For a few months now, senators, ex-lawmakers, donors, operatives, local leaders, investors, and activists have quietly been nudging a small group of Democratic officials in D.C. and Delaware. This group, made up of people like former Delaware senator Ted Kaufman and former Barack Obama economic adviser Jeffrey Zients, are helping steer Joe Biden’s presidential transition team.
The overwhelming bulk of Biden’s operation is sincerely still dedicated to winning the race against Donald Trump, which even his top advisers insist is likely to be closer than public polling suggests. But private materials sketching out possible administration appointments and a series of conversations between New York and very senior Democrats in and around the Biden campaign and transition reveal that these talks and plans, led largely by Biden loyalists and Obama White House alums preparing for a messier-than-usual transition period, are actually rather advanced — at least enough so that if Biden were to clearly win in November, his operation would be in position to somewhat swiftly stand up a new administration and Cabinet even if Trump drags his feet on cooperating.
A few weeks ago, Biden’s inner circle warned candidates for high-profile Cabinet gigs that they better stop being so obvious about jockeying for jobs while Trump could still win — in keeping with the general campaign strategy to lie low, avoid handing the president any political ammunition, and instead let him implode on his own. But according to Democrats familiar with the work, behind closed doors the transition team has been measuring out just how much rebuilding is necessary at the White House and government agencies. They’re considering not just top-level Cabinet appointments but lining up possible candidates for little-known bureaucratic roles, too — in part the kind of work any responsible transition might be doing, but also a reaction to Trump’s four years of destruction. And they’re also making contingency plans for transitioning to a new administration if the outgoing Trump team won’t help, as exiting functionaries are expected to in a sane political universe.
Biden has nearly half-a-century worth of friends in Washington, but people close to him say that, rather than installing them in the government’s most powerful positions, he could push those senator buddies to the kinds of comfy ambassador gigs usually reserved for top donors, and instead make good on his repeated campaign-trail promise to serve as a “bridge” to a younger generation of pols and bureaucrats. He and his advisers have repeatedly promised to build the most diverse Cabinet ever, and they’ve been preparing for intense pressure — especially from progressives — to steer clear of corporate and moderate appointments wherever possible after Trump leaned heavily on such picks (for example, Biden would face huge disappointment from his left if he tapped Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, a Republican, for Commerce secretary, as some close to him have suggested). They’re thinking twice before floating bankers for economic roles, too. It also means they’re wary of even seriously considering Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, a close Biden ally, for attorney general given her prosecutorial record — to which many Black activists have objected.
Some prominent campaign supporters appear to still be in line for jobs. Delaware senator Chris Coons, an extremely close Biden ally, is likely to get a look as a potential secretary of State if he doesn’t prefer serving as Biden’s eyes and ears in the Senate (and if he does become the country’s top diplomat, that might leave his Senate seat open for Congresswoman Lisa Blunt Rochester, a Biden campaign chair). Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti, another campaign chair, is likely to be seriously considered for secretary of Transportation and perhaps Labor if he’s not derailed by a report that he was aware of the sexual misconduct of one of his top advisers, according to Democrats familiar with some of the preliminary planning. Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, another highly valued campaign surrogate, has been talked about as a possible Housing secretary, and Pete Buttigieg — whom the Biden orbit credits with helping the ex-VP close out the Democratic primary, and who is now advising the transition team after playing Mike Pence in Kamala Harris’s debate-prep sessions — has been discussed as a potential ambassador to the U.N., which would entail a convenient relocation for the former mayor to a blue state full of donors, in case he wants to run for something statewide in more hospitable territory for Democrats at some point. He’s also been mentioned as a contender for secretary of Veterans Affairs. Elizabeth Warren, who has kept in close touch with Biden on COVID-19 recovery policy, is seen as less likely to get a formal cabinet job, in part because many Biden advisers worry there’s no obvious fit that wouldn’t concern a big swath of the candidate’s moderate backers, and at least partially because Massachusetts’s Republican governor would get to pick her replacement in the Senate.
Biden himself has not taken part in serious talks with his transition team about the top Cabinet posts, and his top political advisers have also been treading carefully on the topic even behind the scenes, confident that they’ll have more of a say in November, if Biden wins. (“A diverse, experienced, and talented team will help Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prepare to get the pandemic under control and build our economy back better on day one,” said a transition spokesman. “No decisions, from personnel to policy, will be made until after the election.”) We can, however, use the documents and insights from Democrats close to Biden to start piecing together some of the cabinet puzzle already. Here’s who’s likely to be considered for the absolute top jobs.
Secretary of State
• Former U.N. ambassador and Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice. Rice was considered to replace Hillary Clinton in 2012, and was widely thought to have been the runner-up to Kamala Harris in Biden’s search for a running mate this summer. Though she also worked for Bill Clinton’s administration, Rice is very close with a number of senior figures in the Obama orbit, and tapping her for the job would send a clear signal of Biden’s wish to return the country to an Obama-style global influence, especially on matters including climate and human rights.
• Former deputy secretary of State and Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken. A longtime Biden adviser, Blinken would perhaps be likelier to be the new president’s National Security Advisor, but choosing him for State would elevate a veteran of the Obama administration’s efforts to negotiate over Iran’s nuclear ambitions and its ISIS fight.
• Chris Coons. The moderate Coons holds Biden’s old seat in the Senate and is one of his close advisers. They talk often about foreign challenges, including how to handle Iran and China’s growing influence.
• Connecticut senator Chris Murphy. Murphy might be more likely to get this nod four years down the line, but the 47-year-old senator, who’s a prominent voice on gun control, has also been an active member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where he has been especially vocal in opposing American involvement in the Saudi war in Yemen.
Secretary of the Treasury
• Fed Governor and former under secretary of the Treasury Lael Brainard. Brainard, who was the country’s top financial diplomat in Obama’s first term and who would be the first woman to lead the Treasury, is unique in that she’s not regarded too suspiciously by either progressives or Wall Street financiers.
• Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic. Bostic would be the first Black person and the first openly gay person to lead the department. He’s not as well known as Brainard, but he caught many eyes in Washington and Wilmington this summer by writing an essay about how the Federal Reserve “can play an important role in helping to reduce racial inequities and bring about a more inclusive economy.”
Secretary of Defense
• Former under secretary of Defense Michele Flournoy. A well-regarded former Clinton and Obama administration official, she would be the first woman to lead the Pentagon. Choosing Flournoy would probably indicate an increased vigilance about China.
• Illinois senator Tammy Duckworth. The Iraq War veteran impressed Biden’s VP-search committee, and though it’s not clear what a Duckworth doctrine would entail, she might also be considered for secretary of Veterans Affairs — she ran the Illinois department for three years and then served as an assistant secretary in D.C. for two.
• Former Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson. A review of Johnson’s time as DHS secretary under Obama — which came after a stint as the Pentagon’s general counsel — can read like a preview of the challenges facing the next Defense chief: He worked on filling an understaffed department, and on protections for undocumented immigrants — though he was also involved in the administration’s response to a surge of child asylum-seekers on the southern border, and he’s defended Obama’s handling of Russian interference in the 2016 election.
• Susan Rice
Biden’s been talking about creating a Cabinet- or senior adviser–level job focused entirely on climate change — a prospect that’s caught the eye of some heavy Democratic hitters who like the idea of being first to a broad-scope, high-profile, couldn’t-be-more-important job.
• Former secretary of State and Massachusetts senator John Kerry. It’s easy to imagine how, under Kerry, this role could be a diplomatic one in a reprise of his time at Foggy Bottom, especially considering the amount of rebuilding of international trust a Biden administration would have to do on climate matters.
• Washington governor Jay Inslee. That is, if he wants out of Olympia. The governor is about to easily win a third term after enhancing his stature as a lead climate warrior during his short-lived presidential run. Since then, he’s pushed Biden to expand his ambitions, which now include trillions of dollars in green investments and a goal of net-zero emissions by 2035.
• Billionaire activist Tom Steyer. Steyer has been very active raising cash for Biden and funding groups that support him, and he’s made it clear to other power brokers that he’d like to keep playing a role after Election Day.
• Alabama senator Doug Jones. Don’t expect anyone to say this out loud until after Election Day: The senator’s running for re-election, and it’s impolite, to say the least, for Democrats to admit that the former U.S. Attorney who’s been friends with Biden for years will probably lose. But picking him might mean putting a renewed focus on civil rights. Jones’s most famous case was prosecuting two KKK members in the 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham.
• Former acting attorney general Sally Yates. Biden has often talked about admiring Yates, especially for how, in 2017, she stood up to the new administration over its Muslim travel ban before Trump fired her. Before that, though, she ran the day-to-day of the Justice Department under Loretta Lynch, prioritizing prosecution of corporate executives.
Chief of Staff
• Longtime Biden adviser Ron Klain. During his long career in Washington, Klain has been an Ebola czar, an election-recount strategist, Democrats’ debate-prep guru, and all-around DC fix-it-man — whom progressives are okay with. He’s the front-runner to be Biden’s chief of staff in large part because he’s so well-wired into so many different pieces of the Washington infrastructure without being a stereotypical lobbyist.
• Equally longtime Biden adviser Steve Ricchetti. Ricchetti has long been one of the most important strategy-setting voices in Biden’s ear, but he’s also lobbied for major corporations like AT&T, GM, and some pharmaceutical companies. Picking Ricchetti, who also worked for Bill Clinton, could mean Biden might focus especially on restoring the government’s pre-Trump status quo.