What a Biden administration should look like
I think Joe Biden will be president next Jan. 20, though the next few weeks could be ugly.
If I’m right, his crucial initial task will be tapping the best people for the most prominent posts, as Washington faces the greatest challenges since World War II.
We can expect a Biden administration, as promised, to be the most diverse in history. There’d be roles for Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren people, important political supporters and campaign aides. There is even talk of a few prominent Republicans, which is dicier than before. One mentioned is former Sen. Jeff Flake, a principled Arizona anti-Trump conservative, one of the most admirable people in public life — but other than maybe a major immigration post, he would be out of sync with a Biden government.
What matters most when facing domestic and foreign crises is who the president surrounds himself with in the major posts: State, Defense, Treasury, Attorney General and the very top White House staff.
I haven’t talked to anyone close to Biden about who would be chosen, so this isn’t an insider preview; rather, it’s about suitable choices — I have talked with a number of former top officials, who understand the urgency and stress there simply isn’t the luxury for on-the-job training.
On national security, China poses the greatest threat, though hardly the only one — and even more than correcting the Trump administration’s blatant failures is to fashion a coherent new realistic global strategy.
The most-cited Secretary of State contender is Susan Rice, President Obama’s national security adviser and a finalist for Joe Biden’s running mate. Much of the Democrats’ foreign policy establishment would favor a candidate more like one of the Burns boys, Bill and Nick, former Deputy and Under Secretaries of State.
An outside-the-box, superb selection would be Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, one of the most knowledgeable members of the Senate who enjoys good relations with some Republicans and is close to Biden.
The most accepted consensus, which is sometimes right, is the likely Defense Secretary will be Michele Flournoy, who was under secretary at the Pentagon in the first Obama administration. If that falls through, a good alternative would be Jeh Johnson, the Homeland Security chief under Obama.
For Treasury, the chatter is about Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor and former top Treasury official, and Roger Ferguson, who was vice chair of the Fed, a Democrat who won the admiration of Alan Greenspan.
A terrific, if unlikely, choice for Treasury would be Sylvia Burwell, spectacularly successful as Secretary of Health and Human Services, as director of the Office of Management and Budget, as a leading foundation executive, former chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Bob Rubin and now president of American University. When in government, and the last several years behind the scenes, no one has been more responsible for saving the Affordable Health Care Act, commanding respect from Republicans as well as Democrats.
This would be the most sensitive Attorney General appointment since President Ford chose Chicago Law School Dean Edward Levi after Watergate. Current polices need to be reversed. Morale at the Justice Department is dreadful. Most daunting will be the issue of whether to criminally prosecute Donald Trump and associates. The next AG has to be tough, above reproach ethically and ideally not seen as a political partisan.
That eliminates one named tossed around: New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Two still in play are Sally Yates, former deputy Attorney General, and Preet Bharara, who was the U.S. Attorney in New York’s Southern District. Both were fired by Trump, a badge of honor, except it could raise unfair questions about motive in any actions against a former president.
Two that should be seriously considered: Seth Waxman, former Solicitor General and acting deputy AG in the Clinton administration; there is no more respected lawyer in Washington. Also U.S. Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland, who was cheated out of a Supreme Court seat by Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell; Garland ran the criminal division during the Clinton administration.
Czars were overused by Obama, but an immediate priority for a Biden Administration — he plans to get a jump start before taking over — will be a COVID czar, perhaps co-czars with a take-charge figure like retired Gen. Stanley McChrystal and health expert Nancy-Ann DeParle. Longer term, there should be a global climate change czar: Michael Bloomberg and or John Podesta would be perfect.
Almost a sine qua non of presidential success is the right White House chief of staff and the very top counselors.
The longtime Biden aide and former top White House aide Ron Klain is seen as a lock for chief of staff. He’d be better as the influential senior counselor — like Obama’s David Axelrod or, with apologies, Jared Kushner. Jeff Zients, with political and managerial skills, would be an excellent chief of staff. Throw in a troika with former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, the Democrats’ best communicator.
This list is establishment dominated because of the tough times. It’s also too male. The Democrats, however, have an incredibly strong female bench from Congress, the states, political and policy experts. They will play a big role in shaping the next administration.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.