Joe Biden is a 78-year-old centrist Democrat who prizes personal relationships above policy considerations when selecting staff. And the bulk of his Cabinet appointments will need to get past a razor-thin Democratic Senate majority in the best of circumstances, or Mitch McConnell, in the most probable scenario.
So, as a millennial pinko, I did not expect the Biden administration to fit my ideological sensibilities. And to this point, the Cabinet actually looks like a marginal improvement on Barack Obama’s (Janet Yellen is progressive by Treasury secretary standards; taken together, Cecilia Rouse, Heather Boushey, and Jared Bernstein form a more left-wing Council of Economic Advisers than their predecessors). But the president-elect’s selections also look increasingly odd and ill-considered. Put more precisely: It’s starting to seem like Joe Biden is staffing his administration by writing the names of Cabinet positions on tiny slips of paper; tossing them into a hat; and then inviting ex-Obama White House officials, and a select group of nonwhite Democrats, to reach in and draw their new jobs.
On Thursday morning, Biden announced that Denis McDonough was his pick for secretary of Veterans Affairs — and Susan Rice, for director of the Domestic Policy Council (DPC). Which is a bit weird.
McDonough is a longtime aide to Barack Obama, who served as White House chief of staff during the president’s second term. So, it makes sense that Biden might find a place for him somewhere. But McDonough is neither a veteran nor a health-care administrator. And there are lots of veterans and health-care administrators in the Democratic Party … and the primary responsibility of the VA secretary is to oversee the administration of health care to veterans. So, it does not make much sense to put McDonough in this position — and it makes even less sense to do so without first clearing the pick with veterans groups, which seems to be what Biden did.
“We are surprised by reports the President-elect Joe Biden intends to nominate Denis McDonough to become the next VA Sec,” AMVETS, the nonpartisan, 250,000-member veterans organization said in a statement Thursday. “We were expecting a veteran, maybe a post-9/11 veteran. Maybe a woman veteran. Or maybe a veteran who knows the VA exceptionally well.”
Susan Rice as DPC head is also an eyebrow-raiser. Biden had a warm working relationship with Rice during their time in the Obama administration; so warm, he gave her serious consideration for vice-president, despite her not insignificant political baggage. That baggage — namely, Rice’s misfortune at having been cast as a supporting villain in the Fox News Cinematic Universe’s Benghazi series — means that a Republican Senate would almost certainly block her entrance to the Cabinet, if given the chance. So, it makes sense that Biden would try to find a position for Rice that does not require Senate approval.
But Rice is a career-long foreign-policy official, whose résumé includes stints as a National Security Council staffer, U.N. ambassador, and White House national security adviser. She has demonstrated little experience or interest in noneconomic domestic policy (which is the DPC’s purview). Making matters all the more curious, Biden’s pick for national security adviser (a position that does not require Senate confirmation, and which Rice formerly held) is Jake Sullivan, a longtime foreign-policy hand who actually decided to spend the Trump years refashioning himself into a domestic-policy wonk. One might conclude from this that the reason Biden did not switch Sullivan and Rice’s roles was because he has a rule against appointing ex–Obama officials to jobs they’d previously held. But Biden just opted to invite the rancor of progressives and farmer activists by giving Tom Vilsack yet another go as Agriculture secretary.
Vilsack’s appointment was curious in other respects. Biden’s overall approach to staffing seems to be guided by two somewhat conflicting imperatives: The president-elect would like to surround himself with old friends, and also, satisfy demands for identity-based representation from women and minorities within the Democratic firmament. Tapping Congresswoman Marcia Fudge for USDA head seemed like an intuitive and worthwhile means of advancing the second objective. Jim Clyburn, the African American House Majority Whip whose endorsement helped revive Biden’s primary campaign, wanted Fudge in that position. And, as a member of the House Agriculture Committee since 2008, Fudge had assembled a depth of relevant experience for the post. The congresswoman openly campaigned for Agriculture secretary — and said specifically that she was sick of African American Democrats being slotted into stereotypically “Black” Cabinet roles like “Labor or HUD.”
Biden proceeded to name Fudge his nominee for HUD secretary.
The president-elect decided to hand the State Department over to his old (white, male, hawkish) friend Tony Blinken. Given Blinken’s demographic traits, Biden was reportedly under great pressure to appoint a nonwhite person to the other top-ranking foreign-policy post, secretary of Defense. That led Biden to tap retired four-star general Lloyd Austin as his pick for Pentagon head. But Austin’s recent retirement means that his appointment will require a congressional waiver, a roadblock put in place to protect civilian control of the military. Thus, Austin’s selection immediately incurred the opposition of some liberal Democrats, while handing Republicans a ready-made excuse for opposing a Biden nominee (whom many regard as having been insufficiently enthusiastic about waging war in Syria and troublingly reluctant to incinerate civilians elsewhere).
Who knows. Maybe all of this will end up working out fine, at least on Biden’s terms. Cabinet officials have deputies and agency staff, so maybe general management skills are more important than subject-area expertise. And maybe Austin gets through Congress and ends up being more of a dove than Michèle Flournoy, who was widely considered a shoe-in for Defense secretary before Austin’s emergence. Maybe Tom Vilsack will undergo a late-life conversion to anti-monopoly.
But whatever the outcome, it does not seem like these appointments were well-thought-out. Why pick a VA secretary who pisses off veterans groups? Why a Defense head with automatic in-party opposition? Why, for that matter, an OMB chair with addiction to Twitter flame wars (as a social-media-brain-poisoned American, I welcome representation of our community in the halls of power, but still)? Are these fights that Biden really wants? Or is he just not thinking through some of the important decisions he’ll get to make as president?