WASHINGTON – Joe Biden promised that his presidency would mean a return to normalcy. His Cabinet picks help demonstrate how he plans to deliver.
The president-elect announced his final nominees this past week, completing a diverse team of two dozen people. He noted Friday that this will be the “first Cabinet ever” to reach gender parity and include a majority of people of color, notable given earlier concerns that he was leaning largely on white men.
Some nominees have decades of experience in their respective agencies. Many held prominent roles in the Obama administration. Many have already begun meeting with interest groups and advocacy organizations, and his transition team has had what’s been described as an “open-door policy” toward advocacy groups for months.
It’s a sharp contrast to President Donald Trump’s Cabinet, which was dominated largely by white men with little experience in Washington. Biden’s aides say that was one of the goals he set in filling out his Cabinet: to signal that his presidency means a return to competent, stable leadership government.
That's especially important, Democrats say, as the pandemic and economic turmoil rage and the country navigates through the aftermath of last week's violent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“Joe Biden is taking office under the most challenging circumstances in a century,” said Dan Pfeiffer, a former Obama White House senior adviser. “There is no time for on the job training. He needs people who can hit the ground running because what happens in the first six months of his presidency will likely determine the trajectory of all four years.”
Biden's Cabinet is unlikely to be in place when he assumes the presidency on Jan. 20. The Senate, which must confirm the nominees, hasn't scheduled hearings for many of the picks. One exception is Lloyd Austin, Biden's nominee for defense secretary, who is expected to appear before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Jan. 19.
Some nominees faced early questions about their confirmation prospects, particularly Neera Tanden, Biden's pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden has angered Republicans with her outspoken criticism of them on Twitter.
But the confirmation process for many of the nominees may be smoother after Democrats picked up two Senate seats in Georgia last week, leaving the chamber evenly divided. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the tie-breaking vote, giving Democrats the edge.
Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said that the president-elect is "working in good faith with both parties in Congress toward swift confirmation because with so much at stake, with our national security on the line and lives and jobs being lost every day, our nation cannot afford to waste any time.”
But many nominees may face unprecedented levels of scrutiny as they work to dig their departments out of both the erosion in public trust in government and an erosion of morale from within. Many department budgets and staff were gutted during the Trump administration.
That hollowing out is part of why it’s so important for Biden to choose seasoned veterans for his Cabinet, according to Eric Schultz, a former senior White House adviser.
“One of the problems that Biden faces that Obama did not in 2009 is how the Trump administration has treated federal agencies and departments,” he said. “Rebuilding — just, operationally — these agencies, to get that back up and running, is going to take a lot of work. So it wouldn’t make sense to put in a bunch of newbies.”
They’ll also have to navigate demands from progressives looking for major changes from leaders at agencies ranging from the the Department of Homeland Security to the Environmental Protection Agency and the Justice Department. Many of them will be on the front lines of addressing a pandemic that’s killed more than 371,000 people in the United States, while taking action on the issues of race and inequality and climate change that have prompted national movements for change in recent years.
To get ahead of those problems, Biden's transition team has spent months meeting with trade, advocacy and interest groups across Washington and beyond, looking to reestablish relationships that had atrophied during the Trump administration. Now that his team has been named, his nominees have begun their own meetings with key groups as they prepare to take office.
Some meetings are aimed at assuaging concerns among critics, such as when Tom Vilsack, Biden’s pick for agriculture secretary, met with Black farm advocates. Vilsack has faced questions about what critics say was his failure to address discrimination against Black farmers within the agency while he was Obama's agriculture chief.
But still others have included representatives from areas not typically seen as pet Democratic constituencies. Three of Biden’s top picks for health adviser positions met with interfaith leaders on Thursday, and the next day Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden's pick at Homeland Security, met with 20 leaders who share his Jewish faith.
The Rev. Gabriel Salguero, a Florida-based pastor who founded the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said the Biden transition has made a “very robust and very intentional” effort to build relationships with faith leaders. Salguero recalled other faith-specific calls with Susan Rice, chosen as Biden’s domestic policy adviser, and Tanden.
While Salguero recalled meetings with the Trump administration on key issues, he said the Biden transition team’s outreach already has gone further.
Even those groups that may be more aligned with Trump and Republicans on their issues are already pleased with Biden's approach to governing. Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf said that the reaction from his business clients and other Washington lobbyists has been, he said, “very positive” because “business likes certainly.”
“Business likes a plan,” Elmendorf said. “And while some of the outcomes under Donald Trump, people liked, they really didn’t like the government by tweet and Fox News.”
Even those who don’t agree with all of Biden’s policies, Elmendorf said, are relieved at the return to normal working order because “they believe that there will be a process that is know, and is transparent, and where stakeholders will have an opportunity to make their views known."
Associated Press writer Elana Schor contributed to this report.