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Biden’s building the most diverse Cabinet ever — but many Democrats say he’s doing it wrong

Many Democratic lawmakers want more minorities in top posts, and are concerned Biden’s picks are being offered jobs outside their areas of expertise.

Behind Biden, seated, an image of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, his HHS pick.
President-elect Biden announces members of his health team on December 8, 2020.
Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images
Sean Collins is a news editor with Vox’s politics and policy team. He’s helped cover elections, Congress, and both the Biden and Trump administrations. Previously, Sean was Vox’s weekend editor.

President-elect Joe Biden promised to appoint “the most diverse Cabinet in history” ahead of his election. He’s on track to do so, but as the president-elect has announced his choices, he has increasingly taken flak from top members of his party who argue he hasn’t gone far enough.

As Matthew Yglesias has noted for Vox, installing the most diverse Cabinet of all time isn’t really all that difficult of a task — “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.” But what has proven to be far harder is creating a leadership team that resolves the competing versions of diversity held by Biden allies.

The president-elect is expected to have about 20 Cabinet-level officials in roles that range from United Nations ambassador to education secretary. But there are four positions that are seen as making up the core of the Cabinet that advocates have pushed to be filled by diverse appointees: secretary of state, treasury secretary, secretary of defense, and attorney general.

Biden announced his picks for the first two of these “big four” roles before Thanksgiving, asking his longtime foreign policy aide Antony Blinken to be secretary of state and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to be his treasury secretary.

Both are considered pragmatic, qualified picks. But both are also white. Many diversity advocates had hoped for someone like former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, a Black woman, to be picked for secretary of state. And many also hoped to see Roger Ferguson, the CEO of TIAA, a teachers retirement fund group, or Atlanta Federal Reserve President Raphael Bostic — both Black men — nominated as treasury secretary.

In his first round of appointments, Biden did elevate some minority talent, for instance putting career diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black woman, in the UN ambassador role and naming an economic team that included Black and Asian American women as well as a Black man.

But advocates — chief among them Democratic leaders of color — said they wanted to see minorities topping agencies, and that they expected Biden to choose an attorney general and a secretary of defense who weren’t white.

“I was very excited to see Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s appointment, and Cecelia Rouse,” Congressional Black Caucus Chair Karen Bass (D-CA) said on CNN’s State of the Union Sunday. “But I do believe there’s many more positions, and I certainly hope to see African Americans in those positions at the highest level.”

Bass noted that Congressional Black Caucus Chair (CBC) leaders are in regular contact with the transition team, and had been lobbying for the advancement of their preferred candidates. “For defense secretary, there’s two individuals that the Congressional Black Caucus would like to put forward: Lloyd Austin and Jeh Johnson,” Bass told CNN. “We’ll see what happens in other positions as well.”

The CBC got its wish on the secretary of defense pick: Austin, a retired Army general, was reported to be Biden’s nominee Monday. If confirmed, he will be the first Black American, and first nonwhite American, to lead the department.

But the CBC’s defense secretary victory means other congressional groups pushing forward their ideal secretaries, like the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus (CAPAC), weren’t able to successfully advance their candidates.

There’s only one big-four seat left. Each constituency wants their person in it, as well as broader representation in top governmental roles. As CHC member Rep. Jimmy Gomez (D-CA) told the Associated Press of Hispanic representation, “More needs to unfold.”

Biden’s Cabinet is shaping up to be historically diverse. But his allies of color say more diversity is needed.

Those who are pressuring Biden to broaden the scope of who his Cabinet includes have acknowledged his diversity successes so far.

He has, as CAPAC chair Rep. Judy Chu (D-CA) noted in a statement on Monday, ensured “one of our very own CAPAC Members, Kamala Harris, will be the first woman, first Asian American, and first Black Vice President in our nation’s history.”

His economic team, as Vox’s Emily Stewart has explained, will feature “Center for American Progress president and CEO Neera Tanden for director of the Office of Management and Budget, labor economist and Princeton School of Public and International Affairs dean Cecilia Rouse for chair of the Council of Economic Advisers, and Obama Foundation president Wally Adeyemo for deputy treasury secretary.”

Adeyemo and Rouse are both Black, while Taden is Asian American. Biden’s office of public engagement director, Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), is also Black, as is Biden’s principal deputy press secretary, Harris’s general election campaign chief of staff Karine Jean-Pierre. Dr. Vivek Murthy, the nominee for surgeon general, is Asian American, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra — a Latino man — is Biden’s pick for secretary of health and human services.

Biden has also worked to promote ideological diversity, according to his allies, and has tried to include more gender identity diversity than has been seen in the past — Yellen, for instance, will be the first woman to lead the Treasury Department.

This first is emblematic of the sorts of trade-offs Biden has been forced to consider. In choosing Yellen, he passed over a Black candidate; in choosing a Black candidate for secretary of defense, however, the president-elect was forced to cast aside someone who would have been the first woman in that role, Michèle Flournoy, who many felt was ideal for the job.

In both cases, he disappointed other groups. And many have noted that much of the diversity outlined above comes in more junior roles — a fact that has led some, like Chu and Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), to call for Biden to make the surgeon general a Cabinet-level position.

“A Cabinet-level position for Dr. Murthy would also help fulfill President-elect Biden’s commitment to creating a government that all Americans can see themselves in,” the representatives wrote in a joint statement. “And yet, this Administration risks being the first in 20 years to not include an AAPI in the Cabinet.”

Becerra, though a Cabinet-level official, was seen by the CHC as only a first step. After the announcement of his appointment Sunday, CHC chair Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-TX) said in a statement, “We welcome the news of Becerra’s nomination, and the CHC is encouraging President-Elect Biden to appoint five Latinos in the Cabinet, including Latinas in prominent positions.”

In order to secure positions for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Latinx people, and more spots for Black Americans, all of the caucuses representing these groups have been involved in ongoing talks with the transition team. In the case of Austin, these conversations appeared to bear fruit; other times, however, they have led to frustration.

“I was very disappointed,” Chu said following a recent CAPAC meeting with the transition team. “We felt that our voices weren’t being heard.”

The exasperation of CBC and CHC leaders has spilled out into public view as well. Shortly after Thanksgiving, prominent Black lawmaker and Biden ally Rep. James Clyburn (D-SC) characterized Biden’s diversity progress as “not good.”

Efforts to correct this have raised some questions — including whether Austin is qualified to run the Defense Department and whether Biden is being as thoughtful as possible in placing diverse candidates where they might be most effective.

For instance, there was a campaign led by Clyburn to elevate Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) to agriculture secretary, citing her work on the House Agriculture Committee and her experience as the chair of the Nutrition Subcommittee.

Fudge herself lobbied for the role, saying that not only did she have expertise with food, health, and nutrition, but that her nomination would send a powerful message: “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 HUD,’” she told Politico.

Instead, she was asked to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and Obama administration Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a white man, will be nominated to resume his duties atop that agency.

And CHC members reportedly took the transition team to task over an offer made to its former chair, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, for interior secretary — a job many lawmakers hope to see Grisham’s constituent, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-NM), in, and one Haaland appeared to be positioning herself for.

“Most of us interpreted it as a slap in both their faces,” CHC member Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-AZ) told CNN. “You can’t be cavalier with this stuff. Their reputations are on the line and when something comes up like, ‘We offered her something and she didn’t take it,’ it puts a bad light on her and on other candidates.”

Many in the CHC had hoped Lujan Grisham would be nominated to be HHS secretary, while Becerra would be asked to be attorney general. Instead, Lujan Grisham ended up entangled in an awkward situation while Becerra was asked to lead a department seen as less prominent — and only after Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a white woman, announced she didn’t want the job.

Minorities helped power Biden’s win — and want his team to reflect that

That minority candidates aren’t being treated with the respect and consideration they deserve is an issue for many not just because of Biden’s promise, but because of how he got to the White House in the first place.

Clyburn and his base of Black voters in South Carolina are widely seen as saving a struggling Biden in the Democratic primary, and his general election bid was energized by activists of all ethnicities — as well the strong support of minority voters.

The caucuses have highlighted this support in their appeals to Biden; in a letter to the president-elect, the CAPAC noted “over two-thirds of the AAPI vote support[ed] your election,” and the CBC was similarly candid in a statement on the Cabinet, writing, “It is no secret that members of the CBC and Black Americans throughout the country helped deliver a victory for President-elect Joe Biden.”

And this would seem to place pressure on Biden to not just have his Cabinet “look like America,” but to have it look like his base.

For instance, while the US’s Black population stands at about 13 percent, nearly all Black voters — around 87 percent, according to a preliminary analysis by Edison Research — supported Biden. This is not to say that any diversity advocates are arguing that his Cabinet needs to be largely Black, but many say it’s why Biden needs to do more.

“When you look at what African American women did in particular in this election, you will see that a major part of the reason that this Biden-Harris team won was because of African American women,” Fudge told Politico. “We need to start to look outside of the box and, as they have promised, a cabinet that is representative of this country as well as representative of the people who have supported them.”

Ultimately, Biden won’t be able to satisfy all parties. Some, like the CAPAC, are still asking for representation on par with the share of the US population the ethnic groups they advocate for comprise. And young and middle-aged Americans have, thus far, found themselves largely unrepresented by Biden’s leadership team.

Biden faces some external limitations as he takes appeals from allies and advocates: For example, Biden must ensure those appointees who require Senate confirmation can successfully make it through the process — particularly if Democrats lose one or both of the Senate runoffs in Georgia, which would leave control of the chamber in Republican hands. And as has been seen with Lujan Grisham and Raimondo, not all who are offered positions will be willing to take them on.

But even as it becomes clear that there will be vexation all around, it appears that Biden is taking the feedback of allies seriously. The Cabinet won’t be as diverse as perhaps it could have been, but it is set to be as diverse as promised.

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed a quote about President-elect Biden’s interior secretary offer. It was said by Rep Raul Grijalva, not Rep. Ben Ray Luján.