Competing interests complicate Cabinet picks

President-elect Joe Biden delivers a Thanksgiving address on Nov. 25 in Wilmington, Del. Biden Transition/CNP/Zuma Press/Tribune News Service

DALLAS (Tribune News Service) — The votes in last month’s presidential election were still being counted when the Democratic Party’s progressive factions began to warn President-elect Joe Biden against pursuing too centrist a course.

“It would be, for example, enormously insulting if Biden put together a ‘team of rivals’ ... which might include Republicans and conservative Democrats — but which ignored the progressive community,” Sen. Bernie Sanders told The Associated Press.

“I think the transition period is going to indicate whether the administration is taking a more open and collaborative approach, or whether they’re taking a kind of icing-out approach,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told The New York Times.

And as Biden began to announce his top choices for an administration that he and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have vowed “looks like America,” similar warnings came from the party’s powerful Black, Hispanic and Asian American factions.

“We want to see more Hispanics, more Latinos,” Sen.-elect Ben Ray Lujan, D-N.M., said Sunday on CNN. NAACP President Derrick Johnson called on Biden in a CBSN interview to restore “the priority of civil rights.”

Biden has seemed publicly unfazed. “That’s their job,” he replied when asked about the pressure at one of his news conferences. He urged that critics wait until he completes his Cabinet selections before rendering judgment.

At the same time, he appears to be on his way to meeting their demands and his promises.

On Monday, he named the Hispanic attorney general of California as secretary of health and human services; his earlier appointees included a Cuban-born secretary of homeland security and a retired African American diplomat as ambassador to the United Nations.

And his transition passed the word that Biden has picked retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin as the first Black secretary of defense. That added diversity to the top Cabinet posts, which already included a white man, Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, and a white woman, Secretary of the Treasury-designate Janet Yellen.

More than for any Republican, Democratic presidents need to balance an array of competing ideological and racial interests to reflect their party’s greater diversity. Biden also needs to consider the fact that the Senate that will confirm his top choices will be narrowly divided, whichever party wins the majority in next month’s Georgia Senate runoffs.

Already, one of his choices, former Hillary Clinton adviser Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget, has angered both Democratic progressives and some Republicans. Some Republicans questioned the health credentials of Xavier Becerra, Biden’s Health and Human Services choice.

Progressives praised Becerra. But they will inevitably be dissatisfied to some degree as they sometimes were by former Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, especially the latter. Biden made clear in winning both the Democratic nomination and the general election that he was more a centrist than a progressive Democrat.

Biden’s first selections indicate that a crucial consideration for him is choosing people whose experience will enable them to get off to a fast start after Jan. 20, while also reflecting the party’s changing demographics.

More than once, the 78-year-old former vice president has referred to himself as a “bridge” to a younger generation, and it is already possible to see how that may be reflected in his personnel decisions.

For example, when he picked Yellen as treasury secretary, Biden gave the No. 2 position to Adewale Adeyemo, a 39-year-old Nigerian born international trade expert who will become the highest ranking African American ever at the department.

It would hardly be surprising if the 74-year-old former Federal Reserve chair served for a couple of years before turning the job over Adeyemo, who would be a racial and generational groundbreaker.

The way in which competing interests complicate the president-elect’s Cabinet choices has been especially evident in the speculation over who will become secretary of agriculture.

Sources within Biden’s transition were initially quoted as mentioning two main candidates, Rep. Marcia Fudge, an African American from Cleveland who is a senior member of the House Agriculture Committee, and former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who then President-elect Donald Trump considered four years ago. She lost her Senate seat in 2018.

Fudge’s candidacy reflected the fact that most of the agriculture department budget goes for food and nutrition programs, many serving urban minorities in cities like Cleveland. Her candidacy was openly championed by Rep. James Clyburn, the powerful No. 3 House Democrat whose support of Biden was crucial in his South Carolina primary victory.

Heitkamp, meanwhile, represented the department’s more traditional constituency, the largely white rural Farm Belt areas where Democrats have performed poorly of late. Her candidacy got something of an odd push from a veteran Senate Republican, Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who said Heitkamp, recently defeated House Agriculture Chair Collin Peterson of Minnesota or an Iowan could “get things done for Midwest farmers.”

In the end, neither Fudge nor Heitkamp is getting the farm job, but Biden is recognizing the latter problem by bringing back Obama’s agriculture secretary, former Iowa Gov. Tom Vilsack. Meanwhile, Politico reported Fudge would be named secretary of housing and urban development.

One crucial factor helping Biden in his Cabinet selections is that, unlike Trump, he knows most of the prospective choices. That should produce a far more coherent administration than the last one.

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may send emails to Distributed by Tribune Content Agency. © 2020 Dallas Morning News.

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(8) comments

Charlie McGrath

To leftists the primary qualifications for jobs in the administration should be race, gender, and sexual identity. We're not Americans, we are black Americans. We are not Americans, we are brown Americans. We are not Americans we are Asian Americans. We are not Americans we are native Americans. We are not Americans we are female Americans. We are not Americans, we are LGBTQ Americans. Then there are the least important old white men Americans. The Democrats want to "unify" and yet they want us to have our separate group identities so we can have something to divide us by. They are like coyotes at a fresh carcass.

hermit thrush

you could hardly be more wrong.

Charlie McGrath

Well I guess that settles it.

hermit thrush

you are obviously not a leftist and the things you write demonstrate that you have no earthly conception of what actual leftists actually think. (i am not a leftist either, but insofar as i am left of center, i am closer to them than you are and i actually listen to things people say instead of projecting ridiculous caricatures onto them.)


It's a vote getter Charlie. By grouping these minorities the left gives the impression they are do gooders and the minorities you describe become the left's base. These groups elected Biden/Harris and were greatly assisted by police in Minneapolis, St Louis and even New York city where one minority amassed all 13% of that minority aided by a change in voting procedures in 4 battleground states. Mike Pompeo 2024.

hermit thrush

ah, there's the john mcelroy with his deft touch for matters of race that we all remember from the disqus days.


Is Joe Biden trying to "restore the priority of civil rights." Shouldn't he consider the 70 million who voted for his opponent. Wouldn't it make more sense to draw from "red states" and attempt to bring a divided nation together. He apears to be draining the Trump swamp when he should be throwing life preservers to some on the right.


Pick people who know the field and who have the nation's best interests at heart. One twofer way to get that is to pick people who have been civil servants for a long time, who have come up through the ranks. Promote from within. Put a general on top of the Pentagon. Put a career diplomat over the State Department. Pick intelligence officers to head intelligence. Pick a truck driver for the DOT, especially if he listens to Rush in the cab and appeared in a reality TV show that you watched.

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