Joe Biden’s presidency-elect has begun. What comes next is a battle over the agenda for the first portion of the Biden presidency. One important determinant of the construction of the Biden agenda will be the makeup of his cabinet and the political views of his closest advisers. In this post we’ll take a look at the dynamics of cabinet appointment negotiations, and whom Biden may be considering to fill some of the most important roles.
But first, an important caveat: Democrats are unlikely to have free reign over cabinet appointments. Each must be confirmed by a bare senate majority, and Republicans are likely to maintain control of the upper chamber, barring two simultaneous upset victories for Democrats in Georgia runoff elections. Those runoffs are scheduled for the first week of January, and Democrats are certainly not counting themselves out. But the Biden transition team, as it shortlists and interviews cabinet-level candidates, must consider this uncertainty. A senate led by Mitch McConnell (R-KY) will have a far lower tolerance for cabinet appointees with progressive credentials than one run by current minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
One of the first considerations in Biden’s cabinet appointment process will undoubtedly be transactional. Biden was aided significantly early on in the Democratic primary by a wave of pre-Super Tuesday endorsements from popular opponents like former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and eventually Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Biden also owes a fair amount to former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, whose voter mobilization efforts in her home state appeared to pay off in a significant way last week.
Buttigieg and Abrams are important names to note in the jockeying for cabinet positions. Both are ambitious, young politicians, and both come from states where their odds of election to statewide office--likely the next step in a political trajectory for politicians of their stature--is slim. Typically, an opposition-held senate would be hesitant to confirm politicians to cabinet positions because of the risk that they excel and return to compete in later elections. But majority leader McConnell may be willing to take a calculated bet on confirming Buttigieg to a role like Secretary of Veterans Affairs--the VA is among the most criticized and scandal-prone agencies within the federal government, and Buttigieg would be an easy target for criticism if he were to encounter obstacles outside of his control during his time as administrator. Abrams, moreover, may not want a cabinet position. Since she was passed over for the VP nomination in August, Abrams has kept her cards close to her chest, and her cabinet preference--if she has any--is likely to be a coveted position atop the Justice Department.
But there’s another political dynamic that is important to consider when it comes to roles as prominent as Attorney General and politicians as notable as Buttigieg and Abrams. Rewarding them with high-level appointments is not likely to go over well with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who currently has the inside track for the Democratic nomination whenever Biden leaves office. Were Abrams to successfully oversee popular litigation for expansion of voter rights, or an agenda of federal non-prosecution of possession drug crimes, Harris might have to consider her status as heir threatened.
One important choice Biden will have to make will be how to handle appointees who could anger the base of Republicans who remain loyal to the Trump administration and President Trump’s personal grievances. For instance, two possible contenders for the Attorney General position, Sally Yates and Merrick Garland, have been the objects of significant political battle before. Yates, an acting holdover from the Obama administration, was fired by President Trump after her refusal to implement the “travel ban” Executive Order 13769 in January 2017. Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court by President Obama was not considered by McConnell’s senate majority in 2016, generating one of the longest-running interparty grievances in recent memory. Nominating one or both to fill important cabinet roles could be a non-starter for McConnell if he decides that his caucus is best served by irredentist or obstructionist tactics.
One thing that we are likely to see with a Biden cabinet is a shift away from industry insiders, and toward think tankers and policy advocates. Many of President Trump’s senate-confirmed appointees were industry executives--Mark Esper, who ran DoD until this week, is a former defense contractor lobbyist; both EPA administrators have been fossil fuel lobbyists; Betsy DeVos, the current Secretary of Education, is best known for her pro-charter school voucher philanthropy and venture capitalism. Lower-level cabinet positions (by most standards, all those except Justice, Defense, State, and Treasury) in the Biden administration are more likely to be filled by academics and labor union representatives. In the running for Education, for instance, are prominent public teachers’ union heads Randi Weingarten and Lily Eskelsen Garcia. The Department of Energy may go to Erun Majumdar, an engineering professor at Stanford University and a former acting undersecretary in the same department.
Finally, Biden must pay homage to the left-most members of his coalition, many of whom supported Senators Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders in the primary and only grudgingly cast votes for Biden this fall. Biden has already signaled his intention to play ball in a limited fashion: the head of Biden’s Financial Policy Transition Team will be Gary Gensler, the Biden campaign announced this week, a former Wall Street banker-turned-cop whose friendship with Senator Warren and strong record on banking regulation will please progressives. But membership on the presidential transition team does not require senate approval, and it’s likely that Biden will hew to more centrist choices when January rolls around.
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