Joe Biden has vowed to make his administration the most diverse in American history with an array of people and political viewpoints in a party that has deep divisions. But so far the president-elect has made clear that prioritizes his own viewpoint.
The former vice-president and incoming president is yet to announce his picks for various major cabinet agencies, but he has unveiled a big portion of his senior staff so far, and that batch of incoming top staffers are largely the gang of advisers Biden has kept close to him for years.
That’s important because Biden’s picks for his administration are one of his most powerful tools for healing some of the fractures between the Democrats’ leftist and centrist wings and for guiding the party’s path forwards at a time of national crisis in the wake of the Trump era and the coronavirus pandemic.
During a press conference on Thursday afternoon Biden offered a few hints of who he will nominate for treasury secretary – one of the most important offices he will fill. “It’s someone who will be accepted by all elements of the Democratic party, from progressive to moderate,” Biden said.
That comment in itself narrowed the list of high-profile possibilities. It is unlikely to be a rock-the-boat selection like leftwing Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren, who would probably spark anxiety among the business community, or someone like JP Morgan Chase’s CEO, Jamie Dimon, a hypothetical candidate who would infuriate progressives.
In other words Biden is showing that while he wants to have an inclusive administration, he’s also eager to take a somewhat middle-of-the-road approach as he navigates the party’s bickering factions.
Similarly, Biden has decided so far to fill his White House senior staff with longtime advisers who are largely inoffensive to disparate wings of the Democratic party. He has appointed Ron Klain, his chief of staff while vice-president, to the same role as president. Jenn O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s general election campaign manager, will be deputy chief of staff. Mike Donilon, who served as counselor to Biden as vice-president, will reprise the same title at the White House. Steve Ricchetti, another former chief of staff to Biden, will be a counselor as well. Biden also picked the Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond, his former campaign co-chairman, as a senior adviser.
There are other members of Biden’s decades-old political circle who have not been publicly assigned posts, like Bruce Reed, another top adviser.
Veterans of past Democratic transitions strongly expect Biden to continue appointing longtime advisers and older Democratic operatives to key posts in his administration. Biden’s White House communications team is a source of widespread intrigue as well. He could appoint Symone Sanders, a senior adviser on his campaign, to be White House press secretary. Sanders would be the first African American woman to take that role. Kate Bedingfield, Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director, is also in the running as well.
Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, former Illinois congressman, and first chief of staff to then president Obama, is a top prospect for secretary of transportation. That possibility has sparked ire from liberal outside groups.
Past incoming Democratic administrations took radically different approaches to early appointments and filling out White House senior staff.
In 2008 then president-elect Barack Obama brought on longtime Washington hands like Emanuel to run his team. Jimmy Carter, decades earlier, imported a team largely from Georgia. Biden, though, has been a “Washington creature for 40-something years”, noted Roy Neel, a former chief of staff to the former vice-president Al Gore.
“The relationships that he’s developed, relationships of trust among political professionals and others, have been Washington-centric,” Neel said, adding that it would have surprised him if Biden hadn’t picked hands like Klain, O’Malley Dillon, and Richetti.
Shortlists for other top cabinet spots are often full of either candidate with deep ties to Biden or experience in the Obama administration.
Some Democrats see former acting attorney general Sally Yates as a favorite to serve as the Biden administration’s attorney general. Outgoing Alabama senator Doug Jones, a longtime friend of Biden’s, is also often mentioned as another top prospect to run the Department of Justice, alongside the former Massachusetts governor Deval Patrick. Alabama Democrats and allies to Jones expect the Alabama senator would accept the job if offered it, according to interviews with multiple Democrats close to the senator. Lisa Monaco is another top candidate to run the Department of Homeland Security.
Overall though Biden has signaled that he plans to be inclusive and somewhat predictable as president. There have been signals that even without a progressive champion at the helm of the major economic institutions in his administration, Biden still plans to take a tough-on-Wall-Street approach to the economy. He has also made clear that he plans to marshal a major federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. Biden has already set up and been meeting with a an advisory group of health experts on the pandemic.
“The big publicly notable efforts on diversity will be in the cabinet,” Neel said.
Neel, like other veteran Democratic operatives, said that the real diversity in Biden’s administration will be announced in appointments that haven’t been filled yet.
Biden’s team has worked to stress a sense of calm and normalcy about his transition even as the Trump administration has taken unheard of steps in response to Biden’s victory. Trump has refused to concede defeat and instead urged his political and legal team to move forward with long-shot lawsuits to try and prove his unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud. Those efforts have been almost uniformly unsuccessful.
The General Services Administration (GSA), the federal agency that traditionally quickly ascertains the winner of the presidential election, has not done so yet for Biden. The Trump-appointed head of that agency, Emily Murphy, reportedly is torn over immense pressure to declare Biden the winner despite her unusual inclination to wait. Because of Murphy’s hesitance the Biden transition team has not had access to money, classified briefings and resources president-elects usually receive.
Behind the scenes, Biden’s team has urged donors to give money to the transition to compensate for those lack of resources. Evan Ryan, an adviser on the Biden transition team, has also been headlining conversations with donors to talk more about the transition’s work.
“Unfortunately we have still not received the money we need to totally fund the Biden Harris transition because President Trump has stopped GSA from giving our Transition effort over $8m in cash and in-kind contributions,” the Democratic National Committee’s national finance chair, Chris Korge, wrote in a fundraising pitch obtained by the Guardian.
Korge added: “President Trump refuses to commence the transition process in full to the detriment of ALL Americans! Quite frankly this is just flat out WRONG and the American people will be the big losers if we don’t immediately step up and do something about it!”