Main content

Biden’s cabinet shaping up as historic, centrist


When Joe Biden is inaugurated on Jan. 20, his cabinet and inner circle of advisors will be a stark contrast to that of outgoing President Donald Trump. And not just because he’s a Democrat.

Biden’s cabinet is shaping up to be the most diverse in the history of the country. It’s even been dubbed the “Cabinet of Firsts” by some pundits.

Of course, Biden got the ball rolling by selecting Kamala Harris as his running mate, making her the first woman to be vice president.

What does all this mean? Sean Trende, Senior Elections Analyst for Real Clear Politics, and a graduate supplemental fellow and PhD student in Ohio State’s political science department, recently discussed the Biden cabinet and what it could mean to the country.

What do Joe Biden’s cabinet picks say about how he plans to govern?

At least the major cabinet officials, they’re pretty centrist Democrat appointments. The only one so far that has been particularly controversial with the GOP is Neera Tanden (for Department of Management and Budget) and that’s because she has this history of getting into Twitter wars with them.

But like today (Jan. 6), Merrick Garland gets announced as Attorney General. He’s not a Republican, there’s no doubt about that — he’ll be on the left side of things, but he’s not a Resistance guy either.

As you get down to some of the subcabinets, you get a little more progressive, but it’s pretty moderate.

Is that really surprising?

Biden has a 48-year history in Washington, D.C., and for almost all that history, wherever the center of the Democratic Party is, this is where he’s been positioned.

In a lot of ways he’s different from the Democratic nominees and presidents we’ve had before in that he’s not someone who comes with a particular brand or vision. He’s always just kind of been the Democratic Party guy who wants to get things done.

That came out in ways that hurt him. In the 1970s, that meant striking deals with segregationist Democratic senators but, like I said, the common thread is he’s just wherever the middle of the Democratic Party is, and that’s how he’s going to govern.

Among his cabinet picks are some who served under the Obama administration, even in some cases going back to Bill Clinton (Susan Rice and Bruce Reed, for example). Does that experience translate into swifter policy change?

It’s good in that these people know how Washington works. Trump had many, many, many problems but one of the big problems was he didn’t know how Washington works, and a lot of his top advisors didn’t know how Washington works.

Now that was also part of his appeal. He’s an outsider who wanted to "drain the swamp." That’s quoting him — not actually what I think. But he could credibly cast himself in that way in a way Joe Biden or Hillary Clinton could not.

But it caused him problems. A lot of things in Washington work in a particular way that business does not. Joe Biden’s nominees will understand that.

His cabinet is being celebrated for its diversity and a number of “firsts.” What impact could that have today and historically?

There’s an importance to representation, for people in the country seeing people who look like and have the same background as them holding levels of government. It tells them: No, this isn’t closed off to you. It’s important to not just have a cabinet made almost entirely of elderly white males.

The days of having a cabinet of largely white men are over. I think Trump was the last gasp of that. Even under George W. Bush, it started to go the other direction.

But from a policy perspective, I don’t know that it matters that much. In terms of the politics of it? Most of the people who are really excited about it were Democratic voters anyway. It doesn’t mean it’s a losing issue, but the people who care most deeply about race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity issues are already voting Democratic.

A lot of things in Washington work in a particular way that business does not. Joe Biden’s nominees will understand that.

Sean Trende, Senior Elections Analyst for Real Clear Politics and PhD student in Ohio State's Department of Political Science
As diverse as the cabinet looks, do you see diversity of thought?

That gets back to the first comment. Joe Biden is mostly putting together a cabinet of people who think a lot like Joe Biden.

Janet Yellen (for Secretary of the Treasury) is not super progressive; she’s not conservative but she has a sense of Wall Street. She would not be Bernie Sanders’ choice. Merrick Garland has been a pretty conservative judge for a Democrat. You go down the list and Tom Vilsack (Secretary of Agriculture) is not super progressive. Pete Buttigieg (Secretary of Transportation) isn’t. I never understood the anger at Buttigieg among progressives but it was definitely there. So it’s not a particularly ideologically diverse cabinet.

It seems like any time we change administrations, particularly with a change in party, we hear how good or bad outgoing and incoming groups were or are. As polarized as the country is, how do you think this new administration will handle things?

It’s in a unique position. We’re in the middle of a public health crisis, but it’s a crisis that now has a solution with the vaccine.

I don’t think the recovery from the economic collapse is going to be the same as in 2008 and 2009. People are eager to get back out and start doing stuff. The stimulus we’ve passed is going to help, and there will probably be another round now coming out of this Democratic Senate.

So if things get resolved pretty quickly, it has a real opportunity that previous administrations didn’t have, to really hit the ground running and have some good news.