Officially, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden and his campaign believe that three weeks before Election Day is far too soon to think about Cabinet nominees or how to fill any other top White House jobs. But there’s already a formal Joe Biden/Kamala Harris transition team in place doing just that.
Advisers say Biden wants to build “the most diverse Cabinet in history” as part of his goal of serving as a “transitional figure” in an increasingly diverse Democratic Party and country.
This is in some ways a low bar — every single treasury secretary and every single secretary of defense (or “secretary of war,” as the position used to be called) has been a white straight man. Women are the lead contenders for both of these jobs, which would be a huge step forward.
People involved emphasize that this is not about tokenism; they are looking at the Cabinet as a whole. The reality is that not all Cabinet positions are created equal. They want to make sure women and people of color are represented in top roles at the departments of State, Defense, Treasury, and Justice, which are traditionally seen as the most important Cabinet positions. The heads of the Homeland Security Department and Health and Human Services occupy more of a second tier, and other departments are less visible.
High-level advisory positions are also in discussion; these roles don’t have to be confirmed by the Senate and involve a closer working relationship with the president than a typical Cabinet secretary.
There is a very real possibility that Republicans will continue to hold a majority in the Senate in 2021, which would turn every Cabinet selection into a brutal confirmation battle that could dramatically upend these efforts. But assuming a less contentious process, here’s a look at the buzz around some of the key figures and positions based on conversations with half a dozen Democrats providing input to the formal transition operation as well as several people formally affiliated with the transition, none of whom are authorized to speak publicly about their deliberations.
The big four
Secretary of defense: There seems to be a strong belief in Washington that Michele Flournoy, who is white, is the top candidate to serve as secretary of defense. Nobody I’ve spoken to has any other names on their list, though Axios’s Hans Nichols floated Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth. She’s emerged as the lead contender because she served as undersecretary of defense for policy in Barack Obama’s first term, making her the highest-ranking woman in department history.
Flournoy has rock-solid establishment credentials, including a stint at the Center for Security and International Studies, co-founder of the Center for a New American Security, and current gigs as co-founder and managing director of WestExec advisors and on the board of Booz Allen Hamilton. This is not a résumé that progressives love, but may not be a battle they are interested in picking, given the historic nature of the selection and the atmosphere of inevitability around someone who’s been floated as “the first woman secretary of defense” since at least 2011.
A likely choice for secretary of state is former National Security Adviser Susan Rice. It was widely believed that Obama wanted to appoint her to the job in 2013, but at the time she was seen as unconfirmable, so then-Sen. John Kerry got the job instead. Biden considered her seriously for vice president and by all accounts likes working with her.
She’s not the only name on the list. Longtime Biden confidant Antony Blinken and veteran diplomat Bill Burns are also in the mix, and Politico’s Playbook reports that Sens. Chris Coons and Chris Murphy are also receiving some consideration. This pits one Black woman against a range of white men in a quest for a diverse Cabinet, so if Rice doesn’t get the job, there is more pressure to select people of color for one of the other top four jobs. The State choice is important on its own terms, and it will shape the rest of the Cabinet.
Treasury secretary: Lael Brainard, who is white, is seen on Wall Street and by her skeptics on the left as the most likely treasury secretary. She made Democrats happy during her past six years as a member of the Federal Reserve Board of Governors by supporting pro-labor monetary policy while opposing Jay Powell’s moves toward bank deregulation. Progressives prefer former Deputy Secretary Sarah Bloom Raskin, also white (they like her background in consumer protection and see Brainard as stemming from the Robert Rubin coaching tree) and argue that it would be counterproductive to add to the transition’s work by creating the need to replace Brainard at the Fed.
Raphael Bostic, who would be the first Black and first openly gay treasury secretary, is also receiving some consideration. Bostic held a sub-Cabinet job at HUD in the Obama administration and is now president of the Atlanta Fed. He has strong qualifications but is a bit more of an outsider to Washington. Any of the three would be a historic choice, but what kind of history is made may be influenced by the holistic assessment of the Cabinet.
Attorney general: There’s considerable enthusiasm on Capitol Hill for the idea of Sen. Doug Jones, who is white, as attorney general. He has a rock-solid civil rights record and a strong relationship with Biden, and it’s broadly felt he deserves something after winning a Senate seat in Alabama. (Jones is running for reelection in an uphill battle.)
But Hispanic Democrats note there are no Hispanic candidates legitimately in the mix for the other three top jobs, or even for other prominent non-Cabinet jobs. There has been consistent criticism of Biden’s Latino outreach as a candidate, and some Hispanics on Capitol Hill tell me they believe this should be their spot. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who is Latino and well known in Congress from his years there, is the leading candidate. But there is a range of party stalwarts, from Tom Perez, chair of the Democratic National Committee, to Julián Castro, who made a lot of fans on the left during his presidential run, who may be plausible fits.
The next tier of the Cabinet
Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, ran US Customs and Immigration Services before becoming the No. 2 leader of the Department of Homeland Security; he’s now a top contender for homeland security secretary. This is a bit of a thankless job, as are the sub-Cabinet positions overseeing the various immigration enforcement agencies, as Nicole Narea has detailed for Vox. The activist wish list on immigration enforcement involves a fair number of things Biden may be pretty reluctant to do.
Presidents typically round out their Cabinet with some politicians, and secretary of health and human services is a likely spot for that. Reps. Karen Bass and Pramila Jayapal, women of color in Congress, are in the mix, as is New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham. Who gets this role may again hinge on other decisions, as there are a bunch of strong candidates, and Democrats love health care policy. Alternatively, Biden could go in a whole other direction and see HHS as primarily a management role rather than a political one. In that case, he might tap transition co-chair Jeffrey Zients, the “Mr. Fix It” who rescued HealthCare.gov under Obama.
The other agencies
Further down the line, Vox’s sources report fewer specific discussions with the transition, and the rumor mill is less fecund.
The left often gets what it wants on the secretary of labor pick, for which Data for Progress has a handy list of candidates. Note the inclusion of two Asian American women, Jenny Yang and Julie Su, here, either of whom would make progressives happy. Almost everyone I spoke to thinks Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is Latino, will be secretary of transportation if he wants it — Obama tried and failed to convince Garcetti’s predecessor in LA to take the gig, but Garcetti’s interest level seems higher.
America now has a substantial list of Black women serving as big-city mayors whom Biden might pick from to serve as secretary of housing and urban development: Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms perhaps has the inside track here. Bottoms is a much lesser figure in national circles, but some people want Biden to use the Cabinet to elevate people in states where Democrats have a weak bench, in which case Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who was previously the first woman and openly gay person to serve as chief of police of the Tampa Police Department, could be a fit here.
Former agriculture secretary (and current US Dairy Export Council president) Tom Vilsack is close with Biden and a leading adviser to him on agricultural and rural issues — somewhat to the chagrin of progressives, who’d like to see the department run with less industry input. Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp’s name has surfaced in the media as a potential secretary of agriculture, and she’s staying in the game as the leader of an advocacy group pushing to reconnect Democrats with rural voters.
During Hillary Clinton’s transition planning, there was some back-and-forth over the idea that the secretary of agriculture should break with precedent and represent the California-centric fruit and vegetable farmers of America rather than the traditional wheat/corn/cotton/soy staple commodities. The substantive logic of that is strong, but Democrats’ renewed attention to the importance of winning votes in the rural Midwest somewhat changes the calculation.
Last but not least, for months everyone has thought Pete Buttigieg, a Navy veteran who clearly wants some kind of administration job, would be a strong secretary of veterans affairs. He’d be the first openly gay Cabinet member unless Bostic or Castor were picked, but he’s been making a push for something bigger.
The Mayor Pete question
Buttigieg ran for president as a wildly underqualified 38-year-old, so he obviously has big ambitions. He’s recently been deploying his “go on television constantly” political strategy as a Biden surrogate and has won praise even from former detractors in that role, helping to bolster his case for a bigger role than VA secretary.
What some Democrats really want him to do is go on television frequently to serve as an aggressive media defender of the Biden/Harris administration. Logically, that suggests the role of White House press secretary, but as Jake Sherman and Anna Palmer wrote for Politico, “press secretary is far too small for him — right? Or maybe not!”
It’s arguably a very big role. The problem, from a Buttigieg-centric viewpoint, is it’s hard to see the path from press secretary to president. His camp wants him to be UN ambassador, which they think would add heft and substance to his résumé, but Biden is at maximum earnestness about national security and will likely want those jobs to go to longtime associates. It’s also not clear Buttigieg could actually do what progressives find valuable about him in that role.
You can make up any kind of White House title you like for anyone. And while it’s not traditional for the VA secretary to be a constant television presence discussing the whole range of policy issues, it’s also not traditional for the mayor of the fourth-largest city in Indiana to emerge as a serious presidential contender. A Cabinet job is as big as its occupant and the president want it to be.
Running the White House
Biden had three chiefs of staff as VP, and selecting either Steve Ricchetti or Bruce Reed from that pool to be White House chief of staff would infuriate progressives. Ricchetti used to run a lobbying firm, and Reed was a leading architect of some of Bill Clinton’s most contentious triangulation moves, including welfare reform. By contrast, Ron Klain was well-regarded in his work for Biden and then went on to have a very successful tenure as Obama’s Ebola czar. He was seriously in contention to be chief of staff in a Hillary Clinton administration and seems likely to get the job for Biden.
Blinken, a top staffer for Biden in the Senate who joined him in the VP’s office before ascending to be deputy secretary in the State Department, is likely to emerge as national security adviser, though he’s also in the mix for the top job at State.
There are three big economic policy jobs in the White House: heading the Council of Economic Advisers, which normally goes to someone more academic, and heading the National Economic Council and the Office of Management and Budget. There was tremendous overlap in terms of big-picture economic policy jobs between the Clinton and Obama administrations, and progressives would really like to see someone from outside that circle get a top position.
Jared Bernstein, who was Biden’s chief economist early in the Obama administration and who advises the campaign informally, is a strong contender especially at NEC. Diversity considerations weigh less on decision-makers’ minds when it comes to these jobs, though in part for that reason, the historical track record on diversity has been worse.
A key economic gig that will not become vacant right away is Federal Reserve chair. This job has a regulatory element and a monetary policy element, and there is some disagreement on the Biden transition as to which to view as more important. Those with a regulatory focus are unhappy with incumbent Jay Powell, while those more focused on monetary policy don’t have a huge complaint with him. After Trump broke with precedent by denying Janet Yellen a second term, there is also some sense that turnabout is fair play — it’s easy to see either Brainard or Bostic here if they are not at Treasury.
Reconstructing the administrative state
Last, but by no means least, there is an incredible alphabet soup of regulatory agencies — EPA, SEC, CFTC, FTC, FCC, etc. — that the president either wholly or partially controls, with similar considerations applying to some Cabinet jobs like secretary of the interior or energy and important sub-Cabinet jobs at Treasury and Justice.
What you see here is less a conflict over specific names and jobs and more a broad philosophical disagreement. Democrats have often made “revolving door”-type picks at these kinds of agencies, selecting people who, between Democratic administrations, either work directly in industry or for law firms or investment funds tied to industry. Progressives would like that to stop, both because they think people who lack industry ties are likely to make better decisions and more fundamentally because they want to reshape the Democratic Party as a whole into a more ideological institution that operates more like a mirror image of the GOP.
Proponents of the traditional approach will argue that ruling out people with industry ties involves ruling out a lot of people who know the institutions well and can hit the ground running on day one. Less plausibly, there is an ongoing effort to paint the revolving door as good for diversity. It’s also genuinely unclear that the revolving door litmus test serves its ideological goals correctly.
Progressives generally ended up seeing Commodity Futures Trading Commission Chair Gary Gensler as one of their favorite members of the Obama economic team despite his background at Goldman Sachs and were very frustrated with Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, Office of Management and Budget Director Peter Orszag, and regulatory czar Cass Sunstein, all of whom had impeccable résumés in public service and academia. What progressives really want are people who are happy to burn bridges with industry prospectively and implement left-wing ideas, even if it hurts their future job prospects, but this is a hard rule to enforce.
These battles will attract less attention than the headline Cabinet gigs, but they speak to the real tensions inside the Democratic Party over the relationship of finance to the real economy, regulation of the technology industry, and whether fracking and natural gas exploration more generally are things that should be encouraged or discouraged.
Nobody knows anything
Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that the protestations from key decision-makers that they are not focused on this stuff are only half-nonsense. Biden and his very closest advisers really are spending the bulk of their time trying to win the election and not thinking through the details of staffing.
Anything the transition team cooks up is subject to revision when the president-elect has more time to focus on it. And because of both diversity considerations and the need to balance the ideological wings of the party, decisions made for one job impact the calculus for other jobs, so everything is written in pencil.
Most of all, the Senate gets a say in many of these decisions. Not only is the future makeup of the Senate not yet known, most of the people Democrats are counting on to deliver a majority for them are not Washington insiders and may have their own views about at least some posts. It’s much too late in the process to pretend it’s too early to be thinking about staffing, but it really is too early for much of anything to be certain.
But we do know what Biden wants his team to look like — very different from the current crop of white men running the government — and Democrats now have a talent bench in place that can deliver genuinely new diversity without compromise.