Biden’s Team Shaping Up

Some square pegs are being forced into some round holes for the sake of inclusion.

TOPSHOT – US President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a cabinet announcement event in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 24, 2020. – US President-elect Joe Biden introduced November 24, 2020 a seasoned national security team he said was prepared to resume US leadership of the world after the departure of President Donald Trump. “It’s a team that will keep our country and our people safe and secure,” Biden said, introducing his picks for secretary of state, national security advisor, intelligence chief, and other key cabinet jobs”It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back. Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” Biden said. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP) (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

While my interest in President-elect Biden’s cabinet and other top-level officials has naturally focused on foreign and defense policy, he’s now announced most of the plum jobs. And it’s looking a little weird.

I’ve already written at length about the wrangling over Defense Secretary, with him controversially passing over the presumptive frontrunner, Michèle Flournoy for Lloyd Austin, a recently-retired general who will require yet another waiver to the law in order to assume the post. But that fight illustrates what seem to be the three criteria being prioritized for the team at large.

  1. A personal relationship with Biden, preferably a long-standing one
  2. A need to check demographic boxes to appease constituencies and pay off campaign promises/debts
  3. Being qualified for the job by CV.

Indeed, I would say that this is the order.

Because of Biden’s long experience in Washington, there are plenty of people who check the first box that also check the second and third and, as one who voted for him in both the Democratic primaries and the general election, I’m reasonably satisfied with the picks overall. My objections thus far to Austin, for example, are more theoretical than substantive.

Still, this balancing act has led to some odd-to-me choices. Most notably, the late-breaking news that Susan Rice, the Obama UN Ambassador and National Security Advisor many had on the shortlist for Secretary of State has curiously been named Domestic Policy Advisor. The woman is a Rhodes Scholar and highly accomplished. But she’s probably the last person I’d want advice from on domestic policy.

Presumably, this is a function of the fact that, unless the Democrats win both of the Georgia Senate run-offs and abolish the filibuster, Rice is simply unconfirmable. Having been National Security Advisor, there’s not a higher level, non-confirmed post for her that utilizes her expertise. But, presumably, she enjoys a good relationship with Biden. And she’s a Black woman.

Similarly, Rep. Marcia Fudge has been tabbed as the next HUD Secretary, despite having little relevant experience or apparent interest in the job. She had lobbied hard for Agriculture Secretary, another post for which she’s not traditionally qualified, and had the full-throated backing of Rep. James Clyburn, who was instrumental in getting Biden a win in South Carolina. But, having decided to recycle Obama HUD Secretary Tom Vilsack in the job, he had to do something with her.

The American Prospect’s David Dayen has a rather harsh assessment titled “The Cabinet Selection Process Is Veering Off Course” with the subtitle “What was supposed to be a return to seriousness and expertise has been a hodge-podge of favor-trading and ill-considered decisions.” It’s worth reading in full for a discussion of the complexities of HUD and USDA and what those agencies actually do but I’ll focus just on the conclusion:

 Records have taken a back seat to friendships and paybacks and diversity goals. People are not being set up to succeed. Impressions are being given that HUD and Interior are not important federal agencies but political chits to be handed out. And it augurs very poorly for governing in the Biden era, if it’s characterized by a lack of pre-planning and dashed-off ideas.

The various congressional caucuses are culpable here too. Nothing was etched in stone that Marcia Fudge had to be in the cabinet; lots of qualified Black people were available for HUD and other positions, and overall housing policy could suffer in the exchange. By foregrounding representation, you ultimately threaten the experience of those you seek to represent. 

Biden sought throughout the campaign to return normalcy to Washington, to put adults back in charge and show that experience matters. That’s not how things are working out, and the process badly needs to get back on track. 

Defense One‘s Katie Bo Williams gets at the issue from another angle in “Austin Pick Thrusts Pentagon Into Identity-Politics Debate: His confirmation would be historic. But for whom?

The debate over the intersection of Austin’s various identities — Black, male, uniformed — has put the Pentagon at the epicenter of the national Democratic party’s delicately orchestrated — and occasionally strained — efforts to promote diversity, whether it be in congressional leadership or presidential cabinet positions. Biden has vowed to select a cabinet that “looks like America.” But keeping a diverse cast of constituency groups with diverse priorities happy has proved a balancing act within a party historically sensitive to the politics of identity, particularly following a presidential victory largely attributed to women and minority voters. Each new pick from Biden has brought inevitable cheers and inescapable disappointments. 

The choice of Austin over Flournoy has exposed the fragile underbelly of the Democrats’ push for diversity: the risk of pitting one group against another. And for some women it will offer a painful reminder of another, higher-profile contest 12 years ago, when Democratic voters chose Barack Obama over the favorite, Hillary Clinton, as the party’s presidential nominee.


“The pressure is coming from the fact that many want to see these nominees reflect the diversity of the country as a whole v. a need to pick well-qualified individuals,” said Jim Manley, a Democratic strategist and former top aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Doing both, he said, “is very doable.”

“But sometimes the personalities are getting lost in the broader debate about race and gender,” Manley said.

Indeed, as regular OTB commenter @Andy noted in the thread discussing my opposition to a retired general as SECDEF, the focus on these issues has displaced a focus on the substantive policy issues.

Biden is in a particularly tough spot here and I’m not all that upset about any of the picks. (Although putting Denis McDonough, who never served a day in uniform, in as Veteran’s Affairs secretary strikes me as odd.) He’s gregarious even by politician standards and I get his desire to surround himself with people he likes and trusts. And, as a Democrat especially, attention to identity politics is just the cost of doing business.

Still, it has led to some square pegs being put into round holes.

FILED UNDER: Gender Issues, Race and Politics, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Mikey says:

    At this point I’ll take “not appointed to actively destroy the agencies they head” and be happy with it.

  2. James Joyner says:

    @Mikey: Sure. But “better than Trump” is really just too low a bar for a man as decent and experienced as Biden. And, to be clear: I think he’s well above that bar. But some of these choices are really odd. (I’m hearing mixed reviews on McDonough for VA thus far.)

  3. Sleeping Dog says:

    Take comfort in to this point, for the significant cabinet positions named so far, we’re awaiting AG, Biden has chosen well respected, experienced candidates. Fudge at Agriculture had an interesting logic, but foundered on the rocks of practical politics. If Dems are going to make any sort of attempt to improve their standing in rural areas, they need to be seen as addressing the significant concerns of that part of the country. That said I’m not sure recycling Vilsack moves the standing ball forward and certainly doesn’t bring visibility to a young Dem pol who can be part of the next generation of party leadership. Fudge at HUD? Is she less or more qualified for that post than Ben Carson?

    Remember, America is a meritocracy screed has always been and will always will be a lie. We are a buddy system, for Dems the network of buddies has simply become larger and more diverse.

  4. inhumans99 says:

    Mikey, your post made me chuckle. Trump put a guy in place as the Secretary of the Interior who stated from the onset , and loudly and proudly that his goal was to literally open up as much land that is considered a National Park to drilling and fracking and the GOP just shrugged their shoulders and was cool with that.

    Now, that did not work out quite like Trump thought it would and we dodged a bullet because his BFF’s in FL howled about the possibility of offshore drilling spills, and CA was even able to latch onto FL’s coattails and avoid a ton of offshore projects springing to life. Also, it turns out even Conservatives like our National Parks so they were not vocal in backing the Trump’s admin’s plans to wreck the parks for the Oil and Gas folks.

    That being said, just because the parks were not completely wrecked does not mean it was due to a lack of effort on the part of the Trump admin and his friends in Congress.

    It really is amazing that Trump installed folks who were very vocal about destroying the agencies they were tasked to lead and even more amazing, but perhaps more like shameful, is that the GOP just went along with it.

    Many of Trump’s Cabinet members should have never gotten within 1,000 miles of their positions even if they were, on paper, technically qualified for the job.

    That folks have issues with Biden’s picks because say, their policy position does not quite line up with some members of the Democratic Caucus is a wonderful thing indeed. These types of issues with a President’s Cabinet picks are pretty much how things go when it comes to these types of things. It is so…ordinary.

    With Trump you had Democrats yelling at McConnell to stop his picks from being confirmed because they literally wanted to wreak havoc on the Agency like a bull in a china shop and McConnell just let these pleas fall on deaf ears. Shameful.

  5. DrDaveT says:

    A need to check demographic boxes to appease constituencies and pay off campaign promises/debts

    For someone who claims to be a fan of representative democracy, you are awfully quick to dismiss the importance of actual representation.

  6. DrDaveT says:

    Although putting Denis McDonough, who never served a day in uniform, in as Veteran’s Affairs secretary strikes me as odd.

    VA leadership have two primary jobs:
    1. Administering the largest health care network in the world
    2. Adjudicating and implementing disability benefit claims that currently cost the US about $100B per year

    For neither of those jobs is prior military service necessary, or even desirable.

  7. James Joyner says:


    For someone who claims to be a fan of representative democracy, you are awfully quick to dismiss the importance of actual representation.

    “Representative democracy” means that the people elect decisionmakers to, well, make decisions. Cronyism and payback are not inherent features of, nor exclusive to, that system of government.

  8. James Joyner says:


    For neither of those jobs is prior military service necessary, or even desirable.

    Of course it’s desirable. Part of the job is representing a decided minority group that has taken on special burdens for the society. Surely, there are plenty of able administrators who have served in uniform.

  9. EddieInCA says:

    Although putting Denis McDonough, who never served a day in uniform, in as Veteran’s Affairs secretary strikes me as odd.

    I don’t see that as odd. That job needs an adminsitrator, not a war righter. Give me any good, really good, CEO, in that job and the VA would be in much better shape.

    Imagine what a Steve Ballmer, or a Jack Welch, could have done at the VA in their heyday.

    That we consistently pick military guys for what is an administrative job is nuts to me.

  10. EddieInCA says:


    Should have read your comment before posting. Agreed.

  11. Sleeping Dog says:

    @James Joyner:

    Surely, there are plenty of able administrators who have served in uniform.

    Given what the military does best is logistics, that is undoubtedly true.

    Having the Sec of VA being a ex military is recognizing a minority group.

  12. gVOR08 says:

    I generally try to apply a little tolerance. I don’t expect things to be perfect and I allow that pendulums swing past center. For example, given where the sexual harassment pendulum was hung up for centuries, I’m not upset that #MeToo may go too far. It’ll take time to settle out. Given the last four years, I’m with @Mikey:. Whoever Biden picks will be night and day from Trump. Susan Rice, for instance, strikes me as an odd pick for domestic policy, but I’m sure she’ll be fine, and maybe even make a suggestion or two on foreign policy. All other things being equal between a general and a civilian for Defense, I’d go with the civilian. But all other things are not equal, and picking a civilian would be far from my top priority. Let’s be grateful Biden even wants this shit job and not nitpick him to death.

  13. Erik says:

    Deleted. I see that my comment is duplicative and doesn’t advance the conversation

  14. JohnMcC says:

    @Erik: Well, good for you, by God!

  15. Andy says:

    Honestly what the VA needs now is someone who can not only manage the department but can effectively petition Congress to pass the necessary legislation to fix the many decades-old problems that can’t – and haven’t – been fixed by previous administrators.

    Is Denis McDonough that person? I have no idea.

    I do agree with James that it’s desirable to have a veteran in that position but it shouldn’t be a hard requirement.

  16. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    “Better than Trump” is too low a bar for anyone. Still, watching the inside baseball of this whole process, I’m reminded of the episode of Blue Bloods from a couple of weeks ago where the Inspector passed over for a Chief jobs replies to the response that he wasn’t the best person for the job with

    I get that, but it was my turn, Frank.

  17. Sleeping Dog says:


    That seldom stops the rest of us. 🙂

  18. DrDaveT says:

    @James Joyner:

    Of course it’s desirable.

    Of course??? Sorry, I don’t see it. Is it desirable for the Secretary of Agriculture to have been a farmer? For the Secretary of Transportation to have been a pilot? You just spent a whole lot of words explaining why it is not desirable for the Secretary of Defense to have been a soldier, so “of course” seems a bit much.

    Part of the job is representing a decided minority group that has taken on special burdens for the society.

    The irony is palpable, given your certainty above that appointing blacks or females is just cronyism and tokenism, and has nothing to do with representing the interests of those minority groups.

    (We’ll set aside for the moment the question of how much “special burden” an all-volunteer force has taken on, given the already extraordinary benefits they receive for that. For the remaining surviving Vietnam vets, especially the conscripts, yes — we owe them a lot. For the people who signed a contract and took a job… it’s hard to argue that they are underappreciated these days.)

  19. Michael Cain says:

    I admit to a parochial geographic interest, but note that so far, while Biden has made a number of California choices (55 EC votes and 2 (D) Senators delivered), he’s ignored the rest of the West (54 EC votes and 15 (D) Senators delivered). If Georgia delivers even one (D) Senator it will be held up as a miracle. It wouldn’t count for squat if the Interior West hadn’t gone +4 (D) Senators recently.

  20. Loviatar says:

    The return of Republicanism:

    Subtle, code worded bigotry
    The discussions of Biden’s cabinet choices have almost always contained a mention of the nominee’s race or gender. While this mention comes with a nod towards the nominee’s qualifications; the analysis also always came with a subtle hint that despite the nominee’s lofty qualifications they were really chosen because of their race or gender.

    Fact is, the country’s population is the most diverse it has been in its history, should not the leadership reflect that without it being cause for questioning.

  21. Kathy says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    “Better than Trump” is too low a bar for anyone.

    “How low is it?”

    “It’s so low even Bush the younger exceeded it without even trying.”

  22. Jim Brown 32 says:

    @EddieInCA: Its not nuts if you’ve ever had to navigate the VA like myself and many veterans have. There is an element to the job of knowing and understanding the people you are serving. Civilian (never been Military) VA administrators are the worse and most insensitive people going. Its bad enough to be nothing but a cog in a giant machine when you’re in uniform–but after your time is up and you need the Nation to step up for the additional physical and mental wear and tear you as the Veteran took on (on their behalf). Now you have to be nothing but a cog in another giant machine. I get it–there aren’t unlimited resources–but dammit some compassion goes a long way.

    The last thing Veterans want is some Rick Scott bean counter type in charge that has zero empathy for us. I have family members that work as civil servants within VA and they say its the non military administrators the VA brings in from the Private sector that are responsible for poor delivery for what otherwise is above average medical care.

  23. DrDaveT says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    I get it–there aren’t unlimited resources–but dammit some compassion goes a long way.

    Of course. But it’s genuinely offensive to suggest that veterans have a monopoly on compassion.

  24. EddieInCA says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    I agree with some of your points. BUT…. The Military has way too many top level people who are careerists, with zero empathy. The two I mentioned as archetypes, Ballmer and Welch, were LOVED by their companies, including the plebes. Good leaders have the empathy you seek. Good leaders know how to lead, and how to encourage, cajole and inspire those around them. They also understand both short and long term strategic thinking.

    With all due respect, All Military members aren’t compassionate and/or empathetic.

  25. EddieInCA says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    Jim Brown 32 says:
    Thursday, December 10, 2020 at 23:54

    @EddieInCA: Its not nuts if you’ve ever had to navigate the VA like myself and many veterans have.

    Funny you write this today, of all days. My 93 year old father in law moved in with us in August. He’s from Florida. He found out today that his private insurance doesn’t cover him here in California (Humana, if it matters), so he had me set up at the VA in West Los Angeles. I spent two hours on the phone getting up set up, then took him to his first appointment late this afternoon.

    All worked out well. But it’s a byzantine set up process.

  26. EddieInCA says:

    @Jim Brown 32: @EddieInCA:

    He fought in Korea AND Vietnam, just FYI.

  27. Andy says:


    Of course. But it’s genuinely offensive to suggest that veterans have a monopoly on compassion.

    I don’t think that’s what he’s suggesting at all.

    You can look at it in terms of “lived experience” which applies to veterans as much if not more than other groups. Veterans simply have more faith that people who are also Vets will have both more empathy and will better understand some of the unique challenges some veterans face.

    And when it comes to the reforms that are needed in the organization, it’s simply the reality that reform proposals will be more acceptable coming from someone who has “been there, done that” to use veteran slang.

    Again, it shouldn’t be a hard requirement to have veteran leaders because there are a lot of other factors to consider, but it should definitely be a preference.