Cabinet Building For Dummies

January 9, 2021 - American Politics

Feels like ages since I’ve last used this blog, but as President-Elect Biden finalizes his cabinet selections, it feels like an opportune time to review how he’s done.

Cabinet selection is, to be fair, not an easy process, especially not for Democrats – the need to demonstrate fidelity to diversity and representation values can not only complicate opportunities for otherwise-qualified nominees, but when those lobbying for more representation find themselves jousting over the same piece of the pie, there can often be no right answer anymore. In particular, this year advocacy groups targeted not just cabinet posts, but the “top four” positions – Treasury, State, Defense, and Justice.

I’ll run through each of the positions with an eye to who I would have liked in the role, who would have been the right choice under the circumstances, and why.

Chief of Staff
Who’s In? Ron Klain
My Pick: Ron Klain
Best Choice: Whoever Biden damn well pleases

Look, someone is always going to come out demanding that chief of staff be a role chosen for diversity as well, but your right hand in the White House has to be someone you know, trust, and have a working relationship with. Or, of course, you could go with RNC flack Reince Priebus, followed by more-competent-than-you John Kelly, lickspittle crony Mick Mulvaney, and grasping ambitious toadie Mark Meadows. Barack Obama didn’t have a sterling run on this score either, though Denis McDonough did last out the entirety of Obama’s second term and apparently built good working relationships there. Chief of Staff should not be a politicized appointment – if they are bad in the job, fire them, but for pity’s sakes don’t hire one based on political considerations. It looks like Klain has a longstanding working relationship with Biden, which makes him good enough for me.

Secretary of the Treasury
Who’s In? Janet Yellen
My Pick: Elizabeth Warren
Best Choice: Janet Yellen

A dark horse for the job back in November, Yellen’s nomination was met with a chorus of “…actually, yeah, okay” from many corners, and it’s easy to see why. Advocating for “extraordinary” fiscal support during the pandemic, she comes from a background as Chair of the Federal Reserve, and a boring central banker with dovish views on monetary policy is exactly the sort Treasury could use at a time like this. I would have loved to see Liz take the job, of course, but she was always a moonshot – between being a Wall Street nightmare and being a Senator, particularly from a state with a Republican governor (Charlie Baker is about as reasonable as Republican governors come, but why roll the dice?), there was no way she could be offered the position, and limited chance of confirmation. Yellen breaks a glass ceiling at Treasury, and while she’s white as the driven snow, she brings experience, competence, and no burden of excessive corporate ties. A good pick.

Secretary of State
Who’s In? Antony Blinken
My Pick: Susan Rice
Best Choice: NOT HIM

This is where things fall off the rails, and it was always doomed to happen. When the Congressional Black Caucus leaned on Biden to nominate more black appointees to Cabinet, and particularly to “top four” posts, the implication was clear – Susan Rice for State. On the Democrat side, this makes a lot of sense – she has relevant experience, they get along well together, she brings a complementary but different perspective that he could profit from, and she was already being considered as a possible VP nod. However, Republicans have had her number since 2016 – “Benghazi” would have been everywhere, and the likelihood of her being approved by the Senate was very low. The amount of political capital that would have been required for the nomination made it unreasonable, which both she and Biden knew.

The problem, of course, is that Biden subsequently nominated someone who ticks none of the boxes that Susan Rice did. A white guy nobody has heard of with lobbying connections involved in DoD contracts, who brings to the table his extensive fluency in… French. I am fluent in French. Congratulations, you’ve got a Canadian. I mean, he’s American, so maybe it’s more special there, but despite Biden’s reasonable goal of rapprochement with the EU… everyone in the EU diplomatic community speaks English, and better than you do. Pandering to 1/27 of them is pointless. The number of challenged relationships that need to be rebuilt demands someone with more background in the Middle East, in Africa, in South America or East Asia. Someone who knows Russia or China. This isn’t an office where the life experience of a person of color is necessarily relevant, but it is an office where many people of color could bring their background to bear and excel – and, crucially, as one of the “top four” with no obvious pick, a posting that should have been used to accommodate those pressing for more representation. Blinken represents nothing and nobody.

Secretary of Defense
Who’s In? Lloyd Austin
My Pick: Tammy Duckworth
Best Choice: Michele Flournoy

This is a pick that happened for dumb political reasons, and it’s not particularly healthy. My pie-in-the-sky choice would have been Tammy Duckworth, a woman of color, veteran, and sitting Senator with direct experience in the military. Unfortunately, as will be a repeating motif, this is not the time to make waves in the Senate, and no Senators could be pulled for an executive branch job. The leading contender for quite a while was Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense who prioritizes investing in technologies to keep pace with China. While she has some lobbyist connections, that’s going to be true of most competent civilians with a prior background working at a high level in a major government department – and Flournoy would have broken a glass ceiling by taking the post.

As for Gen. Austin, who would require a Congressional waiver in order to serve… for one thing, Defense should be led by a civilian. That’s a simple fact. There’s a good reason for the waiver rule – if the President needs the opinion of a general, he has the Joint Chiefs for that. For another, just like Blinken, this is a case of Biden going with someone he knows personally, rather than shopping the posting out to someone competent who brings a different viewpoint to the table. Mainly, though… Gen. Austin was nominated because he is black. The timing makes it extremely clear – after Yellen and Blinken were named, with Flournoy the clear frontrunner for the job (but also white) and questions already being raised about the number of White House staff who were living up to the building’s name. Two of the “top four” with white nominees made the Congressional Black Caucus quite unhappy, and Jim Clyburn was letting everyone know it.

The mistake, as noted above, was Blinken; assuming this was a case of “damage done,” though, there must have been other less boneheaded choices – at the very least, a civilian. I assume Gen. Austin will prove competent, but on the heels of the Trump administration pulling a similar move (with a better candidate), granting a waiver sets a dangerous precedent going forward.

Attorney General
Who’s In? Merrick Garland
My Pick: Xavier Becerra
Best Choice: Xavier Becerra

Coming off a year of significant racial turmoil in the US, racial justice needed to be at the forefront of the attorney general decision. CBC and CHC leaders agreed, which undermined Sally Yates as a candidate – don’t get me wrong; she’s good, but someone with particular experience on domestic racial justice issues should have leapt the queue. Oddly, this did include Doug Jones, a white candidate who drew substantial consensus from black and Hispanic lobbyist groups. While the CBC and Al Sharpton were pushing for a black candidate specifically, no names were seriously floated; Deval Patrick was probably the most notable, and his gubernatorial tenure was marked by a few shady dealings which could have undermined him in the role.

Enter Xavier Becerra, a Latino state AG from California with a lot of Democratic street cred, who launched environmental justice reforms in California and would have benefited from the increased profile. With few local controversies to his name and a background including Stanford Law, he had all the pieces to meet the CHC’s goal of increased representation and speak to issues of racial justice in a significant way.

…which makes it all the more confusing that he was shunted over to HHS, paving the way for Biden to get Justice wrong. This gets us, not Doug Jones, but instead Merrick Garland, most notable for never being considered by the Senate for a seat on the Supreme Court. Is this move intended as restitution for the embarrassment he suffered four years ago? Probably – but the best that can be said about Garland is that he’s excruciatingly bland and “whatever” as a nominee. Kind of a parallel to Biden in that regard.

Secretary of Homeland Security
Who’s In? Alejandro Mayorkas
My Pick: Alejandro Mayorkas
Best Choice: Alejandro Mayorkas

Hey look! A clear win! Mayorkas was the easy frontrunner, and in the wake of the disastrous ICE activity on the southern border, rapprochement with the Latinx community on the part of DHS is extremely important. Zero complaints with this pick – Mayorkas is a good representative choice and a solid appointment.

Secretary of Health and Human Services
Who’s In? Xavier Becerra
My Pick: Michelle Lujan Grisham
Best Choice: Michelle Lujan Grisham

Dr. Vivek Murthy, former (and next!) Surgeon General, would also have been a great choice, but Lujan Grisham let it be known that she was seeking this position, and the Latinx community responded accordingly. The governor of New Mexico has been working on public options for health insurance and previously ran the state’s health agency. She was assisting the transition team with the selection process…

…so what happened? Well… she was offered Interior, for some daft reason, and turned it down citing her preference for HHS. It sounds like the Biden team (not necessarily Biden himself) did not like that she tried to publicly force their hand like that, and ended up giving her nothing at all – but this was a very public slight in the eyes of the CHC, and an unforced error, especially given that Interior had a better candidate to begin with. Becerra is a token remuneration to the Latinx community – it’s nice that he will be in Cabinet, but as noted above, this was not the job he should have been offered; he has little specific experience to draw on, and there was a much better place to put him. A real low point for the Cabinet nomination process to mess this one up so publicly.

Secretary of Transportation
Who’s In? Pete Buttigieg
My Pick: London Breed
Best Choice: David Kim

The initial frontrunner was Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, but between his terrible record on issues important to the Black Lives Matter community and high expectations for diversity and representation in the Biden Cabinet, there was no point in giving him the nod. Protesters were already milling around his house to demand that he not accept a Cabinet post. They got their wish, sure enough…

…but we were looking at the wrong mayor of a major California city. London Breed, the Mayor of San Francisco, is a fairly young black woman whose focuses during her time in public office in the city have been squarely locked on transportation fairness and environmental concerns. A proponent of bicycling, traffic safety, mass transit, and improved pedestrian safety, Breed has fought her way through every layer of government and every flavor of red tape and lobbying in order to achieve transportation goals for her city, both before and during her time as mayor.

Conversely, while Pete Buttigieg saw his star rise throughout the Democratic primary and into the main contest, South Bend, IN hardly ranks in the same breath as San Francisco for transportation concerns, nor has it been at the forefront of his political life. Buttigieg definitely earned a Cabinet post as a talented advocate for the Biden campaign, but… not this one. This is silly. At least it didn’t go to Rahm Emanuel.

Meanwhile, CAPAC had been pushing David Kim, another Californian; this would have been a solid choice politically, but… well, we’ll get to that.

Secretary of Commerce
Who’s In? Gina Raimondo
My Pick: See below
Best Choice: Mellody Hobson

So before we get into who was picked, I would like to revisit the points that have been made to date about diversity in the Cabinet. In addition to strong advocacy from Jim Clyburn and the CBC, who can make a very strong case for having secured Biden the nomination and (ultimately) the election, as well as advocacy from the CHC, we also have the Asian-American/Pacific Islander community to consider. Their Congressional advocacy group, CAPAC, has rightly been hunting for representation in Cabinet, and so far has come up short. As noted above, one of the departments they had been looking at specifically was Transportation, where California Transportation Secretary David Kim could have brought his talents and needed representation to the party.

For my part, I felt Commerce was a natural fit – surely a leading AAPI CEO with a Democratic bent would be a great fit! I mean, there’s Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai – only not him because it’s unlikely he’d step away from such a high-paying job to take on a middling federal departmental role. Maybe PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi – well, not her either, she makes a ton of cash in that job. Someone from a slightly less top-level position, then, or between roles like the ex-Quibi CEO Meg Whitman, except not a Republican and without the stink of failure?

Well… it turns out that while it may be the right idea, it is surprisingly hard to find an AAPI CEO who fits the bill. Moreover, it turns out many of them are specifically of South Asian descent rather than East Asian; ironically, this makes it all the more important that Commerce be headed by a member of the AAPI community, as it speaks to a lack of opportunities at high levels for people of East Asian descent. Of course, this pulls us into a bit of a circle. I considered some candidates with a more political background… but ultimately, of those whose names were seriously being floated, Mellody Hobson has a few key qualities: she’s a person of color, she isn’t Meg Whitman, she has worked in investments as a CEO, she isn’t Meg Whitman, she headed Dreamworks Animation, and she is not Meg Whitman.

Sooo… could we maybe revisit Meg Whitman? Because Gina Raimondo has to be some kind of joke, right? Known for eliminating 8,000 pages of business regulations in Rhode Island while slashing taxes in order to reverse unemployment, she’s also got a history of rolling out software launches over justified warnings of inadequacy, with terrible results; the catastrophic idiocy of the Department of Children, Youth, and Families, which now has a child mortality rate to go along with its high turnover rate; nominating people with low qualifications or conflicts of interest to government roles; importing state Commerce staff from Maryland rather than employing Rhode Islanders; a ridiculous and legally disputed toll plan; ties to Deloitte; the list goes on.

At the very least, her handling of the pandemic has won her positive reviews, bumping her up to a tie for 12th-best regarded governor in terms of COVID handling. Rather better than her overall placement as one of America’s four most disliked governors several years running. This is a severely bad and truly questionable choice for an office that could have and should have gone to a person of color who could maximize opportunities for underserved communities to have greater involvement in America’s business success.

Secretary of Energy
Who’s In? Jennifer Granholm
My Pick: Arun Majumdar
Best Choice: Arun Majumdar

Another case of the Biden transition team being advised on a Cabinet selection by a person best suited to fill it; Dr. Majumdar would help with AAPI representation (he hails from India) and has experience as under-secretary from the Obama Administration; he was also the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency.

Granholm may ultimately be a better pick than some of the others who had been under consideration, but… ultimately, this pick has less to do with the major stated goals of the agency itself than it does a Democratic revitalization of the Rust Belt, with Granholm’s car industry experience being tapped to assist with one of Biden’s major goals for America’s roads – transitioning to more vehicles that run on renewable energy/electric technology. As a long-term strategic pick for broader Democratic goals, Granholm has potential, but I think this is a nod that was wasted when it could have helped support the goal of a diverse Cabinet full of qualified people.

Secretary of the Interior
Who’s In? Deb Haaland
My Pick: Deb Haaland
Best Choice: Deb Haaland

The right choice, but unlike the Mayorkas pick, this one was a bumpier road. Interior was originally being offered to Michelle Lujan Grisham, who had already told the transition team that she was seeking the HHS job. The resultant kerfuffle from her refusal of this nomination led to her being dropped from Cabinet consideration altogether, creating an unnecessary stink that could have been avoided.

Deb Haaland is the best pick, but should have been the first pick – as a House representative, she skates under the concern of pulling a Senator, and will be the first Indigenous Cabinet member. This is a great fit and I hope to see her do well in the role; there is insufficient Congressional advocacy for Indigenous representation in Cabinet, so the nomination, however it was ultimately reached, remains a big net positive to come out of the transition period.

Secretary of Agriculture
Who’s In? Tom Vilsack
My Pick: Marcia Fudge
Best Choice: Marcia Fudge

Heidi Heitkamp was considered a frontrunner for this post as a moderate who had Republican support, but never let it be said that there wasn’t a worse choice available. I’m not sure what a “vilsack” is, but I know what it’s a big vilsack of. The store display model of the corporate Democrat, Vilsack was chosen to rebuild support in Iowa. How, I do not know, as he’s been in the pocket of Big Agribusiness forever, to the detriment of small and independent farms. Black farmers are extremely unhappy with this pick, but white farmers have no reason to be any happier – Vilsack is a nod to stagnation and lobbying and the opposite of a progressive choice.

Marcia Fudge, meanwhile, may not have been my first choice for the role from an expertise standpoint, but she had the political backing of Jim Clyburn, who was strongly pushing for her to take the role. Her perspective on it is also a bit different, as her approach hails from the nutritional and food assistance side of Agriculture issues, including more USDA oversight and improvements to SNAP. It would have been refreshing to see this issues brought to the fore and farmers of color having a federal representative they could look to.

Secretary of Labor
Who’s In? Marty Walsh
My Pick: Bernie Sanders
Best Choice: Julie Su

Bernie was always a pipe dream for this job, Senate issue notwithstanding, but it sounds like he and Biden did give it some pretty serious discussion. However, this was a golden opportunity to answer CAPAC’s wishlist with one of their picks in former California Labor Commissioner Julie Su. The Wall Street Journal ran a full-page ad to attack her when she was known to be under consideration, and that has to be taken as a kind of recommendation all on its own. She is a founder of Sweatshop Watch and has displayed an extensive interest in exploitatative labor practices in the garment industry.

Instead, we have Marty Walsh, Mayor of Boston, who… well… with both Su and Bill Spriggs in contention, it’s clear this was a choice that went against the diversity grain. Two major factors propelled Walsh forward – his personal friendship with Biden (there’s that recurring motif again!) and his closeness with labor unions, an important part of Biden’s labor policy plans. One must hope these pay off; this one really feels like a missed opportunity to hire a candidate who brought both specialized expertise and representation to the table, and we’ve already got one white Irish Catholic New Englander who will for sure be sitting at the big table.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Who’s In? Marcia Fudge
My Pick: Keisha Lance Bottoms
Best Choice: Keisha Lance Bottoms

Oh look, Biden did manage to pick Marcia Fudge! …for the wrong job, that is. Not only was Clyburn (and Fudge herself) pushing for her to get the Agriculture nod… Fudge also said, on the record, before this nomination, that too often black candidates were marginalized into departments like – you guessed it – Housing and Urban Development.

So, great job making that a reality, Biden.

Meanwhile, young up-and-comer Keisha Lance Bottoms, the Mayor of Atlanta, had a banner 2019 and 2020, pushing back against Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp and his continued insistence on being a bad person and making that Atlanta’s problem. She’s also close with Biden and is running a very big city that could stand to have its very big challenges with housing and urban development addressed at the federal level. This was an obvious choice and it seems clear that Fudge was shifted into this role to cover for having put Vilsack in at Agriculture.

Secretary of Education
Who’s In? Miguel Cardona
My Pick: Lily Eskelsen Garcia
Best Choice: Miguel Cardona

Oh hey, one where I got it wrong! Dr. Cardona currently leads Connecticut’s public schools and is a former educator at the K-12 level, which fulfills a Biden promise that, unlike Betsy DeVos, he would nominate someone with actual classroom experience. Cardona has been trying to prioritize maintaining educational opportunity for low-income students during COVID, which is a laudable goal and one that does need to be observed nationwide. Like Garcia, he represents another win for the CHC, who had strongly advocated for his nomination. It remains to be seen what kind of experience he will bring on the higher education side, where there are still substantial concerns about the enormous mess left by Beastly DeVil Betsy DeVos and a pressing need to address student debt. Nonetheless, while Garcia fit the mold for the kind of candidate Biden was seeking, I think Cardona is actually the better pick and a really solid choice for Cabinet.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs
Who’s In? Denis McDonough
My Pick: Pete Buttigieg/Tammy Duckworth
Best Choice: Pete Buttigieg*

So… bearing in mind that we have already addressed why it couldn’t be Duckworth, I would like to stipulate that there is a valid reason not to have put Buttigieg in this job. I do still think, on balance, that Buttigieg should have had this posting rather than Transportation, which should in turn have gone to David Kim or London Breed, but we’ll get into that.

McDonough was Obama’s chief of staff for his whole second term, a Washington insider who knows all the secret handshakes. This is, arguably, a good thing for the role of VA head – the department is in constant need of funding and political support, and is invariably in the crosshairs for underserving America’s veterans in one way or another. It is a pretty thankless job – low-visibility when you do it right, high-visibility when something goes wrong, and perpetually teetering as everyone else has made it your problem. In short, while McDonough has the significant issue that he is not a veteran himself, which is concerning for this agency in particular, he’s also not a political figure with an eye to future ambitions – he’s a grinder who knows how the sausage is made, and if all you want to do is ensure that hungry vets get their sausage on time, then that’s kind of the ticket.

I maintain that Buttigieg, a veteran with lived experience as a member of the LGBT community who can speak to special issues faced by LGBT servicemembers in economic and health concerns on leaving active duty, would have brought some needed steel, familiarity, and advocacy to the role. It really did feel like his to lose. Ultimately, I suspect that he was pushed over to Transportation in order to protect his future political ambitions from a potential curbstomping and dead-end at VA, but this reeks of missed opportunity, to say nothing of what happened over at Transportation as a result.

Anyway, that’s a wrap for now – I may update at some point with the non-Secretary Cabinet-level positions.

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