Biden’s Cabinet of Centrists and ex-Obama Officials

President-elect Joe Biden with Antony Blinken, Susan Rice, and John Kerry in 2012.

As he prepares to assume the presidency on January 20, Joe Biden toes a fine political line with his Cabinet appointments. Biden is a career centrist Democrat with a history of valuing his personal relationships in Washington over more sound policy picks in his staff. And I mostly get it: with his prospects of either a razor-thin Democratic majority in the Senate or Mitch McConnell at the helm of a Republican Senate, the Biden administration will face some tough confirmation hearings ahead. 

This past election, the Democratic party was the most divided in history. The Biden campaign needed the younger, diverse, progressive vote that supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries to win the general election. Progressive voters rallied behind Joe Biden and fueled his victory over Donald Trump after being promised a considerable progressive presence (beginning with the appointment of progressive top officials) in the new administration — Biden even labeled himself as a “transition president” towards progressive values. At this point, the question is whether Biden will make good on his campaign promise to progressives or fall through on that promise like so many of his predecessors in the Oval Office. Thus far, I don’t think he will follow through.

I recognize that Biden is doing a better job of including racial, gender, and political diversity in his Cabinet than Trump and Obama. But the bar should be higher. Like many other progressives, I would like to see a significant change from the Obama administration in Biden’s appointments. My problem with his current Cabinet choices is simple: Biden repeatedly passes up progressive candidates for major Cabinet positions. The progressive wing of the party is essentially being shoved to the side in his latest Cabinet picks. So far, the influence of left-wing groups has stopped at nixing the inclusion of overtly conservative candidates in Biden’s shortlists—like Michael Morrell, a candidate for CIA Director closely tied to destructive post-911 counterterrorism policies. 

On Friday, December 11, Biden announced his pick for Agriculture Secretary: Tom Vilsack, who served as the eight-year Obama Agriculture Secretary. This choice was made despite the Congressional Black Caucus’s support of Rep. Marcia Fudge, who was appointed as Housing and Urban Development Secretary instead, for the agriculture position because of her work lobbying about food insecurity and racial inequality. Progressives are enthusiastic about Fudge’s calls to preserve the federal food stamps program as a longtime member of the House Agriculture Committee. We need new voices in the Cabinet, and Biden’s appointment only showed a digression from that promise. 

Vilsack’s appointment comes after Biden nominated Antony Blinken—former Obama National Security Advisor and Biden’s personal friend—as Secretary of State and Susan Rice, another former Obama National Security Advisor and ambassador to the U.N., as Domestic Policy Committee (DPC) Chair. Then we have former Secretary of State John Kerry, who is indisputably a high-profile moderate Democrat and former Secretary of State, set to fill the newly instituted position of Special Envoy to the President on Climate. While I do support Biden’s commitment to combating climate change, Kerry is just another established moderate voice where we need progressive solutions. All of these nominations point to centrists and former Obama-era officials dominating within the Biden Cabinet, a fact that makes me quite uneasy.

All of this is not to say that Biden hasn’t taken steps to fulfill his campaign commitments. He appointed Janet Yellen, a progressive female candidate, for Secretary of the Treasury along with Katherine Tai as U.S. Trade Representative and Gen. Lloyd Austin as Defense Secretary. After the Congressional Hispanic Caucus pushed for more representation, Biden nominated Alejandro Mayorkas for Homeland Security Secretary and Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services Secretary, which will undoubtedly play a significant role in the management of the coronavirus pandemic. All of these appointments are coupled with the entrance of Kamala Harris in the vice presidency, who will play as a more progressive advocate to Biden. The incoming administration also reaffirmed civil rights leaders this week of his commitment to prioritizing civil rights issues and the inclusion of black and POC voices in his administration. I urge Biden to honor his promise for diverse voices by appointing more progressives in his remaining selections to complement his largely establishment Cabinet — like Rep. Deb Haaland, who would represent an indigenous voice in a historically oppressive position for her community, over Sen. Tom Udall for Interior Secretary. 

I see signs in the incoming Biden administration of their commitment to change and inclusion. But for right now, barring any significant changes in his potential appointments, Biden’s Cabinet is not exactly what I hoped for. What I am hopeful for, however, is the Biden administration’s openness to listen to popular advocacy and suggestions: a welcome change from the previous White House. Would I like to see more progressivism and continued diversity in the Biden presidency? Yes. His Cabinet appointments are the first misstep, but I want to see substantial executive action and systemic legislative change under a Biden White House to feel comfortable. 

Photo from Shutterstock.