Biden’s Cabinet Picks Are Getting Weird

Does rice really go with it?
Photo: Win McNamee / Getty Images

Joe Biden is a 78-year-old center Democrat who puts personal relationships above political considerations when selecting personnel. And the bulk of his cabinet nominations will have to get over a wafer-thin majority in the Democratic Senate under the best of circumstances, or, in the most likely scenario, Mitch McConnell.

As a millennial Pinko, I didn’t expect the Biden government to match my ideological sensibilities. And up to that point, the cabinet actually looks like a slight improvement over Barack Obama’s (Janet Yellen is progressive by Treasury Secretary; taken together, Cecilia Rouse, Heather Boushey and Jared Bernstein form a more left-wing economic adviser council than their predecessor). But the selection of the President-elect is also looking increasingly strange and thoughtless. More precisely, it seems that Joe Biden is filling his administration with this by writing the names of the cabinet positions on tiny pieces of paper; throw them in a hat; and then inviting ex-Obama White House officials and a select group of non-White Democrats to come forward and fill their new jobs.

On Thursday morning, Biden announced that Denis McDonough was his election as Secretary for Veterans Affairs and Susan Rice as Director of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC). Which is a little strange.

McDonough is a longtime associate of Barack Obama who served as the White House chief of staff during the president’s second term. So it makes sense that Biden could find a place for him somewhere. But McDonough is neither a veteran nor a health care administrator. And in the Democratic Party there are many veterans and health care administrators … and the VA secretary’s primary role is overseeing the management of veteran health care. So it doesn’t make a lot of sense to put McDonough in that position – and it makes even less sense to do so without first clarifying selections with veteran groups, which apparently Biden did.

“We are surprised by reports that President-elect Joe Biden intends to appoint Denis McDonough as the next VA Sec,” AMVETS, the 250,000-member bipartisan veterans organization, said in a statement Thursday. “We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post 9/11 veteran. Maybe a veteran. Or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well. “

Susan Rice as DPC director is also an eyebrow lift. Biden had a warm working relationship with Rice during her tenure in the Obama administration; so warm that, despite her not insignificant political baggage, he seriously considered becoming Vice President. That baggage – namely, Rice’s misfortune of being cast as a supporting actress on the Benghazi series in the Fox News Cinematic Universe – means that if given the chance, a Republican Senate would almost certainly block her access to the Cabinet. So it makes sense that Biden would try to find a position for Rice that doesn’t require Senate approval.

But Rice is a longtime foreign policy maker whose résumé spanned positions as a National Security Council officer, UN ambassador, and National Security Advisor to the White House. She has shown little experience or interest in non-economic domestic policy (which is the DPC’s purview). To make matters even more curious, Biden’s election for National Security Advisor (a position that doesn’t require Senate endorsement and that Rice previously held) is Jake Sullivan, a longtime foreign policy official who actually decided to spend the Trump years transforming oneself a domestic political wavering. One might infer from this that Biden did not switch roles from Sullivan and Rice because he has a rule against appointing ex-Obama officials to positions they previously held. But Biden has just decided to invite the resentments of progressives and peasant activists by taking Tom Vilsack back as agriculture minister.

Vilsack’s appointment was strange in another way. Biden’s entire personnel approach seems to be guided by two somewhat contradicting imperatives: The president-elect wants to surround himself with old friends and also meet demands for identity-based representation of women and minorities in the democratic firmament. Appointing Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to lead the USDA seemed like an intuitive and worthwhile means of advancing the second goal. Jim Clyburn, the African American’s majority whip whose support helped revive Biden’s main campaign, wanted Fudge in that position. And as a member of the House of Representatives Agriculture Committee since 2008, Fudge had a wealth of relevant experience for the post. The congressman openly campaigned for the agriculture minister – specifically saying that she was tired of African American Democrats being put into stereotypical “black” cabinet roles like “laboratory or HUD”.

Biden named Fudge his candidate for HUD secretary.

The President-elect decided to hand the State Department over to his old (white, male, Hawkian) friend Tony Blinken. Given Blinken’s demographics, Biden was reportedly under great pressure to appoint a non-white person to the other high-level foreign affairs post, the Secretary of Defense. That prompted Biden to choose retired four-star General Lloyd Austin as his choice for Pentagon chief. But Austin’s recent resignation means his appointment will require a congressional waiver, a roadblock put in place to protect civilian control of the military. Thus, Austin’s selection immediately sparked opposition from some Liberal Democrats, while providing Republicans with a ready-made excuse to oppose a Biden candidate (whom many consider insufficiently enthusiastic to wage war in Syria and worryingly reluctant to cremate civilians elsewhere ).

Who knows. Maybe all of this will work out fine in the end, at least on Biden’s terms. Cabinet officials have alternates and agency staff, so general management skills may be more important than specialist knowledge. And maybe Austin will get through Congress and end up being more of a dove than Michèle Flournoy, who was widely considered to be the Defense Secretary’s stand-in before Austin arrived. Perhaps Tom Vilsack will be converted to an anti-monopoly in later life.

But whatever the outcome, it doesn’t seem like these appointments were well thought out. Why choose a VA secretary that upsets veterans groups? Why a defense chief with automatic intra-party opposition? Why an OMB chairman with a Twitter flame war addiction (as an American poisoned by social media brain, I applaud representing our community in the Halls of Power, but anyway)? Are these fights Biden really wants? Or is he just not thinking about some of the important decisions he will make as president?

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