President-elect Joe Biden is leaning on familiar faces and old allies from his decades in public life as he builds an administration that will immediately confront a storm of extraordinary interlocking crises.
With less than a month until the inauguration, Biden is walking a political tightrope — buffeted by competing demands from inside an increasingly diverse and factional Democratic Party — as he navigates what could be the most consequential and hotly scrutinized presidential transition in modern American history.
The construction of Biden’s Cabinet and senior White House staff is still a work-in-progress, but the new administration will be anchored by the President-elect’s longtime allies, veterans of the last Democratic White House and figures, like incoming national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who would have been expected to play key roles if Hillary Clinton had defeated President Donald Trump four years ago.
Together, they represent the fulfillment of a promise — dating back to the early days of the primary — that Biden would prioritize expertise and governing experience steeped in the moderate mainstream of the Democratic Party. But he has also been criticized, mostly from the left, for closing his eyes to the challenges he’ll face in bringing Republicans to the table and not broadening his inner circle.
Biden defended his preference for familiar faces in a joint interview with newspaper columnists this week: “One reason you need old hands,” he said, “is the old hands know where the old bodies might be buried.”
It is a group, Biden allies say, that has been assembled knowing that the new president will enter office with no space for bureaucratic hiccups, unnecessary drama or on-the-job training. The coronavirus pandemic is killing thousands of Americans every day and decimating the economy, while exposing calamitous gaps in the social safety net.
“Normally, a new administration tries to measure their success and plan their accomplishments for the first hundred days. But this is a team that doesn’t have that kind of luxury,” said New Jersey Rep. Andy Kim, a former civil servant who worked at the Pentagon and State Department. “This is a team that needs to be postured not for a hundred days, but for a hundred hours.”
The Trump administration’s foot-dragging has further complicated the situation. A presidential appointee in November delayed formally acknowledging the election results, temporarily locking Biden staffers out of the offices they will soon takeover. And Trump continues to publicly amplify absurd claims about a rigged election while chatting over dead-end plots to overturn its results.
“What gives me comfort,” Kim said, amid uncertainty over administration officials’ cooperation, “is knowing that this Biden team knows how to govern already, that this is a team that has been tested.”
Breaking into the inner circle
But some of the choices Kim says are helping him “sleep better at night” have also rankled Democrats who were hoping Biden would cast a wider net. Biden has said he wants to be a “bridge” to a new generation of leaders. But many of those closest to him, especially in senior White House positions, are either loyalists or grizzled party operatives.
The announcement on Tuesday that Bruce Reed, Biden’s chief of staff as vice president, will be his deputy chief of staff next year underscored the President-elect’s desire to surround himself with longtime allies — even if they anger some in the party. Leading progressives have spent weeks arguing that Reed, a centrist who worked on the 1994 crime bill and welfare reform during his time in Bill Clinton’s White House, should be shut out.
Progressives vying to embed leaders from their own ranks have widely praised the campaign and transition for being accessible, but have found that convincing Biden to step out of his comfort zone can be the highest hurdle to clear.
“The real challenge,” said Julian Brave NoiseCat, the vice president of policy and strategy with Data for Progress, “is more of who is in the inner circle — and how do you get people who are not in the inner circle into consideration.”
Biden’s inner sanctum of aides is on track to hold a slate of the most influential jobs in the White House. Incoming chief of staff Ron Klain is a longtime Biden confidante and Steve Ricchetti, another close ally, will be counselor to the president. Mike Donilon, who held that job in Biden’s vice presidential office, has been named senior adviser to the president.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, will be a short walk away at the State Department, which he has been nominated to lead. Susan Rice, Denis McDonough, John Kerry, Tom Vilsack and Vivek Murthy are among the Obama administration veterans likely to join Biden’s — with Vilsack and Murthy nominated to the same positions they held under Obama.
Biden has also recruited a number of progressive leaders, led by New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, to top jobs and more to influential but lower-profile advisory positions.
The additions on Monday of a former top aide to Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Bharat Ramamurti, as deputy director for the National Economic Council for Financial Reform and Consumer Protection, and Joelle Gamble, tapped to be special assistant to the president for economic policy, to Biden’s National Economic Council were major victories for liberals. And the same announcement that included Reed also named Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Congressional Progressive Caucus chair Rep. Pramila Jayapal before joining the transition, as deputy director of the Office of Presidential Personnel.
But the administration’s big tent still centers on the center, creating a roster to date that mostly reflects the President-elect’s politics while seeking to deliver on his pledge to craft a team that “looks like America.”
That effort has yielded a whirlwind of historic firsts, beginning with his decision in August to tap California Sen. Kamala Harris, who will soon become the first Black woman and person of South Asian descent to serve as vice president.
Over the past few weeks, Biden has rolled economic, public health and foreign policy teams stacked with groundbreaking nominees. Among them, pending approval in the Senate: Former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen, the first woman to hold that job, who is now in line to do the same as Treasury secretary. California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, selected to run the Department of Health and Human Services, would be the first Latino in that position. Retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin is in line to be the first Black person to head the Defense Department. A longtime national security professional, Avril Haines, is on track to be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Latino and immigrant to serve at the helm of Homeland Security.
Former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Biden’s choice for the Transportation Department, will — if confirmed — become the first out LGBTQ Cabinet member approved by the Senate.
Liberals vow not to repeat old mistakes
The Biden transition has been unique for the intense scrutiny it has received from a diverse assortment of interest groups and movement leaders.
It is the first Democratic Cabinet-filling process to play out in the social media era. Those leading the charge from the left are also more informed and bullish about the powers of the presidency and agency leaders than they were more than a decade ago, when Obama took office.
“The Revolving Door Project is an explicit response to what I saw as the failings of progressives in 2008 and 2009, but even more generally across the Obama era to fully engage with the importance of the executive branch,” said Jeff Hauser, the watchdog group’s founder and director. “Especially the transition, but throughout.”
But Hauser, whose criticism of nominees and potential picks over their business ties has reportedly irked some around Biden, is more of a wonk-with-a-cause — to pressure Democrats to aggressively pursue their agenda through all available means — than a rebel firebrand.
“I understand that amidst all these crises, there’s a bias for expertise,” Hauser said. “Biden thinks he has a mandate on that based off of how he positioned himself in the primary. And so whether or not it’s exactly what I would do, I can respect that as having a basis.”
The questions going forward, he added, likely won’t be answered in headlines and headline-grabbing nominations to massive bureaucracies, but down the pecking order as Biden, his team and senior administration leaders begin to fill out assistant secretary, undersecretary and chief of staff jobs — all opportunities to bring in less seasoned but accomplished people from outside the churn of Washington, DC.
Melissa Byrne, a former aide to Sen. Bernie Sanders who spent time on the first Obama campaign and volunteered for a period on his transition, argued that empowering personnel with movement backgrounds would benefit the White House during the inevitable conflicts with hardline Republicans.
Her concerns speak to broader anxieties among Democrats, who worry that Biden’s orbit might be overestimating its ability to forge good faith negotiations with a radicalized, Trump-loyal GOP.
“You need people that don’t waver when things get really hard. Because this is going to be really hard. I don’t know if people are really prepared for what the Trumpers are going to be doing over the next four years,” Byrne said. “It’s going to make the Tea Party seem like they were Obama’s BFFs.”
The promise of Biden’s campaign, in the primaries and the general election showdown with Trump, also looms over post-campaign decision-making. His mandate is vast and complicated, and it could — when he takes office and begins to push his agenda — create conflicting imperatives.
The biggest challenge ahead, said Nina Smith, a former campaign aide to Buttigieg, will be, simply, “the politics.”
“Biden is presenting himself as a healer and healers have to deal with wounds and scars. And this is a country that has been deeply wounded and scarred,” Smith said. “So the politics of everything from the policies he pursues, to who shows up in different meetings, to who he hires to implement his agenda — it’s all on the table.”