As the process of presidential transition from the 45th to the 46th US president finally gets underway, the president-elect’s staffing decisions are quickly becoming a subject of scrutiny. So far, it seems that Joe Biden has decided to play it safe. His decision to draw from Washington professionals who have served under the previous Democratic administrations is being equally praised and challenged. Yet, there is no doubt he is making a mark in history and shattering many of the glass ceilings in having a number of “firsts” in the key roles.
President-Elect Biden will come to the White House under some of the most challenging conditions in modern American history. The COVID-19 pandemic has spiralled out of control and its numerous aftermaths are painfully visible in the soaring infection and death rates across the United States, the health system crumbling under the strain, and the millions of unemployed Americans. The country is more politically polarised than ever witnessed in recent memory, and it is about to enter a winter of discontent after the spring and summer of protests for racial justice.
And that is just the domestic front. In his foreign policy inbox, the new president will have to respond to a world that has, in all respects, become more Hobbesian. “Solitary” as nation-states turn inwards, “poor” as a result of the COVID-19-related economic downturn, “nasty” as power politics replaces international cooperation, and “brutish” as violent conflicts persist and spring up all across the globe.
Therefore, it comes as little surprise that Joe Biden has decided to make the designees for the top cabinet posts people of his greatest trust. Many of the names that have been revealed thus far had been his associates while he was still in the Senate, or more recently, after he became the vice-president under Barack Obama. Beyond this, Biden’s first major cabinet picks also must be interpreted from the level of political symbolism and their impact on policy substance.
On the symbolic level, there is no doubt the president-elect is keeping his promise to create a cabinet that will reflect the makeup of American society and thus make it the most diverse in history. Particularly striking are the nominations of the first Latino American and Cuban immigrant, Alejandro Mayorkas, to the post of the Secretary of Homeland Security – a department that has under President Donald Trump been in charge of implementing ruthless immigration policies. There are also the first female nominees for the Secretary of the Treasury and the Director of National Intelligence with Janet Yellen and Avril Haines respectively. These picks come at a critical time as the Treasury is now more than ever considered a veritable part of national security, while the relations with the intelligence community need to be mended after the period of major upheaval during the Trump years.
On the level of policy substance, it goes without saying the dictum “people are policy” has proven to be correct in numerous instances. Namely, policy does not emerge from the black box interactions between states, but rather the interaction of bureaucratic and domestic politics. Biden’s picks form a team of Washington professionals and insiders who have been part of the Clinton and Obama administrations. Yet, unlike the Obama first term, this is not a team of rivals.
Most of the key positions are poised to be occupied by people who share Biden’s belief in America’s leadership and the need to restore it. This has brought both praise and controversy at home and abroad. Namely, those who are applauding the early choices say that this is a much-needed return to predictability and conventional foreign policy process. Those who are sceptical of the choices point out that the idea of returning to normal ignores the issues with America’s foreign policy in the “good old days” before Trump, and warn of the potential for groupthink. Others are warning about the revolving door between the corporate America and government, and the lack of transparency regarding the advisory roles some of the appointees held while they were out of government.
In the ideal case, foreign policy is a product of a robust interagency process that is managed by the National Security Council but not privatised by the White House in order to have as many diverse voices represented. President-elect Biden is coming to the office with a great knowledge of foreign policy and the politics of decision-making. He would thus be wise to implement the lessons of the pitfalls from the Obama presidency. Specifically, the issues of being surrounded with the “true believers” who would be reluctant to challenge him, over-empowering political advisors at the expense of those with national-security experience, or not having a capable national security advisor who is seen as an honest broker among cabinet departments.
Moreover, there are plenty of questions that remain unanswered and that will remain so until the new administration commences its work in late January 2021. Namely, there are at least a couple of points of differentiation among the incoming team that are worth paying attention to. The first relates to generational divides as the designate national security advisor’s professional frame of reference is the 9/11 and its aftermath, rather than the Cold War or the so-called era of unipolarity. Moreover, some of Biden’s picks have strong regional expertise which might skew the attention given to particular parts of the world. For instance, the nominee for the Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been known as an avowed transatlanticist, which has in particular gotten Indo-Pacific allies worried.
Furthermore, on the greatest geopolitical question of our time, there is no doubt the bipartisan consensus in the United States is prevailing towards more competition with China in the coming decade. Yet, there are still plenty of questions around the nuances in the approach to relations with China under the Biden administration. Undoubtedly, the policy formulation will in many ways boil down to staffing choices. While there might not be a lot of doves left in the mix, even among those more hawkish on China there are significant debates around issues that stem from technological competition to the respect for human rights.
Ultimately, these are just the early days. The new administration will have to make several thousand appointments within the federal bureaucracy and populate the hollowed-out departments that remain as the legacy of the Trump era. If the Senate remains in Republican control, the nominees that will require Senate approval might become part of an unyielding partisan struggle. Yet, one thing is sure – the early interest in Biden’s prospective cabinet demonstrates how consequential the personnel choices are deemed to be.