A former cabinet member once said to me that the secret to job success is picking the right predecessor. In this regard, Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, and their entire administration could not be better positioned for success.
Being better than Team Trump is clearly setting the bar too low, especially in a sensitive area like national security. But the picks Biden is making seem not only assured of outperforming Trump’s team but likely of doing better than did Barack Obama’s team. Indeed, this may prove the strongest group a new U.S. president has assembled in decades.
Much can change between appointments and end results, of course. But history’s lessons suggest a number of reasons why the newly announced Biden team is so promising, beginning at the top.
Joe Biden will be the president with the most foreign policy experience of any since George H.W. Bush. And while Bush had 17 years of foreign policy experience before being elected president, starting with his appointment to serve as U.S. UN ambassador in 1971 and followed by stints as envoy to China, CIA director, and vice president, Biden began his high-level immersion in U.S. foreign policy one year after Bush did, when he was elected to the Senate in 1972. In other words, Biden, former chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has almost three times the amount of experience dealing with international issues that did Bush, the “gold standard” among modern presidents in terms of global savvy.
Just as significantly, Biden has infinitely more experience than did Trump, the first U.S. president ever to take office without even one minute of public service employment, and much more than had Obama (who had only been in the Senate four years when elected president), Bush 43 (a former Texas governor), Bill Clinton (a former Arkansas governor), or for that matter Reagan or Carter.
Biden will be the quarterback of the national security and foreign policy team in his own administration. That said, his experience has taught him that he wants a team that is also trustworthy, deeply experienced, will offer him diverse perspectives, and will respect the process by which decisions are made in well-run administrations.
This was evident from the moment word emerged that his pick as Secretary of State would be Antony Blinken, a longtime Biden adviser, former deputy secretary of State, National Security Adviser to Vice President Biden, Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff director, and NSC staffer. Like the entire array of national security team members announced or rumored for the Biden team, he is a highly regarded professional, extremely intelligent, and someone who will surely offer candid advice to Biden. No sycophants in this group.
Perhaps most important, Blinken has worked with Biden for decades and is deeply trusted. As we have seen in administration after administration (with Rex Tillerson or with Colin Powell, to pick two examples) when the president is not especially close to the Secretary of State, the effectiveness of the chief diplomat is limited. Foreign leaders sense this and they find ways to work around rather than through the State Department.
While much focus will be on how Biden, Blinken, and the team will work to restore the damage done by Trump and his gang to America’s standing in the world, Blinken’s experience within the State Department will also be crucial to rebuilding morale and capacity in an agency gutted by defections and, notably under Mike Pompeo, politicized leadership.
At the NSC, Biden has chosen the man who replaced Blinken as his national security adviser when Biden was VP, Jake Sullivan. Sullivan was also the head policy adviser to the Hillary Clinton for president campaign and previously served as director of policy planning in the State Department. Although only 43, he has long been thought of as a future national security adviser both because of his brilliance (he is a former Rhodes Scholar who has in recent years also taught at Yale Law School) and because of his temperament. He does not seek the limelight. He is quiet. He is trusted by Biden and his colleagues. And as such, he fits perfectly into the role of “honest broker” and what has come to be known as the “Brent Scowcroft model” of the ideal national security adviser.
As the Director of National Intelligence, Biden has selected Avril Haines. Haines, trained as a physicist (but also a former mechanic and bar owner) is a former deputy director of the CIA and former deputy National Security Adviser who, like Blinken and Sullivan, is not just extraordinarily smart but also quiet, creative, and not drawn to the limelight. She is an ideal person to restore trust to a post and relationship deeply tainted by the hackery of Trump appointees like current Director of National Intelligence John Ratcliffe, the least qualified person ever to hold the post, and his predecessor, acting Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell, the most odious individual ever to hold the post and who has most recently been seen doing press stunts for Trump attacking democracy in the American Southwest.
At the Department of Homeland Security, following the horrific border abuses of Trump’s team, Biden has named the first Latino to hold the job, Alejandro Mayorkas. Mayorkas was deputy secretary of the department under President Obama. He has had a career both as a lawyer and in public service but as importantly, he, who came to the U.S. as a child refugee from Cuba, could not offer a starker contrast to Trump’s racism, incompetence, and abuses of children at the border.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who will hold cabinet status as Biden’s ambassador to the United Nations, is a career foreign service officer who served as U.S. ambassador to Liberia and in important posts around the world. An African American who has spoken passionately about the racism she faced in her youth, she brings an extraordinary depth of experience on issues of human rights, peacekeeping, and international institutions; once again, an appointment that not only underscores Biden’s priorities but offers a not so subtle commentary on the defects of Trump’s policies, values, and people.
While the national security slate that Biden announced today consists exclusively of seasoned professionals who were all on short-lists for top positions, there was one surprise. Biden appointed his friend, former Secretary of State and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, to be a cabinet-level climate envoy. By picking a man who was actively behind the Obama administration’s entrance into the Paris Climate Accord, Biden not only places a Democratic heavy-hitter in his cabinet but offers another rebuff to Trump. More importantly, Biden sends a message to the world and to progressives in his own party that the climate crisis will be treated as the top priority area that circumstances and reason demand.
While all of these officials served in the Obama administration, Biden’s picks also stand in contrast to Obama’s first-term national security team. Beyond the big difference in the amount of foreign policy experience Biden brings to the role versus that of his former boss, Biden has deliberately eschewed two types of appointments that hurt Obama in his early going. He has avoided appointing people he did not know well. (See Obama’s unsuccessful choice of Gen. James Jones as National Security Adviser.) And, so far at least, he has avoided the appointment of folk who were seen as too politically motivated or primarily as campaign staffers and he has avoided appointments that might be seen to be purely placating factions or that might promote division and in-fighting among team members. Indeed, it is striking that he has picked a group of Obama administration insiders who, while always serving Obama loyally, are not seen first and foremost as Obama loyalists.
Biden’s appointees, even including Kerry, are a group of technocrats—in the best sense of the word. They are pros. They will do their jobs. In this group, as in the group appointed to top White House staff jobs, Biden has sent a message that he values competence above all else. But he has also very carefully, by picking a diverse group with backgrounds that stand in contrast to much about Trump and Trumpism that he seeks to reverse, sent a strong message that his administration will not just differentiate itself from that of its predecessor because it will be ready to govern from day one, but that it represents an entirely different set of values and goals from those of the Trump years.
That’s a good thing because Trump has been an unmitigated foreign policy and national security disaster from day one. But it is also promising because Biden and his team might not just outshine the horrific Trump, but this carefully crafted, experienced team might be in a position to elevate U.S. foreign policy above the struggles and setbacks it has endured during the first two decades of this century.