When it comes to appointing his incoming Cabinet, Joe Biden appears to be more interested in getting the old band back together again than doing something more bold and unpredictable.
Biden faced various rounds of criticism throughout the process regarding appointee diversity. First, there were concerns with his first batch of top picks for foreign policy and national security agencies. Only two out of five were non-white. Then the same two-out-of-five diversity ratio came again when Biden appointed members of his economic team.
While there was some praise for historic diverse “firsts” at this point, politicians and experts began to mention how two out of the major four Cabinet major positions already announced (secretary of state and secretary of treasury) were white. Biden quickly fixed this by naming Gen. Lloyd Austin II as the nation’s first Black secretary of defense (though Austin was controversial for other reasons).
So far, he’s also appointed the first Latino DHS secretary, first Latino HHS secretary, the first woman of color/South Asian American to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the first African American deputy secretary of the Treasury and the first African American to lead the Council of Economic Advisors. A little over half of the Cabinet positions Biden has announced so far have gone to people of color, a remarkable feat for a leader who’s struggled throughout his career with racial gaffes and misguided social justice stances.
But when you actually peel back the perceivable milestones, there’s still a lot left to the progressive imagination. On Thursday, when Biden nominated Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, as his White House domestic policy council director, I sighed because I had just heard the same political broken record. She was one of the five top picks who previously served under Obama who is now returning back to the executive branch (former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, former Secretary of State John Kerry, former acting Office of Management and Budget director Jeff Zients, and former Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, were also previous Obama appointees now chosen under Biden).
It would be easy to say that the former VP is playing it safe, given that Donald Trump made reckless appointments that nearly brought the country down. But there’s a difference between being pragmatic and downright lazy. Many of Biden’s choices, especially these latest ones, feel more of the latter than the former.
Throughout his campaign, Biden tried to make the case that he was the old guy in the group who had the ability to usher in a new generation of leaders who was going to move the country forward.
“Look, I view myself as a bridge, not as anything else,” Biden told Detroit voters during the primaries. “There’s an entire generation of leaders you saw stand behind me. They are the future of this country.”
Biden was then referring to younger Black senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, who had joined him on stage during the rally. Their presidential hopes were quickly ended once it became clear the race was down to two old white men, Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders. In the end, those younger liberals rallied behind a man they believed would advance their agenda faster. I doubt they imagined his Cabinet being quite this full of retreads when they were backing him.
So where is the “future of this country” in Biden’s Cabinet? Sure, he’s already tapped Harris as his VP, but Booker is still floating around. How about the insightful businessman Andrew Yang? And if there was ever a former Obama appointee who deserved a second shot, why not reappoint the respected Julián Castro?
Biden’s current appointments (so far without Rahm Emanuel) aren’t by any means terrible. They are just a missed opportunity for something that could have been more exciting. For example, Biden made a smart move when choosing California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for his Health and Human Services secretary over Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo, who has a bad reputation with unions in her state.
But these decisions aren’t just one that speaks to a generational divide, but one that also cuts deep into the current ideological tensions that are shaping the Democratic Party. Picks such as his most recently announced group represent what Biden’s Cabinet and senior leadership looks like: an affront to progressives and emerging political power. Regardless of how he wants to point the finger at what caused Democrats to lose seats this election (because I highly doubt “Defund the Police” was the real reason), Biden’s appointments do little to heal this division within his party.
In fact, I would argue that it will fuel more resistance and challenge from the likes of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’s been critical of these appointments from the very beginning. And while there have been a few positive moves by Biden from the progressive point of view, such as appointing Cecilia Rouse, Jared Bernstein, and Heather Boushey to formulate what will be the most progressive CEA we’ve ever had, those picks also serve as a tease to how other Cabinet picks could have been extremely better.
Racial and gender diversity was achieved in Biden’s Cabinet, but age, ideological, and experience diversity is truly lacking. This Cabinet is pretty much a remix of Obama’s, except with the inclusion of a few new-but-old faces, such as congresswoman Marcia Fudge, who would have been a better pick as the nation’s first Black agriculture secretary than HUD secretary. But that’s how Biden’s presidential leadership has been shaping up so far—give the left something, not exactly what they desire, but enough to keep them still. Only time will tell how long progressives will stay put as Biden continues to pass them over.