What We’ve Learned About The Biden Administration From His Staffing Choices So Far

Last week, President-elect Joe Biden selected many of his top White House aides. This week, he’s announced some top Cabinet and national security posts. There are many, many jobs left to fill — most notably defense secretary and attorney general — but here’s what we’re learning so far about Biden, the Biden administration and how he’ll govern …

It’s back to normal — at least as far as Biden’s staffing is concerned

As expected, Biden is appointing very traditional people, in the mode of most other presidents — except for Biden’s immediate predecessor, of course. President Trump initially picked a chief of staff (Reince Priebus) and secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) with no prior experience in the federal government and two top White House advisers (Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller) whose views were fairly outside of the elite GOP mainstream. It is unlikely that a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would have named any of those four to those posts.

In contrast, Biden’s staff is heavy on people who have held similar jobs in the past and were in line for senior posts if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016. Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, for example, was deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Avril Haines, who will be Biden’s director of national intelligence, was the deputy director of the CIA and then deputy national security adviser under Obama. Nearly every person Biden has named to a very senior role was in a top post in the Obama administration. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Biden will wind up carrying out what amounts to Obama’s third term (although that might end up being true). Rather, Biden is naming the most traditionally qualified people for these jobs, as previous presidents have done. President George W. Bush’s first defense secretary (Donald Rumsfeld) and secretary of state (Colin Powell) had held top jobs in previous GOP administrations. Obama’s first chief of staff (Rahm Emanuel) had been a top aide to President Bill Clinton, and Obama’s first attorney general (Eric Holder) had been deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.

The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood captured the ethos of Biden’s selections nicely, referring to Blinken and Jake Sullivan, who has been designated to be national security adviser, as “boring picks who, if you shook them awake and appointed them in the middle of the night at any time in the last decade, could have reported to their new jobs and started work competently by dawn.”

Biden is trying not to annoy his party’s left wing

Biden ran to the right of more liberal figures, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, during the Democratic primary. But he has generally tried to court his party’s left wing — more so than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats, at least. So Biden’s picks, particularly Ron Klain (chief of staff) and Janet Yellen (treasury secretary) are people who are well-liked by the party’s more liberal wing.

Don’t get me wrong: Biden is putting together a center-left administration, picking establishment figures who would be unlikely to get the same roles in a Sanders or Warren administration. And Biden might still choose people for top jobs who more liberal Democrats really hate, most notably Emanuel and former Bill Clinton domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed. But Biden seems to be trying to find people who are in the midpoint of the Democratic Party, a smart instinct in a party that is fairly fractured at its elite levels (the Squad vs. the moderates in the House, for example).

Biden is also trying not to annoy Republicans too much

Biden might need some GOP votes to get his Cabinet picks confirmed in the U.S. Senate, so he’s trying not to antagonize Republicans too much either. Susan Rice, who served as the national security adviser for Obama, was rumored to be under consideration to run the State Department. But some Senate Republicans were already signaling opposition to her, so Blinken was a safer choice. Democrats would control the Senate if they win both of the Georgia runoffs on Jan 5, but there is a decent chance Democrats won’t win both (or either) of those races. So Biden seems to be keeping that possibility in mind — none of his selections are anyone Senate Republicans are known to strongly oppose. (So Republicans’ potential role in the confirmation process may be pushing Biden’s choices right, even as his Democratic Party’s progressive wing pushes him left.)

Overall, Biden is living up to his diversity commitments

The former vice president said he would pick a diverse Cabinet during the campaign and is following through: Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, would be the first Latino person to serve as Homeland Security secretary; Yellen would be the first woman to serve as treasury secretary. Indeed, there are a lot of women in key posts — from White House counsel (Dana Remus) to intelligence director (Haines). Also remember that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first woman, first Black American and first person of South Asian descent to hold that job.

That said, there’s less diversity among the positions with the most power and access to Biden

In certain top-level jobs, you are basically guaranteed to speak to the president regularly (chief of staff, counselor to the president) or have a lot of decision-making power yourself, whether or not the president speaks to you regularly (national security adviser, secretary of state). The Biden administration, at least based on the picks so far, will look diverse but may not have much ideological or racial diversity in its top-level decision-making.

Women, as I noted earlier, will almost certainly be in top decision-making roles. But the women chosen so far generally share Biden’s more centrist politics. There isn’t an obvious Squad/Warren/Sanders liberal in any top job so far. And while Biden’s picks overall are racially diverse, it’s easy to imagine that many key decisions will be made by a mostly white group.

Again, that could change and is based only on his hires so far. Biden is far from filling out his team. So Biden might choose more liberal figures for domestic and economic policy posts, and he could name people of color to powerful posts like attorney general or defense secretary.

So where’s all this leave us?

Overall, Biden looks like he’s trying to fulfill his unstated-but-obvious goal of making the U.S. government boring again. And his picks so far are indeed boringly normal.

In terms of respecting democratic norms and values, that will likely be a very good thing. But the nature of the issues Biden will face as president might not allow him to have a boring presidency.

Biden is a centrist, establishment figure. He’s long been a presence in Washington. And he’s surrounding himself with similar people, many of whom have long histories with Biden himself. The advantage of such people is that they understand how the government works. The disadvantage is that Biden’s team may not be especially well-equipped to deal with new problems the nation faces, in particular the coronavirus outbreak, the increasingly anti-democratic tendencies of the Republican Party, a country growing more aware of its enduring racial divides and other issues that were not as pressing as in 2009 or 1993.

So Biden is creating a normal team — but the big question is whether normal will work in these very abnormal times.