Biden's cabinet is built for comfort, not speed

Biden's cabinet is built for comfort, not speed
© Getty Images

The late great Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Sam Rayburn (D-Texas) could have been talking about Donald TrumpDonald TrumpMyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News Haaland, Native American leaders press for Indigenous land protections Simone Biles, Vince Lombardi and the courage to walk away MORE and Joe Biden when he said, “Any jackass can kick a barn down, but it takes a good carpenter to build one.” 

Biden’s experience has made him a competent carpenter, but he will need to prove he can be an ambitious architect to solve the grave problems facing his presidency and the nation.

The president-elect has carefully and cautiously constructed his cabinet to meet competing political demands. He must do a high wire act and walk a tightrope between progressives in his own party who want change and the conservatives in the GOP who control the Senate and must approve his choices.

ADVERTISEMENT

The choice of his Treasury secretary is a good example of Biden’s approach. Progressives didn't get the pick they loved, Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenPelosi disputes Biden's power to forgive student loans Warren hits the airwaves for Newsom ahead of recall election Human rights can't be a sacrificial lamb for climate action MORE (D-Mass.), but they did get someone they liked in Janet Yellen who has demonstrated concerns about income inequality and climate change. She will probably pass muster in the Senate. The new nominee served as the head of the Council of Economic Advisers during Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonClintons, Stacey Abrams meeting Texas Democrats The Koreas are talking again — Moon is for real, but what about Kim? For families, sending money home to Cuba shouldn't be a political football MORE’s presidency and President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaMillennial momentum means trouble for the GOP Biden's Cuba problem: Obama made a bet and lost Democrats need a coherent response to attacks on critical race theory MORE named her the first female chair of the Federal Reserve Board.

Demography is destiny and the destiny of the Democratic Party is diversity. The default option in cabinet choices has always been white men, so the new president deserves a lot of credit for his efforts to pick an administration that is diverse.

Biden has already chosen three members of the big four cabinet positions, State, Defense and Treasury. Only one of the three nominees, secretary of State, Tony Blinken is a white male. Yellen will be the first female secretary of Treasury and retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin will be the first African American Defense chief if they are approved by the Senate.

Biden has nominated two Latinos, Xavier Becerra and Alejandro Mayorkas to run the Departments of Health and Human Services and Homeland Security. The choice of a Hispanic immigrant to helm Homeland Security and to ride point on immigration policy is particularly appropriate and it must annoy Trump supporters to distraction.

The 46th president has worked closely with most of his appointees to key White House staff positions and cabinet positions while he was a senator and Obama’s vice president. Trump picked some people he barely knew and we know how that worked out for him. There will be much more stability in Biden’s cabinet than there was in his predecessor’s and there’s something to be said for that.

ADVERTISEMENT

But Biden is building his cabinet for comfort, not speed at a time when urgency is necessary to confront severe threats to America. A cabinet in his comfort zone isn’t enough to satisfy progressives who helped elect him or be up to the job of addressing the big problems facing the U.S.

Which brings us to the story of Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio). Biden’s choice to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development points to his caution. Fudge, a former mayor, is perfectly suited to run the agency that deals with urban problems.

She's also an African American woman and is the chair of the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition and Oversight. Progressive supporters hoped Biden would designate her as his secretary of Agriculture, which would have put her in charge of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and change the department from a farmer-oriented agency into a consumer-friendly institution.

Traditionally, the Agriculture job goes to a farm state official. But Biden could have broken new ground and given Fudge the top job. Instead, he chose tradition over vision and gave the job to former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. He ran the Department Of Agriculture (DOA) for eight years under former Obama and then-Vice President BidenJoe BidenFirst lady leaves Walter Reed after foot procedure Biden backs effort to include immigration in budget package MyPillow CEO to pull ads from Fox News MORE.

Tough times require bold actions. The new president must find a way of breaking through the institutional barriers that limit his options.

We will find out next month after the Georgia runoff elections whether Democrats or Republicans organize the Senate. But one way or another, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellAn August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done After police rip Trump for Jan. 6, McCarthy again blames Pelosi The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Facebook - US gymnast wins all-around gold as Simone Biles cheers from the stands MORE (R-Ky.) will be a thorn in Biden’s side when it comes to cabinet appointments and major legislation.

The threat that the Senate majority leader poses to the new administration is clear from his resistance to measures to give aid to beleaguered Americans who have lost their jobs, local and state governments that don’t have the money to aid their suffering citizens and first responders who are at the end of ropes fighting the escalating pandemic.

How does Biden break through the gridlock? 

Biden can end the GOP Senate with executive orders. He can start by quickly reversing the orders issued by his predecessor. He is expected to quickly rejoin the Paris Climate Accord and the World Health Organization (WHO). He will also move soon to reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. 

He also needs to move early to address the economic problems facing financially pressed Americans. He can start by forgiving student debt and by strengthening regulations against financial firms with predatory practices. He must aggressively attack the pandemic which the current administration has so cavalierly ignored.

Republicans will complain about Biden’s executive orders, but they’ll be hypocrites after giving Trump free rein to act unconstitutionally and unilaterally. The GOP went along with their president when he took money appropriated by Congress for the Pentagon and used it to fund construction of the Southern border wall.

The future of the nation is up for grabs and so is Biden’s presidency. The success or failure of his administration depends on his ability to fight through the institutional barriers that will try to hamstring him. The motto of the Biden administration should be “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!”

Brad Bannon is a Democratic pollster and CEO of Bannon Communications Research. He is the host of the podcast Deadline D.C. with @BradBannon and the Progressive Voices network.