There was never really any question whether Pete Buttigieg would get some sort of job in Joe Biden’s administration — just where, exactly, he would be a good fit. For a while, the thinking was that the 38-year-old might make an exciting ambassador to the United Nations, but that never actually made much sense — Biden is determined to reassert American influence abroad using experienced diplomats — no matter how many languages Buttigieg speaks. And when some people close to Biden floated the idea of the former presidential candidate relocating to Beijing as the ambassador to China, it was swiftly shot down as unrealistic and maybe a little offensive. But Transportation secretary? Now there was a job for an infrastructure obsessive! Who could possibly object to that far-from-the-headlines posting?
When many criticized the pick, however, it resurfaced a nagging question: How, precisely, is Biden making all these decisions? It’s not just Buttigieg. What qualified Susan Rice, a famous foreign-policy expert, to run the domestic policy council? Or California attorney general Xavier Becerra to be a pandemic-era secretary of Health and Human Services?
Biden’s organizing principle seems to be a Barack Obama–inspired “no drama” insistence on minimizing the potential for conflict in his administration. He set out to make his picks by identifying a diverse group of inoffensive, proven bureaucrats and people who are familiar to him, rather than sifting through a ton of policy experts he didn’t know quite as well. Whereas his immediate predecessor obliterated the expectation of expertise in any form, Biden has put a premium on trust, general government experience, and a semblance of ideological balance over subject-matter virtuosity largely because he sees the country as facing a sprawling, interconnected crisis rather than a set of parallel disasters to be dealt with agency by agency.
With some exceptions, if there was any reason to believe a potential pick might cause heartburn — leaks? Scandals? — they were out. At times, that has meant dumping political allies: Buttigieg made sense for Transportation because the early front-runner, L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, a Biden campaign co-chair, became a political liability following reports that he knew about one of his top aides’ sexual misconduct. After New Mexico governor and transition co-chair Michelle Lujan Grisham turned down Interior secretary because she wanted the HHS job, only for that snub to leak to the press, she was iced out. By that point, Becerra, who was first considered for attorney general, was looked upon favorably for his work as California’s top lawyer defending Obamacare from Trump’s assaults.
Even some within Biden’s camp aren’t completely sure how this kind of Cabinet is supposed to work: Where are the lines of command in an ecosystem with so many picks who are known to have backslapping, personal access to him or are considered among nearly half a century’s worth of Biden’s D.C. friends? Already, some Democratic senators are griping about not being kept more directly in the loop — and are annoyed they didn’t get a formal heads-up about Biden’s ex-military Defense-secretary nominee, for whom they’ll have to pass an exemption, despite the fact that that pick was publicly floated for a week.
Civil-rights groups, labor organizations, and other constituencies that helped power Biden’s victory have also been angling for dedicated seats at his table, and in recent weeks, they have met with the new president and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris to make sure they round out the Cabinet with a diverse slate as promised. (Biden’s team is already poised to hit some historic markers: Janet Yellen would be the first female Treasury secretary, Lloyd Austin the first Black Defense secretary, Buttigieg the first openly gay permanent Cabinet member, Deb Haaland — at Interior — the first Native American Cabinet member, Alejandro Mayorkas the first Latino Homeland Security secretary.) Still, progressive commentators, such as the New Republic’s Osita Nwanevu, have called the moderate-heavy Cabinet “a lost cause for the left.”
Biden’s inner circle thinks it’s laughable to label any of this as “drama.” First, there’s the more pressing issue of Trump’s attempts to explode our democracy on his way out. And they’re quick to call back to Trump’s Bachelor-style selection process, which resulted in a Star Wars cantina of a Cabinet. “I wouldn’t be upset by it,” Virginia congressman Don Beyer said of activists’ commentary on the process. Pressuring the new president, he said, is the activists’ job: “It’s what they should be doing.”
If Biden has a problem now following this strategy, it’s choosing the right kind of insiders to fill his final few Cabinet slots. Nowhere is this clearer than in the jockeying over the Department of Justice. Most of the informed chatter about the AG gig has focused on outgoing Alabama senator Doug Jones and Judge Merrick Garland, though former deputy attorney general Sally Yates is also in the mix. Jones, who has been close with Biden since the ’70s, looked like the favorite until news broke in early December of the latest investigation into Hunter Biden. Now, the president-elect needs to be extra-careful to demonstrate the department’s independence. Maybe Biden shouldn’t appoint a friend after all.
Then again, having too many buddies and too few jobs for them is a parody of a real problem. And some of the gripes about his selections were inevitable: Biden won by pulling together the broadest political coalition in modern history. Of course it would strain when he had to start actually making decisions.
Biden has mostly avoided headaches, so far, by reaching back to his, and the country’s, political comfort zone: the Obama administration. “This is not even Obama Light,” said a friend of both Obama’s and Biden’s. “It’s Obama Heavy.”
Halfway through December, the ex-VP had tapped prominent Obama alums to be his chief of staff, Treasury secretary, secretary of State, DHS secretary, Veterans Affairs secretary, director of National Intelligence, Agriculture secretary, national-security adviser, U.N. ambassador, climate envoy, COVID-19 czar, surgeon general, head of the Office of Management and Budget, Domestic Policy Council director, White House counsel, legislative-affairs director, and White House press secretary. (That list is incomplete and could easily double in the days ahead.)
There has also been a concerted behind-the-scenes effort, led largely by incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, to keep in close touch with liberal lawmakers. No one was surprised by the exasperated reaction to Buttigieg. But the news was actually welcome to some progressives in contact with Biden’s inner orbit: Buttigieg may be a relatively inexperienced centrist, but he was clearly preferable to one of the final alternatives — former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel. It’s a pattern: Lefties aren’t thrilled with all of Biden’s picks, but they’re relieved by his stiff-arms. Becerra wasn’t their first HHS choice; Rhode Island governor Gina Raimondo, another finalist, was their last.
It’s more likely that Republicans ultimately give Biden his biggest headache. Some inner-circle liberals are concerned that Mitch McConnell’s GOP might escalate its expected obstruction and refuse to confirm Biden’s Cabinet from the get-go. Already, they’re digging in for fights over Becerra. “The Republicans are out for blood. They’re going to tank as many of these [picks] as they can,” one senior Democratic operative wired into the transition told me recently. “There’s no consequences, and a lot of these guys are vindictive assholes.”
That’s one good reason for having so many Obama veterans in the fold — plenty have already been confirmed by the Senate once. A few minutes after we hung up, news broke that Biden had chosen Gina McCarthy, Obama’s EPA chief, as his top domestic climate adviser. “At this rate,” the operative texted me, “I feel like he’s gonna bring Michelle Obama back as First Lady.”
*This article appears in the December 21, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!