President-elect Joe Biden made it clear last week he had heard concerns that his incoming cabinet that was shaping up to be more of a reunion of Obamaworld holdovers than a launching pad for the next generation of party leaders.
“Some are familiar faces. Some are in new roles. All are facing new circumstances and challenges,” Biden summed up his fledgling cabinet last Friday. “That’s a good thing—they bring deep experience and bold new thinking. Above all, they know how government should and can work for all Americans.”
Biden then introduced Tom Vilsack, 70, as his nominee to run the Department of Agriculture, a position Vilsack already held for eight years under President Barack Obama.
Amidst the eternal pushmi-pullyu that is attempting to form a cabinet out of a party as diverse—racially, generationally, philosophically—as the Democrats, Biden has shown a willingness to address frustrations among younger Democrats about the lack of generational diversity in his nascent administration. But the expected nomination of Pete Buttigieg, a 38-year-old former rival and ex-mayor of South Bend, Indiana, to lead the Department of Transportation, doesn’t alleviate the concerns of many younger Democrats that Biden’s cabinet is too, well, old-school.
Antony Blinken, nominated to lead the State Department, is a longtime adviser. Janet Yellen, nominated to lead the Treasury Department, was chair of the Federal Reserve under Obama. Gen. Lloyd Austin, Biden’s surprise pick to lead the Pentagon, was a good friend of Biden’s late son. John Kerry was Obama’s second secretary of state, and Vilsack, whose friendship with president-elect is old even by Biden standards, was the final speaker at nearly all of Biden’s events in the closing days before the Iowa caucuses.
“I would just say that, I am heartened that the Cabinet picks have reflected diversity… [but] I’d like to see a focus on building multi-generational leadership,” Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA) told The Daily Beast prior to the Buttigieg pick, adding that it was important to offer up posts to “new people… who will bring fresh perspectives, both to specific political issues and how to engage in good governance.”
Buttigieg’s nomination, which brings the average age of Biden’s cabinet secretary nominees from nearly 64 to a comparatively youthful 61, followed weeks of mounting pressure from LGBT groups and next-generation Democrats who want Biden to build a bridge to the party’s rising stars. (Once you factor in the ages of all cabinet-level officials, including nominees to lead the Office of Management and Budget and chair the Council of Economic Advisors, the average age drops to 59.)
“Yes,” was the answer of Rep.-elect Cori Bush (D-MO) when The Daily Beast asked on a Congressional Progressive Caucus call this week if Biden hadn’t yet met expectations in elevating new faces in his cabinet selections.
“I won’t say it's a missed opportunity,” explained Bush. “We have some amazing people doing wonderful work… this is our opportunity for other people to shine, and to bring some of the things they’ve been working on in their communities, in their business, to this place.”
After Biden named Buttigieg as his pick to lead Transportation on Wednesday, he was praised as “a leader, patriot, and problem-solver” who “embodies a new generation of American leadership” by the elder statesman. But his ambition was not always held in such high regard During the Democratic primaries, the Biden campaign poked fun at what it characterized as Buttigieg’s lack of experience—one now-deleted Twitter video implicitly mocked Buttigieg’s “tough fight” of negotiating “lighter licensing regulations on pet chip scanners.”
But Buttigieg’s Biden-friendly ideology and background in management consulting has left other young progressives cold, regardless of his age.
“So far, we have not seen a cabinet that reflects the concerns of young people who turned out in record numbers to deliver this election to Joe Biden,” said Garrett Blad of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-oriented group that advocates for climate change policy.
Blad, who unsuccessfully ran in the Democratic primary for election to the Indiana House of Representatives this cycle, said that policy and personnel commitments will be crucial to keeping younger Democrats in the fold—and suggested the creation of a task force dedicated to giving younger people a voice in the administration.
“Seeing that Biden’s cabinet so far is much older than the coalition that elected him to office, Biden should create a Task Force on Young Americans,” Blad said, which he said would ensure that the young voters who delivered record turnout for Biden this cycle “have a voice in the policy decisions affecting our generation the most, like climate change, gun violence, and immigration.”
In response to those concerns, transition officials emphasized that the cabinet is far from finished, and told The Daily Beast that the president-elect’s commitment to form a government that “looks like America” will extend to generational diversity, in addition to the history-making racial, gender and affectional diversity of Biden’s cabinet as currently nominated.
A transition spokesperson also emphasized that with the numerous crises facing the nation—the coronavirus pandemic, the resultant economic calamity, and major distrust in American government—the Biden administration doesn’t have time to be a teaching hospital for cabinet officials to learn on the job.
“Amid the crises facing the country, President-elect Biden is building a team of qualified and competent leaders to get things back on track and advance his bold agenda to build back better,” said Sean Savett, a transition spokesperson. “Each of these nominees are forward-thinking, crisis-tested and experienced, and they are ready to quickly use the levers of government to make meaningful differences in the lives of Americans and help govern on day one.”
—with additional reporting by Sam Brodey