Biden’s top Cabinet contenders come into focus

Wilmington, Delaware — With a little more than 60 days until inauguration, President-elect Joe Biden does not appear to be in a hurry to name nominees for top Cabinet positions. But that isn’t stopping speculation — or the jockeying to serve in his administration. 

Close Biden loyalists are expected to be rewarded with top appointments, while former primary rivals Pete Buttigieg and Senator Bernie Sanders continue to express interest in top jobs, both publicly and through Biden aides involved in the process. Transition officials initially envisioned Buttigieg as veterans affairs secretary, but he is now under consideration for a foreign policy role.

Several people familiar with the ongoing process also say that diversity — of age, gender, race and ideology — will be an important factor in making final decisions, more so than in previous Democratic presidential transitions. 

Mr. Biden’s ultimate selections will also be driven by policy considerations and a potential nominee’s previous public service record. Loyalty or a history of working alongside Mr. Biden will also be an advantage.

The process is expected to remain in flux for the next few weeks, as Mr. Biden continues to deliberate with his most senior aides and focuses first on filling out key West Wing positions. 

Foreign policy is a top area of focus. So far, Tony Blinken, Mr. Biden’s top campaign adviser on global issues, is the front runner for secretary of state, according to three people familiar with the ongoing deliberations. 

Mr. Biden first began working with Blinken more than 15 years ago when he led the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Blinken served as Democratic staff director. Their relationship was cemented at the White House when Mr. Biden was vice president and Blinken was his national security adviser. Blinken rose to deputy secretary of state by the end of the Obama administration. 

CBS News reported last week that Blinken is already serving as Mr. Biden’s global liaison, acting as the master scheduler for the president-elect’s phone calls with world leaders who have been offering their congratulations. Blinken’s role is essential, since the State Department has been blocked from providing assistance with the calls by the Trump administration. 

At Mr. Biden’s first virtual national security briefing Tuesday, Blinken appeared with 12 other global experts arrayed in Zoom boxes. But afterward, Blinken emerged side-by-side with the president-elect as they exited the site of the briefing at The Queen theater in Wilmington — a rare in-person connection during the mostly virtual transition. 

Blinken’s current work with business partner Michele Flournoy at their global strategic advisory firm WestExec Advisors, presents a potential complication, as she is also widely viewed as a top pick for the Biden Cabinet. Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy, is the leading candidate for defense secretary and would be the first woman in the role, according to four people familiar with the transition deliberations.

Former Obama national security adviser Susan Rice also remains in the mix for secretary of state. Mr. Biden values her White House experience and service as Obama’s first U.N. ambassador, both of which also made her a potential Biden running mate. One issue for Rice is the challenge of winning a confirmation vote in a potentially Republican-led Senate, where she’s been a frequent target of the GOP, who have criticized her for past public statements about what happened during the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya.

Another leading foreign policy adviser is expected to be Avril Haines, who is a top candidate for national security adviser, according to three people familiar with the process. She served as deputy national security adviser and deputy director of the CIA during the Obama administration. Haines rode with Mr. Biden to his national security briefing Monday in Wilmington, and he was seen helping her out of the SUV. 

Buttigieg, meanwhile, is under consideration for U.N. ambassador. Aides to the military veteran and former South Bend, Indiana mayor were told that some transition officials envisioned him serving as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs. But the mayor made clear, along with his team, his preference for representing the U.S. before the world body or in another Cabinet position, two people familiar with the Cabinet discussions explained. A representative for Buttigieg declined to comment.

One factor in picking a VA secretary will be finding someone with experience managing large organizations, according to people involved in the transition. The VA is one of the largest federal departments and one of the largest hospitals systems in the world, requiring management of hundreds of thousands of employees.

The question of who might serve as attorney general, one of the most high-profile and politically sensitive postings, isn’t likely to be answered for several weeks, a number of people familiar with the ongoing search said. At least four names are in the mix for senior positions at the Justice Department. 

Outgoing Alabama Democratic Senator Doug Jones, who recently lost his re-election bid, is among those under consideration for attorney general, three people said. A U.S. attorney during the Clinton administration, he successfully prosecuted two members of the Ku Klux Klan involved with the 1963 Birmingham church bombing. His civil rights record was a major factor in Jones’s 2017 victory in a special election and was highlighted by Mr. Biden when he campaigned for Jones that year. Many on Capitol Hill believe he would be a safe choice in a closely-divided Senate because of his ties to members of both parties.

But former Deputy Attorney General Sally Yates is also on the list for the top Justice post. Yates was fired by President Trump for not enforcing the so-called “Muslim travel ban” in the early days of his administration. During the campaign, Yates endorsed Mr. Biden in March and hosted at least three virtual fundraisers for the Democratic ticket. 

Also in the mix at the Justice Department: former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick, who briefly mounted a presidential campaign of his own and is considered a contender. He ran the Civil Rights Division as assistant attorney general during the Clinton administration. But his past work for Bain Capital, a leading investment and corporate consulting firm, could be a roadblock to confirmation. 

Several groups, including Latino advocacy organizations, are also pushing California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who succeeded Vice President-elect Kamala Harris when she won her Senate seat. If chosen, Becerra would be the first Latino to be U.S. attorney general or a California senator.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is being pushed by his progressive allies for a spot and is closing in on a role, potentially as labor secretary, according to four sources familiar with the transition deliberations. These sources explained this is the specific area where Mr. Biden and Sanders had the most ideological alignment. The two men spoke after Mr. Biden’s election win and thanked each other for the work they put in during the campaign, according to one person familiar with the transition plans. 

But the Biden team has some hesitation about pulling Democrats from Congress, a potential detriment to the chances of Sanders or Illinois Senator Tammy Duckworth, another military veteran who was cited by several aware of the deliberations as a potential pick in a multitude of jobs. In Vermont, Republican Governor Phil Scott said last month that if Sanders were to be nominated to serve in Mr. Biden’s Cabinet, he would appoint as a replacement an independent who would caucus with Democrats.

Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard is a front runner for Treasury secretary, three sources familiar with the decisions said. Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo is also getting a look but some questioned how progressives would view her appointment after she cut pension benefits for public employees when she was state treasurer. 

New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is viewed favorably but a clear Cabinet position has not been detailed, these sources said.

Jack Turman contributed to this story. 

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