President-elect Joe Biden started his Cabinet rollout strong. He received high marks from all corners of the party for his economic team and seemed to be pursuing a “Goldilocks” strategy of choosing nominees that were acceptable to a wide swath of his coalition. He consulted key people, including Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), ensuring a smooth reception.
But the process seems to have gone off the rails since then, with the transition team battling leaks targeting women of color rumored to be under consideration, unease from some key allies, questions of whether people are being chosen for patronage or political reasons, and general confusion on some of the choices.
“I think it’d be great to see a more cohesive vision across the entire Cabinet,” said Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday.
“One of the things I’m looking for when I see all of these picks put together is, what is the agenda? What is the, what is the overall vision going to be?” she added.
Biden has largely turned to people he and his team believe are deeply experienced and qualified, ready to hit the ground running as soon as they take office. Institutional knowledge and a steady hand were key parts of his campaign pitch to voters.
Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) said that while she sees a need for “experienced leaders who can arrive on day one and know the agency,” she also wants to see “more fresh voices coming into government to encourage new ideas.”
“That absolutely includes the lower-level appointments,” she added. “There’s only so much that a Cabinet head can make a top priority at one time — the energy, enthusiasm and qualifications of the downstream appointments will be essential to getting our country through this challenging time.”
Biden has been under intense pressure to live up to his promise to assemble the “the most diverse Cabinet in history.” But his attempts to do so have often been clumsy.
Black leaders and progressives were advocating for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to become the first Black woman to be agriculture secretary. Fudge, a member of the House Agriculture Committee and an expert on food assistance programs, made clear that she too wanted the job.
As a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Fudge has been a prominent voice in all the nutrition policy battles of the past several years. From her perch as chair of the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations she’s fought back against the president’s efforts to cut food benefits through regulation and led Democrats’ oversight of the administration’s pandemic-related nutrition policy changes.
Despite its name, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does more than subsidize the nation’s 2 million farms. Its array of nutrition programs account for the majority of the agency’s $150 billion budget and feed tens of millions of Americans. By selecting Fudge, the incoming Biden administration would signal an increased emphasis on the latter part of the department’s mission.
Yet Biden didn’t give it to her. Instead, he turned to his close friend and ally, former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack, who was also agriculture secretary for all eight years of President Barack Obama’s administration. After the 2008 financial crisis, Vilsack oversaw the Obama administration’s large expansion of participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps.
The choice of Vilsack came despite objections from progressives, who saw him as too tied to the corporate agricultural interests, and Black leaders, who said his record was not favorable to Black farmers and are still upset at his treatment and dismissal of Shirley Sherrod, a Black agriculture department employee who was smeared by right-wing media.
Vilsack was just one of two people the NAACP was absolutely opposed to becoming part of Biden’s Cabinet. (The other was former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been a rumored pick for transportation secretary.)
Varshini Prakash, executive director of the climate action group Sunrise Movement, called Vilsack’s nomination “a slap in the face to Black Americans who delivered the election to Joe Biden.”
A source familiar with the president-elect’s thinking said Biden liked Vilsack’s experience and the fact that he already knows the agency.
“With one-in-six Americans and a quarter of U.S. children facing a devastating hunger crisis, farmers reeling and rural communities struggling to weather the pain and economic fallout of the pandemic, the president-elect was eager to nominate someone with experience and who is prepared to step in on day one to deliver immediate relief for families all across the country ― and no one knows the department better than Tom Vilsack,” the source said, noting he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate in 2009.
The president-elect instead nominated Fudge to be the secretary of housing and urban development.
“Amid the crises facing the country, President-elect Biden is building a team of qualified and competent leaders to get things back on track and advance his bold agenda to build back better. Each of these nominees are forward-thinking, crisis-tested and experienced, and they are ready to quickly use the levers of government to make meaningful differences in the lives of Americans and help govern on day one,” said transition spokesperson Sean Savett.
Other recent Biden choices also have a long and close relationship with the president-elect. Susan Rice is now going to be in charge of the White House Domestic Policy Council, a surprising choice since she is a foreign policy expert who served as Obama’s national security adviser. She is not known for her domestic policy chops, but her defenders say that her experience nevertheless equips her well for this role.
“Susan is bright, committed and gets things done,” former Attorney General Eric Holder tweeted. “She has experience coordinating various agencies to develop coherent policy. She understands the need for reform and positive change. This will be seen as one of Joe Biden’s best appointments.”
Ben Rhodes, one of Obama’s national security advisers, highlighted Rice’s personal passion for education policy — one inspired by her mother’s role in creating the Pell Grant program.
A domestic policy portfolio helps round out Rice’s experience if she does decide to run for office. There was speculation that she would challenge Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), and she was in the running to be Biden’s vice president.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) noted that he thought it was “interesting” that Biden decided to appoint Rice to a “non-Senate confirmed position,” even though it’s not surprising at all, since Republicans made clear that they would oppose her in any Senate-confirmed role with every fiber of their being.
Biden also tapped Denis McDonough, who served as Obama’s chief of staff, to run the Department of Veterans on Thursday. Paul Rieckhoff, the founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said that while he had met McDonough and found him impressive, he viewed the pick as “stunningly strange and surprising.”
“He’s not a vet. And not a post-9/11 vet,” Rieckhoff tweeted. “And he’s another white guy leading an agency that badly needs a truly transformative leader that can understand and represent an increasingly diverse community.”
AMVETS, which boasts more than 250,000 members, also said it was “surprised” by Biden choosing McDonough.
“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,” the group said in a statement.
McDonough did get support from some key Democrats, however, including Jon Tester (D-Mont.), the ranking member of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee, who said McDonough had “demonstrated an exemplary commitment to public service and a deep understanding that taking care of our veterans is a cost of war.”
Biden’s administration is full of his old friends, and he has cited his personal relationships with them as reasons that he trusts them.
He called former Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) “one of my closest friends” when announcing Kerry’s new role as climate envoy. He noted that he has worked with Avril Haines, his choice for national intelligence, “for over a decade.”
Drama over key appointments started last week, when news reports began circulating that New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D) had been snubbed for the Health and Human Services Secretary nomination.
There’s an understanding in Washington that some positions are less sought after than others. “Impressions are being given that HUD and Interior are not important federal agencies but political chits to be handed out,” the American Prospect’s David Dayen wrote this week in his piece claiming the transition process was “veering off course.”
Lujan Grisham had been given an offer to run the Interior Department, which didn’t seem to make sense for the former New Mexico health secretary whose focus was on health care, not public lands. Furthermore, taking the post could have been a political slight to her fellow New Mexican Democrats Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, along with Rep. Deb Haaland, all of whom have expressed interest in the post.
The interior secretary offer offended those in the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, who have been actively lobbying Biden’s team to make higher-profile Hispanic nominations. In the end, Biden’s campaign attempted to turn the situation around by tapping California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for the role. Lujan Grisham has so far been left without an administration job.
Dozens of tribes and House lawmakers have been lobbying Biden to nominate Haaland, a Native American member of Congress, to lead the agency. But in the past couple of weeks, The New York Times has been running stories featuring anonymous “Biden advisors” saying that Haaland isn’t qualified and suggesting a different Native American who happens to be a man, former interior deputy secretary Michael Connor.
It has infuriated tribal leaders and other Haaland supporters who say the suggestion is offensive and sexist, and that Biden is blowing a chance to put a historic, qualified Indigenous woman at the helm of the federal agency with oversight of public lands and tribal matters. Transition team officials have said the blind attacks on Haaland aren’t coming from anyone authorized to speak on behalf of Biden’s team.
Biden is also encountering some resistance from Democrats over his decision to nominate Ret. Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary, raising questions of how much the Biden team consulted with key allies before making his decision.
Austin is a respected former commander of the U.S. military effort in Iraq and a member of Raytheon’s board of directors. He would make history as the first Black American to lead the Pentagon, but he would need a waiver from Congress to serve in the position.
Federal law stipulates that the leader of the Pentagon must be retired from military service for at least seven years before assuming the department’s top role — a law intended to maintain civilian control of the Defense Department. Austin has only been retired for four years.
The Trump administration received a waiver for Ret. Gen. James Mattis in 2017, which 17 Democrats voted against on principle. Now, Biden’s transition team is asking those same Democrats to reverse their positions for his pick. Already Warren said she would vote against the waiver and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, also said it would be more preferable if the nominee was less recently retired.
Much of the Cabinet remains to be filled, including the much-watched position of attorney general. Reports so far indicate that several of the leading candidates are white, despite the push by many activists to choose a person of color.
In her first interview since Biden chose her to be his secretary of housing, Fudge declined to criticize Biden or the process, saying she has spoken with Vilsack and hopes to work with him.
“I know that he’s going to be somewhat controversial,” she said of Vilsack in an interview with The 19th, “but I believe that the president-elect has made a decision, and that he is putting together a team that he feels comfortable with that can carry on his agenda. And I’m just going to believe that he knows exactly what he’s doing. And I’m on the team.”
Igor Bobic and Arthur Delaney contributed reporting.
This piece has been updated with comment from the Biden transition team.