America Will Likely Have to Wait for Biden Cabinet Picks

November 10, 2020 by Dan McCue
President-elect Joe Biden speaks at The Queen theater, Monday, Nov. 9, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden wasted no time in assembling the new coronavirus task force he unveiled Monday, but it will likely be early December before the majority of Americans learn who the new president has picked for his cabinet.

The plan, according to people familiar with the situation, is to fill senior roles responsible for coordinating the response to the pandemic, and then to build Biden’s White House staff after that.

The plan isn’t all that different from the one followed by President-elect Barack Obama in 2008, when the presidential election followed the onset of the global financial crisis.

In Obama’s case, the first nominee announced was Tim Geithner, for treasury secretary, three days before Thanksgiving.

As for Biden, the prevailing school of thought appears to be not making any nominations public until after the Electoral College meets on Dec. 14 to finalize the presidential race.

But some are suggesting even that might be a touch early, given that no one will know which party controls the Senate — and therefore the confirmation process — until Jan. 5., the date of the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia.

All that said, it’s important to remember that presidential transitions are always something of a “black box” event, widely speculated about, but seldom the source of any light — or enlightenment — themselves, said Matt Bennett, executive vice president for public affairs at Third Way, the public policy Think Tank.

“The people inside who really know what’s going on don’t tend to talk, and, in my experience with both the Clinton and Obama transitions, the rumors that are published or circulated are mostly wrong,” Bennett said.

Third Way is just one of scores of groups and individuals that have reached out to the Biden transition team to offer suggestions on possible nominees. Some do so more circumspectly than others.

For instance the so-called “squad,” led by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, has been quite out-front about its drive to have progressives named to the cabinet, and have even gone so far as to call out individuals whose names have been floated for potential roles in the Biden administration.

The latest example of that messaging came Monday, when Rep. Ocasio-Cortez weighed in against former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as someone who would be “a pretty divisive pick.”

“It would signal, I think, a hostile approach to the grass-roots and the progressive wing of the party,” she said.

Bennett said Third Way is adhering to a more traditional approach.

“Our purpose in sending names over was we wanted to make sure that we are part of the conversation,” he said. “We’re not attacking anybody. We’re just offering the names of people that we think would be good.”

“Frankly, it’s not all that useful for anyone to be attacking other Democrats at this moment,” he said.

That is in part because control of the Senate is still up for grabs.

A Democratic-controlled Senate would undoubtedly make confirmation easier; while a Republican Senate would likely be more willing to start the year with a confirmation battle.

As it stands now, Biden would need for at least 50 Democrats to be elected to the Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tiebreaker to give them the majority.

Then there’s the fact the transition to a Biden administration is being complicated by Trump’s refusal to concede the race and his plan to press legal challenges to the results in key states that gave the Democratic nominee the more than 270 Electoral College votes he needed to win.

As a result, the General Services Administration has refused to give the Biden team access to office space, federal officials and approximately $10 million in funding it needs to move the transition forward.

A spokeswoman for GSA said the agency’s reticence is due to its not having yet ascertained that Biden is the winner. In making this claim, it says it is adhering to precedent established by the Clinton Administration in 2000.

In the wake of that election, President-elect George W. Bush was denied transition funding and office space while the legal battle over former Vice President Al Gore’s bid for a recount in Florida was ongoing.

Later, then-GSA administrator David Barram told Congress that he found himself in the “unprecedented” position of having an “incredibly close and intensely contested election” being litigated by both sides.

Bush did eventually get the funds he needed to carry out his transition, but not until Dec. 14 2000, the day after Gore conceded the election.

Bennett said because of the ongoing pandemic, the need for physical office space likely isn’t as great as during other transitions, but “they need the money, and more importantly, they need access to Trump administration officials to start to get their arms around ongoing issues.

“It’s an enormous and incredibly complicated operation, and the less time the incoming administration has to prepare, the worse it is going to be — particularly given that we’re in the middle of a pandemic and a recession,” he said.

So where does all this leave us in terms of who the potential cabinet picks might actually be?

Again, Bennett said while a president-elect’s transition team can be receptive and grateful for  “ideas and lists and insights,” the members of the team are “not really telling us or anybody else what’s going on.”

Compiling a list of candidates then is something of an act of faith. Below is something of best guess based on conversations with people knowledgeable about the process and multiple published reports.

Coronavirus Secretary

As is already evident from his naming an advisory coronavirus task force less than 48 hours after being declared the victor in the 2020 election, Biden is determined to bring the pandemic to heel once and for all.

Toward that end, Biden has proposed creating a special position to oversee the administration’s response to the pandemic, and the two leading candidates just happen to be co-chairs of the coronavirus task force.

They are Dr. David Kessler, FDA commissioner under both President H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and Dr. Vivek Murthy, former surgeon general of the U.S. under President Barack Obama.

Also said to be in the running is Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases, whom Biden has said he wants in his administration.

Treasury Secretary

Equally pressing for the president is the need to immediately address the adverse economic impacts of the pandemic, including unemployment and business closures.

That will mean naming a treasury secretary and other members of the White House economic team fairly quickly.

Among the contenders for the Treasury job is Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard.

Brainard served as a senior Treasury Department official in the Obama administration, and has broad policymaking experience, particularly during economic crises.

Progressives, meanwhile, are pushing for Sen. Elizabeth Warren, with the spin as recently as last month being the job was hers to turn down.

But Warren’s chances seemed to fade when Democrats failed to secure an out-right majority in the Senate. That’s because if she were to step down to take the Treasury post, Mass. Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would likely choose a Republican to replace her.

Others said to be on the short list for Treasury are Jeff Zients, who was director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was secretary of Health and Human Services under Obama, and Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Fed governor and Treasury official.

Two other possibilities, both black men, are Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic and ex-Fed Official Roger Ferguson. Of these two, Bostic is less likely as he’s also being considered as a possible replacement for Fed Chairman Jerome Powell, whose term is up in 2022.

Ferguson made his reputation by helping to coordinate the Federal Reserve’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, taking actions credited with considerably shortening the post-attack recession.

Other Economic Posts

Also in the running to be part of Biden’s core economic team is economist Heather Boushey, who is seen by many as the frontrunner to be the next director of the National Economic Council.

Boushey is currently executive director and chief economist at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth. She was also co-editor of a volume of 22 essays about how to integrate inequality into economic thinking.

The name most often mentioned head of the Council of Economic Advisers is Jared Bernstein, currently a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

From 2009 to 2011, Bernstein was the chief economist and economic adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden in the Obama Administration. According to his Wikipedia page, he was considered to be a progressive and “a strong advocate for workers.”

Secretary of State

Another early priority for the Biden administration is sure to be the mend of relations with foreign governments, that means having a secretary of state who can hit the ground running on day one.

Susan Rice seems to be the frontrunner on everyone’s list. She’s a veteran diplomat and was President Obama’s national security adviser.

Another possibility is Antony Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser.

Blinken worked as the Democratic staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was deputy secretary of state from 2015-2017, when he helped implement the Obama administration’s policy toward Asia.

He also worked in the Obama White House as special assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser.

Defense Secretary

With President Trump’s firing on Monday of Defense Secretary Mark Esper, stability at the Pentagon is going to be something the Biden administration wants to nail down early.

The top prospect here is Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of Defense, who would be the first woman to run the Pentagon.

Another possible candidate is Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under Obama and would be the first Black defense secretary.

Also frequently mentioned is Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She served in the Army Illinois National Guard in Iraq, where she lost both of her legs in combat. She also served as a tireless surrogate for Biden during the campaign.

Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg is seen as the odds-on favorite for the job, although a number of people are floating his name for ambassador to the United Nations, which is high profile — it likely will propel Nikki Haley to run for president in 2004 — and it would give him a chance to acquire foreign policy experience.

Transportation Secretary

Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, an early supporter of Biden and member of his vice presidential selection committee, is said to be in the running for the Department of Transportation, but could also wind up at the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

Others on the short list are Phillip Washington, currently the head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, and Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of the New York City Transit Authority and former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

If Garcetti goes to transportation, California Rep. Karen Bass, chairwoman of the Congressional Black Caucus, could land the HUD job. If not, she’s also said to be a contender for secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services.

Bass was among the women Biden vetted for vice president before selecting Sen. Kamala Harris. However, Bass is seen as moving up in the House leadership ranks at a time when all three of the top House Democrats are 80 or older. So there could be room to consolidate more power on the Hill than she’d have in a cabinet post.

If Bass stays in the House, the next leading contender is said to be New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.

Before becoming governor, Grisham was New Mexico’s secretary of health and helped bolster the state’s public health system.

Also on the short list: Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.

Labor Secretary

Officially, Sen. Bernie Sanders is said to be pushing the transition team to “include progressive voices” in the administration, but Politico has reported he’s also expressed interest in being named the Biden administration’s labor secretary.

So far, no other names have emerged as contenders.

Attorney General

Sally Yates, a career federal prosecutor, served as acting attorney general for 10 days at the beginning of the Trump administration until Trump fired her for insubordination.

Yates at the time was refusing to defend the president’s ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries.

Not that being fired by Trump is a criteria for the job, but another contender is said to be Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was let go by Trump after he refused an order from attorney general Jeff Sessions to resign.

Homeland Security Secretary

So far the only name that comes up consistently is that of Lisa Monaco, who also served as Obama’s homeland security adviser.

CIA Director

Here too only one name has been mentioned consistently, that of Avril Haines, who was deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. She was also deputy director of the CIA under Obama, the first woman to hold the position.

Agriculture Department

Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota is said to be the favorite after serving as a frequent surrogate for Biden in rural communities.

Others being discussed include California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross and Krysta Harden, a former Obama deputy agriculture secretary who now works at the Dairy Export Council.

Interior Secretary

All eyes are on retiring Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico. His father, Stewart Udall, was Interior secretary from 1961 to 1969 and is credited with a major expansion in federal land protection, including the creation of dozens of wildlife refuges, national parks and recreation areas

Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, of Arizona, are also said to be in contention.

Climate Czar

President-elect Biden is widely expected to bring the United States back into the Paris climate accord and in doing so is also expected to create a new executive climate position to help coordinate global efforts to stem climate change.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is most often mentioned as the lead contender for the job, while other top candidates include former Secretary of State John Kerry and John Podesta, who was chief of staff for former President Clinton.

EPA Administrator

The top candidate for the job appears to be Jay Inslee , who now serves as California’s top air regulators. Though she’s got unimpeachable environmental creds, she could be a tough nominee to get through a Republican-controlled Senate.

One suggested alternative could be Heather McTeer Toney, who served as a regional EPA administrator for several Southern states under Obama. Today she is national field director for the Mom’s Clean Air Force, a grassroots group dedicated to fighting air pollution.

Other names being mentioned are Collin O’Mara, CEO of the National Wildlife Federation, and former Connecticut regulator Dan Esty.

Chief of Staff

This will likely go to a longtime Biden adviser, someone like Ron Klain or Steve Ricchetti.

Klain, a senior advisor to the Biden 2020 presidential campaign, served as chief of staff for two vice presidents, Al Gore, from 1995-1999, and Biden, 2009-2011.

After there were reported Ebola virus cases in the United States, he was appointed by Barack Obama to serve as the White House Ebola response coordinator in late-2014 into early-2015. That experience may make him the frontrunner.

Ricchetti, meanwhile, served as chief of staff to Vice President Biden during the Obama administration and deputy chief of staff for operations under President Bill Clinton. In between stints in Democratic administrations, Ricchetti has worked as a lobbyist.

Room for Republicans

When Barack Obama took office in January 2009, he chose a Republican, Bob Gates, to be his first Defense secretary.

After talking so much about the need for a renewed sense of unity, Biden is likely expected to follow that example.

Though no specific roles have emerged for them, those said to be in the running for administration posts from the GOP include former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and tech executive Meg Whitman both of whom spoke at this year’s Democratic convention, former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona, and Cindy McCain, wife of the late Sen. John McCain.

Are you in touch with Biden’s transition team? Do you work in an agency or firm involved for the transfer of power? The Well News wants to hear from you — and we’ll keep you anonymous. Contact: [email protected]

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