate figures for his cabinet anyway, so the ‘Never Trump’ bloc is getting what it wants without really asking for it — a not-too-progressive Biden administration.” — Perry Bacon Jr., FiveThirtyEight

Left-wing Democrats have shown they can influence Biden’s decision-making

“Progressives have so far failed to persuade President-elect Joe Biden to put their favored candidates in top jobs for his administration. But they appear to have succeeded in making enough noise to keep out their biggest foes, at least for now.” — Alex Seitz-Wald, NBC News

His selections show that he has no coherent governing agenda

“You don’t have to be a Joe Biden critic or foe to look at his latest batch of cabinet nominations and wonder if he’s picking names out of a hat.” — Jim Geraghty, National Review

The Cabinet choices show Biden’s talent for finding workable deals

“What can appear to be a lot of fairly uninspiring demographic counting and interest-group griping, with the president-elect catering to one group after another, is actually the sign of a healthy party — and can tell us a lot about who that party really is. It can also tell us plenty about the new president’s skills.” — Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

The specter of GOP obstruction hangs over all of Biden’s decisions

“Biden’s willingness to follow these suggestions from the important constituencies that gave him the White House may end up hurting their causes in the short-term, if multiple nominees can’t get across the confirmation finish line. But it could in turn remind everyone of the stakes they are fighting for.” — Philip Elliott, Time

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP