Joe Biden’s cabinet picks continue to come day after day, and with these selections an administration begins to take shape. From these cabinet picks we can tell much about President-Elect Biden’s intentions, his loyalties, his agenda, and even priorities.
The Biden picks include a great number of “firsts”, and, as the most diverse cabinet in history, it is Biden’s first delivery on his campaign promises. So far, he has appointed Janet Yellen, the first woman ever appointed Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Austin, the first black Secretary of Defense, Xavier Becerra, the first Latino HHS Secretary, and Alejandro Mayorkas, an immigrant who will be in charge of the Department of Homeland Security. Further, Neera Tanden is the first woman of color and the first South Asian to head the Office of Management and Budget. Marcia Fudge is the second black female head of HUD and Linda Thomas Greenfield is the second black UN ambassador. The most significant first, however, is bittersweet. Deb Haaland is the first native American to ever serve in a cabinet position. She will serve as Secretary of the Interior. This is a step forward made by the Biden administration, and U.S. government, but is far overdue.
By the end of 2020, Biden’s cabinet looks to include an equal mixture of men and women to serve in these positions, and a whole plethora of diverse backgrounds are represented among his selections.
With the remaining appointments it is certain that Biden will continue to look for cabinet members with diverse backgrounds, a feature which should be acknowledged as a step in the right direction on a social and cultural level with regard to racism, xenophobia and sexism - part of the whole “soul of the country” platform Biden ran on.
The Aged, Swampy Echoes Of Obama
Biden is clearly calling back to the Obama years as a default. Blinken was Obama’s deputy Secretary of State. Janet Yellen was the chair of the Federal Reserve. Tom Vilsack, USDA Secretary appointee occupied the exact same position under Obama. Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs appointee was White House Chief of Staff for Obama’s second term. Ron Klain, Biden’s Chief of Staff appointee was VP Chief of Staff under the Obama administration from 2009-2011. Avril Haines, former Obama Deputy National Security Advisor will become Director of National Intelligence under Biden. Lastly, John Kerry, Obama’s Secretary of State, is now Biden’s newly created “U.S. Special Presidential Envoy for Climate”.
The problem with appointing largely the same personnel as the Obama administration is multifaceted. Firstly, many of these appointees could be argued as having failed up. Arguably the most problematic phenomenon in Washington is the lack of accountability for failure.
There is a reason that Donald Trump won in 2016. It was largely due to failures of the Obama administration. Between the wars, policy stagnation, and the enormous transfer of wealth from the working class to banks through TARP while Obama’s administration failed to offer housing solutions and other assistance to millions of people losing their homes to the same entities receiving federal money to cover their financial losses. Little to nothing was offered to a majority of those suffering foreclosure and homelessness. The significance of the complete abandonment of labor and working class issues in exchange for appeasing the “corporate elite” culture has resulted in evident and enormous electoral liabilities for the Democrats. Rightfully so.
The outcome of TARP, quantitative easing, and the inadequate and lopsided recovery bills was the hollowing out of the average American’s assets to the benefit of the very, very few - a tragedy repeating itself with this crisis just as it had occurred when Obama took office. Let us hope that Biden, advised by largely the same staff, doesn’t make the same sorts of mistakes that Obama did by allowing the George W. Bush TARP plan to continue largely unchanged, ultimately enriching the wealthiest during an economic collapse while ignoring predatory lending and leaving the average American taxpayer without adequate assistance.
This administration seems determined to merely reinforce the status quo that Obama established - the same status quo that has continued to erode working class wealth for forty years, accelerated immensely over the past decade.
Biden is placing a premium on his personal histories with people when choosing his cabinet. There is also a concern that the cabinet picks are focusing too much on candidates that “check a box”. Both lead to an unnecessary narrowing of options. With these things in mind, it is easy to be concerned about Biden’s cabinet’s ability to succeed.
Just like most cabinets, Biden’s has some absolute all-stars, and some which are cause for concern. Here we go through some of Biden’s best, and worst, cabinet picks so far:
Xavier Becerra As HHS Secretary
California’s AG, and new pick for Health and Human Services secretary, is the son of Mexican immigrants, former congressman for Los Angeles, and ardent defender of the ACA. Becerra is one of the best aspects of this cabinet for being generally proactive and effective in fighting for American’s health care.
As the ACA was under attack, he orchestrated the legal defense of the healthcare legislation that has greatly improved access to coverage across the nation through Medicaid expansions. He has been quoted as supporting a public option or “Medicare for All”, has supported so-called “march-in rights”, and is a consummate proponent of women’s health.
Despite his passion for improving our healthcare system, Becerra faces a difficult fight. With Covid-19, ongoing shortages in hospitals, from PPE shortages to inadequate ICU beds, Becerra certainly has a difficult job ahead.
Janet Yellen as Treasury Secretary
Despite valid criticisms that can be levied against the Federal Reserve’s actions during the Great Recession and Mortgage Crisis, given the circumstances and the tools available, one is inclined to appraise her time as 15th chair of the Federal Reserve to be successful. She was able to realize very low inflation while also seeing year over year growth in employment. The country’s economy stabilized and grew throughout her tenure as chair, and that experience will likely come in handy at the Treasury Department given the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Yellen prioritizes her responsibilities in preventing a spike in unemployment above her call to keep inflation rates low. Her ability to help the nation weather the storm following the 2008 financial crisis should be good preparation for the challenge of heading the Treasury Department under Biden and following the great national failures of 2020.
Marcia Fudge is a member of the progressive caucus in the House and one of the few individuals appointed by Biden to draw attention to the unemployment, housing, and food crises emerging parallel to the pandemic. She would have been a better choice for USDA, having more experience, but she has been picked for HUD, a position she explicitly mentioned she wasn’t particularly interested in. She has a history of working with SNAP and sits on the committee for Agriculture in the house. Through her work in her home state of Ohio, she has proven an effective and compassionate advocate for Americans in need.
Though this may be among the best things to come of the Biden selection thus far, it is very much so a mixed bag. First off, Marcia Fudge was a much more appropriate contender for Head of the USDA. However, that position was instead given to the man occupying that exact same position under Obama - Tom Vilsack - a facet of the Biden cabinet I would qualify as bad considering Vilsack’s endorsement of “pink slime”, a beef byproduct, for public school lunches. Further, his hands-off attitude during a time when the ill-effects of pesticides and fertilizers revealed just how impactful U.S. agriculture is on the environment, claiming he had “literally nothing to do” as head of the USDA while runoff from farms created ever-expanding dead regions in Lake Eerie, the Gulf of Mexico, and many other precious bodies of water. A return to the Obama-era Vilsack will mean agricultural pollution worsens while big ag consumes more and more family farms.
Cedric Richmond is currently the Representative for Louisiana’s 2nd district, his first term beginning in 2011 - a district that has been known as “cancer alley” the entirety of his time in office. He was chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus from 2017-2019 and is the only congressional Democrat from Louisiana currently serving in Washington. He also served as co-chairman for the Biden campaign. On November 17, he announced he would leave congress to serve as Senior Advisor to the President and as the director of the Office of Public Liaison.
There are many issues one can have with Richmond’s inclusion in the cabinet, ranging from falsifying residential eligibility in the 2008 2nd district primary resulting in his law license being suspended for 6 months in Louisiana, to his lewd and inappropriate comments regarding Helena Moreno and Kellyanne Conway, among others…
But the real ugliness of Cedric Richmond is his near decade in congress ignoring and gaslighting the residents of his district as they contracted and died of cancer at the highest rates in the country. Among other environmental, worker safety, and community health concerns, a chemical plant in the district has been emitting chloroprene into the community. Chloroprene is a chemical used to produce neoprene, a type of synthetic rubber. The GHS (Globally Harmonized System) hazard system identifies chloroprene as flammable, carcinogenic, mutagenic, teratogenic (reproductively toxic), comprehensive respiratory irritant, skin and eye irritant with acute (fatal) toxicity potential, as well as environmental hazards such as unique risk to aquatic life. It exists as a colorless, volatile liquid and is very difficult to detect.
In December 2015, the EPA released the 2011 National Air Toxic Assessment. Using samples and data collected by EPA, the assessment identified chloroprene was being released from Denka Performance Elastomer’s Pontchartrain facility in LaPlace, Louisiana. This Japanese-owned plant in Richmond’s district has a 60-year history of emitting chloroprene, including many examples where EPA measured emissions hundreds of times above their suggested exposure limit. Cancer alley, also within Richmond’s former district, experiences malignant cancers in its population roughly fifty times that of the national average (which is already high for developed nations).
Yet Richmond has a history of giving lip-service, and for ignoring his constituents concerned by the air pollution crisis in their towns and districts who often must travel to DC to talk to him, but are shuffled out the door after listening un-intently for “two minutes”. Many residents of the town have been reaching out for years to nothing. A fact likely explained by the facts regarding significant campaign contributions from industrial chemical lobbies of all makes and models.
Richmond’s stature has only grown among his party over the years. With Obama appearing to endorse his congressional bids, to his ascension to chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, to his assignments to committees and subcommittees, and now as a Presidential appointment. Despite his seemingly out-of-touch nature with his constituents, an attitude many voters across the aisle have expressed they want to be a thing of the past, Biden has chosen this individual to be close to his ear.
General Austin is an exemplar of a personal Biden connection failing upward. Austin was placed in charge of CENTCOM in Iraq, charged with carrying out Obama’s directive of drawing down and leaving Iraq to the Iraqis. At no point did troops ever meet the draw-down schedule devised largely under advisement of Austin himself. In fact, it was under Austin’s tenure at CENTCOM that ISIS emerged in the country and quickly rose to prominence. Austin’s work as the commanding officer at CENTCOM and his work in Iraq before that appointment was wrought with failure resulting in unnecessary death and destruction. It was under Austin’s watch that ISIS went from a concept scaring cable-news junkies to a brutal regime occupying and conquering seemingly without resistance until overwhelming, international forces coalesced to end the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria at great cost - something that should have never advanced that far to begin with.
There is a lot of good in these picks, but that does not justify silence in the many examples where we think they could have been better. If we don’t push our politicians to do the right thing, and appoint the right people, there is a good chance they won’t. We have a very divergent population in this country who need representation for who they are, and not just if the agenda agrees with them. Our leaders need to get used to the fact that there is a lot of diversity in our country, and all those differences need serving. Service by those in authority must be to all the people of our nation, not just the few.
Focusing on firsts is good for our culture. It gives our next generation hope. It is important to have a diverse perspective in the White House. A good way to give minorities experience, and exposure, is to give them a visible role in the administration. The only way to start seeing diversity in leadership is by adding diversity to that leadership. That said, candidates, diverse or otherwise, need to be scrutinized on their previous decisions and actions, and everyone, from the left to the right, need to be willing to judge appointees on the content of their character and the history of their service.
The ladies of the economy Katherine Tai and Cecilia Rouse - both worthy of mention - are further examples of wise selections on Biden’s behalf. However, he has not been immune to letting personal connections, tradition, and team politics hinder his decision-making. The general lack of any pragmatic basis for their selection makes Biden’s cabinet more similar to Trump’s than the sort of cabinet that would exude confidence that the President-Elect understands the concerns of the American people and is willing and prepared to address them. Just like Trump, Biden appears to be constructing a transactional cabinet. The lack of ethics or even coherent ideology within this cabinet or Biden himself is the most concerning of all, inspiring concern that Biden may lack a meaningful plan or intention.
Every individual in this cabinet has the ability to act in the best interest of the American people. We must hold them to acting to their maximal abilities for the sake of those people. Benevolence matters. By communicating with our leaders, from the left and the right about the commonsense actions that must be taken to ensure financial freedom and environmental security for all Americans, we can help influence and inspire Biden and his cabinet to steer the ship well. It’s time we realize we’re all in the same boat - we’re all in this together - and that we’re ready for a government that is truly for the people AND by the people.
We must learn to demand it.