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The opportunity of Biden's Cabinet

The opportunity of Biden's Cabinet
© Greg Nash

Before becoming president, Joe BidenJoe BidenFormer Rep. Rohrabacher says he took part in Jan. 6 march to Capitol but did not storm building Saudis picked up drugs in Cairo used to kill Khashoggi: report Biden looking to build momentum for Putin meeting MORE repeatedly pledged to select a Cabinet that looks like the country, by which he meant a group of men and women from different racial, economic, religious and educational backgrounds. So far, he has made good on that promise, and if the Senate confirms his nominees, Biden will govern with more women and people of color in senior positions than any previous president.

Not all observers are pleased with Biden’s selections, however, and critics have accused Biden of selecting Cabinet nominees that check specific demographic boxes, rather than choosing the most-qualified candidates. But these criticisms miss the point. Because this Cabinet is the most diverse, it is the most qualified.

Diversity offers a number of important benefits to any presidential administration. First, pulling candidates from different communities helps presidents build coalitions within their own party and across the nation. Second, a diverse Cabinet helps Americans feel represented in the administration, and thus more likely to support the president’s agenda. Third, studies have demonstrated that diverse groups make better decisions because they consider a broader array of options and are less prone to groupthink.

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But most importantly, selecting candidates from diverse backgrounds ensures that the administration has the maximum amount of information about how government policies affect different communities and what solutions are needed to address challenges across the country. A few of Biden’s nominees demonstrate how this first-hand knowledge will provide better counsel and benefit his presidency. 

Several of Biden’s choices reveal his deep conviction that the government works best when the departments and agencies employ and promote the most-qualified candidates, which requires cultivating individuals from all races, genders and more. If a department excludes or is hostile to large swathes of the citizenry, it limits its own talent pool and thus limits its potential.

The first Cabinet official that fits this bill is Avril HainesAvril HainesFBI warns lawmakers of violence from QAnon conspiracy theorists Concerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Lawrence Livermore report finds Wuhan lab leak theory plausible MORE, whom the Senate confirmed as the first female Director of National Intelligence (DNI). While the DNI position is relatively new, intelligence has long been a male-dominated space. Haines’s appointment is a big step, because she will oversee the other 16 intelligence agencies and funnel the appropriate information to the president. While past DNIs or male directors of other intelligence agencies might have promoted women and tried to foster a friendly environment, they likely haven’t endured sexism or the challenges of excelling in a male-dominated profession. Haines thus brings a unique perspective to that position and will likely pursue new solutions to reform the intelligence agencies from the inside out.

Biden’s selection of General Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Biden participates in NATO summit | White House backs 2002 AUMF repeal | Top general says no plans for airstrikes to help Afghan forces after withdrawal Top general: US won't support Afghan forces with airstrikes after withdrawal Biden congratulates newly-formed Israeli government MORE III indicates a similar interest in reforming the military. Austin is the first Black secretary of Defense. He was the first Black commander to lead an Army division in combat and the first U.S. Central Command (CENTCOMM) commander. He is also one of only 18 African Americans to receive four stars across the Navy, Army and Air Force. (There have been no Black four-star generals in the Marine Corps.) Austin has reached extraordinary heights in the face of significant obstacles and will bring those experiences to combat growing white supremacy within the ranks and systemic inequality in the officer corps.

Next, Biden selected a series of nominees that have personally utilized the services and observed the limitations of the departments they’ve been tapped to oversee. Biden appointed Alejandro Mayorkas as the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He is the first Hispanic-American and the first immigrant to hold this position, which oversees immigration policy. Mayorkas’s success is the living embodiment of the American dream, and he can speak to the value and benefits of a humane immigration policy. He also knows the distinct challenges that face immigrants and how best to encourage and support the families that want to participate as productive members of society. 

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Deb HaalandDeb HaalandNew Mexico Democrat Stansbury sworn into Haaland's old seat OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland reportedly recommends full restoration of monuments Trump altered | EPA to reinstate air pollution panel disbanded under Trump | State appeals court upholds approval of Minnesota pipeline Haaland recommends full restoration of monuments Trump altered: report MORE, Biden’s selection for secretary of the Interior and the first Native American Cabinet secretary nominee, will soon go before the Senate for her confirmation hearings. She will likely share her personal experiences enduring the deprivations and violence inflicted on Native peoples at the hands of Americans and the state and federal governments. She will bring this personal and community knowledge to her oversight of public lands and Native reservations, which will be two of her many responsibilities in the Interior Department. 

Finally, Biden nominated Neera TandenNeera TandenBiden's no-drama White House chief Manchin isn't ready to support Democrats passing infrastructure on their own Republicans target Trump critic's role at DOJ MORE to be his director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). The OMB oversees many federal aid programs, including food stamps and free lunches for children in need. Tanden would be the first woman of color to oversee the OMB, but more importantly, her family relied on food stamps to eat and Section 8 housing vouchers to pay rent. She has spoken about her experiences receiving 10 cent lunches while at school — and what it was like to be the only child in line with those vouchers. 

The first-hand experience of these appointees brings unmatched expertise to the administration. As a white woman, I can and should learn about the history of Native American communities, immigrants and people of color and listen to their stories about their lives in the United States. This knowledge and understanding makes me a better and more sympathetic citizen. But no amount of study and careful consideration will replace the lived existence of that history. That’s why diverse voices are essential for the Cabinet and why diverse candidates bring unparalleled qualifications to the administration.

Lindsay M. Chervinsky, Ph.D. is a presidential historian and scholar in residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. She is also the author of “The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution.” Follow her on Twitter @lmchervinsky.