The 'Biden Team' is risk-averse, but capable and ready

The 'Biden Team' is risk-averse, but capable and ready
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The almost complete top tier of the incoming Biden administration gets a generous A-minus.

With an exception or so, it's an impressively qualified and experienced team that should work well together. It's diverse, keeping the candidate's commitment, though at times this is emphasized too much over the high caliber of the appointees.

There are few fresh faces; as Washington Post columnist David Ignatius points out, while conflict-averse there's not much vision. There are times when creative tension can produce more innovative policies.


But after Trump — and with the bitter political polarization in Washington — some order, even relative calm, may not be such a bad idea for now.

The economic team, on paper, is as good as those assembled in the Clinton and Obama administrations. Few have come with as stellar credentials as Janet Yellen for Treasury Secretary and Cecilia RouseCecilia RouseOn The Money: Inflation spike puts Biden on defensive | Senate Democrats hit spending speed bumps | Larry Summers huddles with WH team Larry Summers, White House officials meet to discuss Biden agenda Biden releases T budget that foresees decade of trillion-dollar deficits MORE as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.

On paper, the foreign policy team, with a way to go to reach the gold standard of the George H.W. Bush advisers, is still first rate, with Tony Blinken at State, Jake SullivanJake SullivanUS delegation departs Haiti after reports of gunshots at ex-president's funeral No. 2 State Department official to travel to China amid tensions Pence v. Biden on China: Competing but consistent visions MORE as the National Security Adviser and Avril Haines at National Intelligence. Few have had a more impressive debut than United Nations Secretary-designate Linda Thomas-GreenfieldLinda Thomas-GreenfieldUS delegation departs Haiti after reports of gunshots at ex-president's funeral Biden announces delegation to attend Haitian president's funeral State, Dems call out Cruz over holds ahead of key Russian talks MORE.

Biden has assembled a White House staff of confidants that meets any competence test and should collaborate well.

Two nominees — Neera TandenNeera TandenThe Hill's Morning Report - Will Schumer back down on his deadline? Biden's budget vacancy raises eyebrows White House releases staff salaries showing narrowed gender pay gap MORE for director of the Office of Management and Budget and Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia Warren-backed amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to defense bill Pentagon chief to restore advisory panels after purge of Trump loyalists MORE for Defense — are qualified but generating controversy.


Tanden, smarter on policy than politics, is getting flak from Republican senators, like Ohio's Rob PortmanRobert (Rob) Jones PortmanKey Biden ally OK with dropping transit from infrastructure package Frustration builds as infrastructure talks drag Hillicon Valley: Democrats introduce bill to hold platforms accountable for misinformation during health crises | Website outages hit Olympics, Amazon and major banks MORE, a former OMB director, for being too political. Four years ago, Portman supported Tea Party Congressman Mick MulvaneyMick MulvaneyHeadhunters having hard time finding jobs for former Trump officials: report Trump holdovers are denying Social Security benefits to the hardest working Americans Mulvaney calls Trump's comments on Capitol riot 'manifestly false' MORE for the post.

The flap over Austin, who retired as an Army general four years ago, centers on the requirement that a Defense chief must be at least seven years out of the military. It has been waived only twice — for the great George C. Marshall in 1950 and for Jim Mattis four years ago as a hedge against Donald TrumpDonald TrumpPoll: 73 percent of Democratic voters would consider voting for Biden in the 2024 primary Biden flexes presidential muscle on campaign trail with Virginia's McAuliffe Has Trump beaten the system? MORE. That's not necessary with Biden, but Bill Cohen, a former Defense Secretary and once a Republican senator, makes a convincing case why a waiver should be granted to Austin.

To avoid embarrassing defeats on these nominees, Biden will have to use valuable chits.

The most disappointing selection was Ohio Congresswoman Marcia FudgeMarcia FudgeShontel Brown gaining ground against Nina Turner in Ohio: poll Sanders to campaign for Turner in Ohio Just 6.5 percent of rental aid has reached tenants, landlords: Treasury MORE for Secretary of Housing and Urban Developent. For one, it leaves House Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiYellen to Congress: Raise the debt ceiling or risk 'irreparable harm' Freedom Caucus presses McCarthy to force vote to oust Pelosi The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Goldman Sachs - Tokyo Olympics kick off with 2020-style opening ceremony MORE with one less vote, while the vacancy is being filled, in the important first few months next year. Biden should have persuaded Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance BottomsKeisha Lance BottomsAn exhausting year takes toll on nation's mayors Why won't the national media cover the story Americans care about most? Students sue Atlanta police after being shocked with a stun gun, pulled from car MORE to take that post.

Two nominees that have gotten a bum rap as Obama retreads are Tom VilsackTom VilsackUSDA: Farm-to-school programs help schools serve healthier meals OVERNIGHT MONEY: House poised to pass debt-ceiling bill MORE for Agriculture and Denis McDonoughDenis Richard McDonoughLGBT advocates press Biden to build on early wins VA's decision on transgender veterans is a step in the right direction Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed MORE to head the Veterans Administration. Coming back to a previous job usually is a bad idea. Call it the “Rumsfeld rule,” after his unfortunate second stint as Defense chief.

Vilsack, however, was a highly regarded Agriculture Secretary, much admired by Obama and congressional Republicans alike. “He'd be even better than the first time,” says Michael Gartner, an Iowa businessman, journalist and Vilsack confidant. “He is an imaginative and creative thinker, is smart, loyal, can be tough and also compassionate.”

McDonough, who was Obama's chief of staff, is exceptionally able, collegial, a foreign policy expert. Some critics complain that he's not a veteran.

One story about McDonough underscores his extraordinary character. Roger Runningen was a Bloomberg News White House correspondent. He was the type of reporter vital to a news organization: careful, diligent, always reliable. He didn't go on the “Morning Joe” television show or court celebrity: He just did his job, often anonymously.

In 2013 Runningen’s son unexpectedly died. It was the middle of a government shutdown with feverish activity at the White House. The evening wake was at a distant Washington suburb, and yet the White House chief of staff walked in. “I had no idea he was coming,” recalls Runningen. “After some small talk, he quietly excused himself, and went to the coffin knelt down and prayed; I will never forget that act of kindness.”

Veterans, those with real needs, will be well taken care of with Denis McDonough.

Team Biden still is a work in progress, with a few critical appointments outstanding, especially Attorney General. So far, it tilts older, but is outpacing Obama on gender and racial diversity.

It should be an administration ready to govern from day one, as difficult as Trump has made the transition.

The vision thing will have to wait.

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.