And the Top Contenders for Biden’s Cabinet Are…

Biden’s final picks could ultimately hinge on two runoff Senate races in Georgia, which will determine who controls the upper chamber.

By , , and
President-elect Joe Biden speaks to the media in Delaware.
President-elect Joe Biden speaks to the media in Delaware.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden addresses the media in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 10. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Even as U.S. President Donald Trump refuses to concede his loss in the 2020 election—and even appears to be preparing for a second term in office—President-elect Joe Biden is carrying forward with plans for a transition to the White House in January. 

Even as U.S. President Donald Trump refuses to concede his loss in the 2020 election—and even appears to be preparing for a second term in office—President-elect Joe Biden is carrying forward with plans for a transition to the White House in January. 

Over the course of a contentious election cycle, Biden made clear his direction for the country on the global stage if he won the presidency, signaling a return to multilateralism and repairing relationships with some of Washington’s closest historic allies. How he does so depends a lot on how he staffs his administration. (As the old adage in Washington goes, personnel is policy.)

Whom he’s able to get through Senate confirmation hinges in large part on who controls the Senate, and Republican control of the chamber depends on two heated runoff races in Georgia in January. “They shouldn’t have to factor in at all, but they will. I think we’re still so polarized that the Georgia runoff will have more effect on immediate nominations than might otherwise be the case in normal times,” said one Democratic foreign-policy insider, speaking on condition of anonymity.

If Democrats win a majority in the Senate, Biden will likely face more pressure from the left flank of his party to tap progressives to lead the State Department and other federal agencies. But if Republicans keep the Senate, it’s unlikely they would confirm such nominees, leaving Biden with a likelier pool of more centrist candidates for top jobs. No position is set in stone, and neither Biden nor Harris has spoken publicly about specific names for cabinet-level positions and other senior posts. 

But based on conversations with nearly a dozen outside advisors to Biden’s campaign, Democratic foreign-policy experts, and other former officials, here are the top contenders for key administration posts in a Biden administration. 

Secretary of State

Susan Rice. Rice, once a top contender for Biden’s running mate, has been a mainstay in Democratic foreign-policy circles since the Clinton administration. During the Obama administration, she served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Barack Obama’s first term and then as national security advisor for much of his second term. Rice was in the running to replace Hillary Clinton as secretary of state but withdrew her name from consideration following the controversies surrounding the 2012 Benghazi terrorist attacks. Democratic foreign-policy insiders describe her as a top pick for secretary of state but concede she could face a difficult confirmation process if Republicans retain control of the Senate.

Antony Blinken. Blinken is another veteran of the Obama administration’s foreign-policy team and has been one of Biden’s closest advisors and confidants going back to his time in the Senate. Blinken served in the National Security Council during the Clinton administration and then as a senior staff member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Biden, then a Delaware senator, served as chairman of the committee. He was an important figure in Obama’s foreign-policy team, serving as deputy national security advisor and then deputy secretary of state. Blinken is viewed by Democratic insiders as a more centrist pick for secretary of state. Other people close to the Biden campaign expect him to be tapped as national security advisor, not secretary of state, given his close personal relationship with Biden.

Sen. Chris Murphy. Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has emerged as one of the strongest voices on foreign policy on the progressive left. Months after Trump entered office in 2017, Murphy released his own lengthy foreign-policy vision that is seen by some in Washington as the backbone for a progressive Democratic foreign-policy doctrine. Even in the bitterly partisan environment of Trump’s Washington, Murphy has teamed up with Republicans across the aisle to advance substantive legislation and reforms on foreign policy. This includes legislation on war powers and pressing the Trump administration to end U.S. support for the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen and crafting legislation to establish the State Department’s Global Engagement Center to combat disinformation from U.S. adversaries like Russia and China. Campaign advisors and congressional aides said that given Murphy’s good rapport and working relationships across the aisle, he’s more likely to be confirmed than other progressive picks if Republicans keep control of the Senate. 

Sen. Chris Coons. Another member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Coons has a close relationship with Biden as a fellow Delaware senator and is widely regarded as one of the more centrist bipartisan lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Far from a partisan firebrand, Coons has a reputation as a policy wonk and legislative workhorse who has strong working relationships with Republicans. He crafted bipartisan legislation that overhauled U.S. international development finance and the Global Fragility Act, which established the first-ever U.S. government strategy to tackle violent extremism and allocated over $1 billion for conflict prevention and peace building in fragile countries. Even amid the partisan rancor in Washington, Coons has openly called for a return to bipartisan foreign policymaking. “I am not naive. Building a better bipartisan foreign policy is a tall order and won’t happen overnight,” he wrote in a recent essay for Foreign Affairs. “But after four years under an unconventional, unpredictable president, it is easy to forget that such consensus exists within this diverse country.”

Other names that have been floated include Samantha Power, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; Republican Sen. Mitt Romney; and William Burns, the former deputy secretary of state and career foreign service officer who is currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. 

Defense Secretary

Michèle Flournoy. It has been a long time coming, but Flournoy is poised to become the first female U.S. defense secretary, nearly six years after she turned down the job late in the Obama administration. Flournoy could face questions from progressives in a possible confirmation over her business at WestExec Advisors, a strategic consultancy she founded after Hillary Clinton’s 2016 defeat. She has pushed for the U.S. military to sharpen its military might against China by investing in cutting-edge technologies, including dealing with Beijing’s strengthened weapons systems to deny U.S. access to the Western Pacific. 

Sen. Tammy Duckworth. Though Flournoy appears to be the prohibitive favorite to take over at the Pentagon, Duckworth, a former U.S. Army helicopter pilot during the Iraq War who lost both her legs after her aircraft was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade, has come up in conversations as a dark horse. Duckworth garnered interest as a possible vice presidential hopeful before Sen. Kamala Harris was picked, and has been a staunch critic of Trump’s foreign policy, striking hard at the White House after the New York Times reported this summer that Russia had placed bounties on the deaths of U.S. troops for Taliban militants. 

Jeh Johnson. The former Obama Homeland Security secretary served as the Pentagon’s top counsel early in that administration, an experience that could give him needed policy and legal chops coming into the defense secretary role. But though Johnson would make history by becoming the first Black defense secretary if picked, he has several bullets on his résumé that could raise eyebrows among progressives in the Senate. Johnson serves on the board of the defense contractor Lockheed Martin and was seen as a legal architect for the Obama administration’s counterterrorism efforts, according to his biography.

Director of National Intelligence

Robert Cardillo. Another career professional, Cardillo has spent 35 years working in the intelligence community including as deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency. Most recently, he served as the director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency from 2014 to 2019. Cardillo was one of 780 retired national security officials who signed a letter in support of Biden’s candidacy. 

Sue Gordon. A career CIA officer who has spent nearly four decades working in intelligence, Gordon is widely respected by both Republicans and Democrats. “Sue Gordon has had every experience necessary to lead the intelligence community,” said Carmen Medina, the former CIA deputy director of intelligence. “She’s inspired other people, which is the sign of a great leader.” Gordon served as the No. 2 at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence and was expected to take over the top job after Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats announced his stepping down in July 2019, but after being passed over for the job, Gordon turned in her resignation letter, which was accompanied by a handwritten note that said she was leaving out of “patriotism, not preference,” adding that the president should have his “team.” 

Lisa Monaco. The onetime chief counterterrorism and homeland security advisor to Obama is a contender for a few roles, including the director of national intelligence. Monaco has long-standing ties to the president-elect, having worked on Biden’s Senate Judiciary Committee staff in the 1990s. Prior to her tenure in Obama’s White House, she spent 15 years at the Justice Department as a federal prosecutor and as counsel and chief of staff at the FBI. From 2011 to 2013, she was the assistant attorney general for national security—the first ever woman to serve in that position.

CIA Director

Thomas Donilon. A fixture of Democratic foreign-policy and national security officials, Donilon served as Obama’s second national security advisor and has worked closely with three U.S. presidents since taking up his first job in the White House in 1977 during the Carter administration. Donilon and his brother, Mike Donilon, who served as chief strategist to the Biden campaign, have long been close with the president-elect. Tom Donilon’s wife, Catherine Russell, served as chief of staff to Biden’s wife, Jill Biden, when she was second lady. Given his close relationship with the president-elect, Donilon could also be a contender for the position of director of national intelligence. 

Avril Haines. Haines has broken a number of glass ceilings during her career, becoming the first woman to serve as deputy director of the CIA and then as deputy national security advisor during Obama’s second term. Haines joined the Biden campaign in June to oversee its foreign policy and national security transition team. 

Michael Morell. A career intelligence official who worked his way all the way up to acting director of the CIA before leaving in 2013 during the Obama administration, Morell was also considered by the then-president to take over the agency after retired Army Gen. David Petraeus resigned amid a sex scandal, but John Brennan was selected instead. “I think he’d be seen as a real professional, dedicated to analytical integrity, speaking truth to power, which I think Joe Biden is going to want,” said Larry Pfeiffer, a former senior director of the White House Situation Room. While he has come out against Trump over the past four years and is beloved by agency types, Morell—who defended the Obama administration’s stepped-up campaign of covert drone operations and criticized the Senate’s analysis of CIA torture—could cause headaches as a potential nominee with progressives in the upper chamber.

U.N. Ambassador

The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations traditionally has outsized influence and public stature in U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Democratic administrations where presidents have made the post a cabinet-level position. (Trump included his first U.N. ambassador, Nikki Haley, in his cabinet but downgraded the position after she left.) The top contenders for the post include:

Wendy Sherman. Sherman, a Harvard Kennedy School professor, is a former senior diplomat in the Obama administration who served as undersecretary of state for political affairs, the third-ranking official at the State Department. During her time in that position, from 2011 to 2015, she played an integral role in crafting and implementing the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump has since abandoned. Biden has pledged to restore U.S. commitments to the nuclear deal once in office, making Sherman’s expertise, contacts, and institutional knowledge with the deal potentially invaluable, though the deal will be tough to resuscitate. 

Pete Buttigieg. Many Democratic Party members see Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as having a bright political future ahead of him after his rise to national prominence as a Democratic presidential contender in the 2020 primaries. Democratic foreign-policy insiders said Buttigieg, a Rhodes scholar and military veteran, is a strong contender for U.N. ambassador despite his relative lack of experience in Washington foreign-policy making because of his clout in the party and effective communication skills. If Buttigieg were eventually nominated and confirmed by the Senate for the post, he would be the first openly gay U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. 

Nicholas Burns. Burns, a former career diplomat, served in the senior ranks of the George W. Bush administration as U.S. ambassador to NATO and undersecretary of state for political affairs. Burns has been an advisor to Biden’s foreign-policy campaign and has long-standing connections with Blinken, another one of Biden’s top campaign aides. 

Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Thomas-Greenfield is another experienced former senior career foreign service officer who served as director-general of the foreign service and assistant secretary of state for African affairs. Since leaving the department in 2017, she has been a vocal proponent of reforming the State Department and improving its diversity while criticizing the Trump administration for mismanagement and marginalizing career experts at the department. Thomas-Greenfield is leading Biden’s agency review team for the State Department that will lay the groundwork for the transition in January. When she left in 2017, she was the highest-ranking African American woman in the State Department.

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Amy Mackinnon is a national security and intelligence reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

More from Foreign Policy

Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.
Keri Russell as Kate Wyler walks by a State Department Seal from a scene in The Diplomat, a new Netflix show about the foreign service.

At Long Last, the Foreign Service Gets the Netflix Treatment

Keri Russell gets Drexel furniture but no Senate confirmation hearing.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and French President Emmanuel Macron speak in the garden of the governor of Guangdong's residence in Guangzhou, China, on April 7.

How Macron Is Blocking EU Strategy on Russia and China

As a strategic consensus emerges in Europe, France is in the way.

Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.
Chinese President Jiang Zemin greets U.S. President George W. Bush prior to a meeting of APEC leaders in 2001.

What the Bush-Obama China Memos Reveal

Newly declassified documents contain important lessons for U.S. China policy.

A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.
A girl stands atop a destroyed Russian tank.

Russia’s Boom Business Goes Bust

Moscow’s arms exports have fallen to levels not seen since the Soviet Union’s collapse.