Biden leans on Obama-era talent for top posts
President-elect Joe Biden is moving to round out his Cabinet and White House staff and is leaning heavily on officials who served in the Obama administration, and with whom he worked before, to fill out his senior team.
Top White House positions such as chief of staff, national security adviser and director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, as well as Cabinet posts such as secretary of State and Director of National Intelligence, have gone to people who worked in the Obama administration.
And while Biden has put an emphasis on diversity of race and gender for his incoming administration — giving a handful of top roles to women and people of color — his choices have included few new faces, with top positions going to people he served alongside in the Obama years or worked with before that.
“He’s an individual who believes that politics is about personal relationships and as a consequence, I think, he wants to surround himself with people that he knows and trusts,” said Charles Kupchan, who served as senior director for European affairs on the National Security Council under President Obama.
“He wants the White House to feel like an extended family. He is a family man and he thinks about politics through the lens of relationships,” Kupchan continued.
Roughly two dozen of those who Biden is nominating to serve in his Cabinet and tapping for White House roles worked in the Obama administration. Two officials are reprising roles they previously held: Tom Vilsack, who has been nominated as Agriculture secretary, and Vivek Murthy, Biden’s nominee to be surgeon general.
Some of those who will fill Biden’s team have known him for decades.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of State, Tony Blinken, has advised Biden for nearly two decades, serving in a staff director role on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which Biden chaired in the 1990s. Biden’s chief of staff, Ron Klain, served as chief counsel on the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden chaired it in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
His choices have drawn a contrast with the current Trump administration, which was put together under President Trump’s edict to “drain the swamp” and included a number of officials unfamiliar with Washington, particularly in the White House.
Biden has drawn from a deep well of Obama-era officials for his senior team as he resists plucking would-be nominees from the Senate, where any one vacancy could threaten Democratic strength in the upper chamber. He has also so far only selected one House member, Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), to serve in his Cabinet, as head of the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
When Biden recently announced retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as his choice to serve as Defense secretary, he emphasized that he came to know Austin during his early days as vice president when Obama tasked him with overseeing the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Biden also noted that his now-deceased son, Beau, served on Austin’s staff when he was in the Army.
His choice of Austin, who will be the first African American to lead the Pentagon if confirmed, surprised many in the national security community, who believed that Michèle Flournoy was best-suited to take on the role due to her service in top Pentagon posts during the Clinton and Obama administrations.
“Michèle was never the Biden inner circle,” said Michael O’Hanlon, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. “Michèle is not a close Biden associate over the years the way that Tony Blinken was or the way that [national security adviser pick] Jake Sullivan became.”
While O’Hanlon said he was not opposed to Austin’s nomination, he noted that Austin’s primary experience has been in the Middle East and said he would need to become more familiar with emerging threats from nations like China and Russia.
“He’s got to put himself on a crash course on the three big things that are the most important things for a 2020 secretary of defense — China, Russia and technology,” O’Hanlon said. “That’s OK, as long as he knows what he doesn’t know.”
The direction of Biden’s Cabinet has drawn skepticism from some liberals, who view it as making little room thus far for progressive voices and emerging party leaders. His decision to tap Vilsack as Agriculture secretary for a second time has particularly disappointed progressives, given Vilsack’s ties to the agriculture industry.
Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, said that progressives had welcomed some of Biden’s appointments and nominations, but hoped for more progressive representation in the administration.
Green’s organization has compiled a list of thousands of individuals to serve in personnel posts at specific agencies and submitted it to the Biden-Harris transition team.
“Generally speaking, the center of gravity seems to have shifted a lot since 2009. Ron Klain is pretty much a 180 from Rahm Emmanuel,” Green said, referring to Obama’s first White House chief of staff. “Rahm Emmanuel could not wait to exclude progressives from the room and spit in progressives faces.”
“We feel good about that,” he said of the selection of Klain and others, including Janet Yellen for Treasury Secretary, “but so far there are no movement progressives appointed to Cabinet-level positions.”
The transition team has unveiled roughly half of Biden’s Cabinet nominations so far, meaning the full picture of his team has not yet been painted. Still, several picks for top administration roles unveiled this week illustrated the close relationship between his team and the one during the Obama years.
Susan Rice, a trusted Obama aide who served in multiple roles in his administration, is set to return to the White House under Biden as head of the Domestic Policy Council, while the president-elect has selected Denis McDonough, Obama’s former chief of staff, as his nominee to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). McDonough’s selection perplexed some veterans groups, given that he is not himself a veteran, a quality possessed by all but one previous VA secretary.
Biden last month also announced two other Obama alumni for top roles: Avril Haines for Director of National Intelligence and Alejandro Mayorkas for Homeland Security (DHS) secretary. Haines served in top national security roles in the Obama administration, including as deputy CIA director from 2013 to 2015, while Mayorkas served as deputy DHS secretary from 2013 to 2016.
William Howell, a political scientist and politics professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy, said that Biden’s selections thus far reflect the president-elect’s desire to turn a page on the Trump administration and restore the country and its economy to health amid the coronavirus pandemic.
He also said it was not a particular surprise that Biden had not tapped more progressive voices to hold high-level positions given Biden’s effort to cast himself as a moderate during the campaign.
“He is going to be subject to pressure from the left flank of his party, but I think right now his is the work of restoration and moderation and those are going to be the hallmark of his presidency,” Howell said. “So, it’s no great surprise that the first people you turn to meet that bill.”