Politics

Cabinet of Curiosities

Joe Biden starts putting familiar names in strange places.

Biden sits with his elbows on a table and his hands clasped, with a presidential seal in front of him
President-elect Joe Biden announced members of his health team in Wilmington, Delaware, on Tuesday. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

President-elect Joe Biden’s first wave of personnel appointments to his administration-in-waiting was predictable, competent, and boring, in accordance with the message that won him more than 51 percent of the popular vote.

Tony Blinken was President Barack Obama’s deputy secretary of state, and he will be Biden’s secretary of state. Janet Yellen chaired President Bill Clinton’s Council of Economic Advisers, was picked by Obama to chair the Federal Reserve, and will complete the economic policy triumvirate by serving as Biden’s Treasury secretary. Jake Sullivan was Vice President Biden’s national security adviser and soon will be President Biden’s national security adviser; Linda Thomas-Greenfield was an assistant secretary of state under Obama and will next serve as ambassador to the United Nations. These were all established, experienced figures receiving promotions in their field of expertise. John Kerry was given an expense account and asked to help with climate change, to help get him out of the house.

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After that initial burst of announcements, though, the predictability of the Democratic restoration dissipated as internal party dynamics, Senate confirmation politics, and the need to give some job—any job—to loyalists took hold.

This shift toward more of a Mad Libs process began with an omission. In announcing his mostly predictable national security team, Biden left the most predictable-seeming of them all conspicuously absent. Michèle Flournoy, an undersecretary of defense under Obama, was widely seen as the likely pick for Hillary Clinton’s defense secretary and a lock for Biden’s defense secretary.

But Biden had won both the Democratic nomination and the general election on the strength of Black voters, and—given his interest in Merrick Garland, Doug Jones, and Sally Yates as the leading contenders for attorney general—would have been staring at an all-white roster for his “big four” Cabinet secretaries. House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, who orchestrated Biden’s critical win in the South Carolina primary in February, made it known in his understated but unmistakable manner that this would be unacceptable, and the Congressional Black Caucus pushed for a Black secretary of defense. Jeh Johnson’s questionable immigration enforcement record as Obama’s homeland security secretary ruled him out. And so it was that retired Gen. James Austin became Biden’s nominee for secretary of defense.

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The process for selecting a secretary of health and human services has also taken some strange turns. Biden had considered New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham during his vice presidential selection process, but by the end of the process she was being looked at more as a potential next secretary of health and human services. She had served as chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus during her time in the House and, before that, as New Mexico’s secretary of health. For reasons that haven’t been fully fleshed out, though, Biden passed on her for HHS and instead offered her secretary of the interior, which she rejected. He considered, as an alternative, Dr. Vivek Murthy, who instead retook his old position as surgeon general, and Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, whom the left despises. At last, he landed on former longtime congressman and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, a well-qualified administrator and, like Grisham, a former chair of the CHC—but someone with very limited background in health policy.

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Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, a well-respected member of Congress representing much of Cleveland and Akron, was openly making her case to become the first Black woman secretary of agriculture.* She was plenty qualified for it, serving as the chair of the House Committee on Agriculture’s Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations. (Most of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s budget is devoted to food and nutrition assistance.) She wanted to make a point about opening up new frontiers for Black leaders, telling Politico that “as this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in. You know, it’s always ‘We want to put the Black person in Labor or [Housing and Urban Development].’ ”

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And with Fudge having made all of that clear, Biden officially announced on Thursday he was picking her as secretary of housing and urban development. For Agriculture, he selected Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s agriculture secretary for eight years, to return to the job, on the ground that he’s someone who can be easily confirmed without, say, Sen. Chuck Grassley making a big fuss.

It just kept getting odder from there. Biden also announced on Thursday that Denis McDonough, Obama’s former chief of staff, would serve as Secretary of Veterans Affairs, blowing an opportunity to promote an up-and-coming rising star who is actually a military veteran, like Jason Kander or Pete Buttigieg.

Buttigieg, however, apparently didn’t want the VA job, and also reportedly turned down an offer to run the Office of Management and Budget, one of the most powerful positions in government, because it sounded too “staff-level” for his résumé. (The job—well, the nominationinstead went to Neera Tanden, a think tank president moonlighting as a Twitter personality who argues with leftists about Bernie Sanders.) Buttigieg, politically, earned himself a role when he sacrificed his own presidential campaign to consolidate support around Biden heading into the Super Tuesday primaries. But it’s never been entirely obvious, since he failed to claim the presidency, for which high-level position the former mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana is most qualified among his peers. The latest rumor is that Biden may schlep him off to China, one of the few countries whose language Buttigieg doesn’t speak.

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And in perhaps the most head-jerking move of all, Biden tapped Susan Rice, a former ambassador to the U.N. and national security adviser under Obama, and assistant secretary of state under Clinton, to direct his … Domestic Policy Council. It’s understandable why Rice would accept it: She may harbor ambitions to run for office, and filling in the vacant space on her résumé where domestic policy experience is supposed to be with the words “Domestic Policy Council” could prove useful.

But why did Biden offer it? According to Politico’s source, “he chose Rice for the role because of her deep experience in crisis management and interagency processes … and her deep knowledge of how the federal government works will be an asset to implementing his domestic policy agenda.”

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Such government-communications pablum is the closest thing to a method behind Biden’s recent slew of out-of-left-field selections. He has a list of qualified people familiar with the federal bureaucracy—or people he owes jobs—throws them into an algorithm cobbled together out of internal Democratic Party dynamics and the perversity of Senate politics, and sees where they come out on the other side. The resulting set of names and faces is still in line with Biden’s message of predictability, competence, and boringness, but the seats they occupy have been shuffled into some startling patterns.

Correction, Dec. 11, 2020: This piece originally misstated that Fudge was making her case to be the first Black secretary of agriculture. She would be the first Black woman secretary of agriculture.

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