Where Is Biden’s Cabinet Heading?

The incoming U.S. president’s team doesn’t point in any clear direction, and progressives are worried.

By Michael Hirsh, a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden
U.S. President-elect Joe Biden speaks during a cabinet announcement event in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 24. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images

Taken altogether, U.S. President-elect Joe Biden’s cabinet is a decidedly mixed bag that has left many Democrats confused as to whether the new administration will really challenge an entrenched economic and political system—or revert to the complacency of the Clinton and Obama years that helped deliver the White House to Donald Trump.

As Biden’s picks have been trotted out, even while outgoing President Trump continues to challenge Biden’s historic and resounding victory, the picture has only gotten fuzzier. Some are familiar faces popping up in strange places. Former National Security Advisor and United Nations Ambassador Susan Rice, who built her entire career on foreign policy, is to be chief domestic policy advisor. Denis McDonough, who has never served in the military, will head Veterans Affairs. And a recently retired U.S. Army general, Lloyd Austin, has been nominated to run a Defense Department meant to be led by civilians. 

In other cases, Biden’s picks appear like a smoke bomb meant to confuse or perhaps placate dueling progressive and centrist wings within the party. Some seem savvy choices: Treasury Secretary-designate Janet Yellen is a former Federal Reserve chairwoman with cross-aisle appeal. But Yellen is also a highly admired progressive economist who has spent her career on increasing income equality for middle-class workers. At the same time, Biden plans to nominate Adewale Adeyemo, President Barack Obama’s international economics advisor who helped negotiate the Trans-Pacific Partnership—an agreement severely criticized by the left—as Yellen’s deputy secretary. 

Others have less impressive records as progressives. Neera Tanden, slated to take over the Office of Management and Budget, is a centrist aligned with Bill and Hillary Clinton, and she is the president of the Center for American Progress, founded by former Hillary Clinton campaign head John Podesta. Tanden has often been critical of uber-progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders, who has pushed for universal health care and free college education. 

Yet, the person in charge of Biden’s financial transition task force is a tough-minded Wall Street reformer, Gary Gensler, widely admired by progressives and considered a candidate for some senior position, possibly head of the Securities and Exchange Commission. Alongside him are left-leaning fellow reformers like Capitol Hill activist Dennis Kelleher, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economist Simon Johnson, and others who have, more than a decade after the great financial crisis, been tough on breaking up big banks. 

Even one of Biden’s most recent picks, Mandarin-speaking House Ways and Means Committee trade lawyer Katherine Tai for U.S. trade representative, doesn’t offer any clear sign of where the administration is heading. Considered a centrist, Tai could be a signal that Biden intends to negotiate new trade deals with Beijing, if tougher and more multilateral than under Trump, though it’s not clear if or how long Trump’s trade war with China will linger.

Meanwhile, the leading candidate to be secretary of labor, Patrick Gaspard, recently headed the Open Society Foundations, set up by conservatives’ favorite boogeyman, George Soros. Gaspard was active in responding to the outrage spurred by the George Floyd murder this spring, shepherding $220 million in grants to Black communities. 

“What is the agenda? What is the overall vision going to be?” progressive firebrand Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez asked reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill. “I think that’s a little hazy.”

The new cabinet looks like a multicultural dream team—and the realization of Biden’s bid to master identity politics. Rice and Gaspard are Black; Tai is Asian American; and Tanden is Indian American, as is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. And Austin would be the first Black American to head the Pentagon. 

But some progressives are worried that “Biden is working backwards from identity,” as one longtime political observer put it, designing a cabinet stocked with diversity but less focused on making the changes that many progressives see as long overdue, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy.

“I applaud the formidable progress in the diversity of cabinet and key administration appointments. It is long overdue for America,” said Robert Johnson, the president of the Soros-backed Institute for New Economic Thinking. “But it is not a substitute for taking on monied power interests to produce reform leading to broad-based prosperity. If identity politics is used as a mask to avoid that enormous challenge, it will be very dangerous for the already polarized politics of the USA.”

Rice, for example, is considered a centrist and traditionalist who in the past has been criticized for not being a team player. As Obama’s national security advisor, she was sometimes accused of running an insular National Security Council, advocating aggressive U.S. interventions abroad, and compiling a record that failed to take on human rights abuses abroad. Her views on domestic policy and the problems of U.S. inequality—a key indicator of how she would perform as domestic policy advisor—are as yet little known. 

Many of the party elite were shocked in particular by the appointment of Tanden, a former aide to Hillary Clinton and television pundit who is not an expert in budget politics but who in the past often pushed back hard against the progressive plans of Sanders. Progressives fear that under Tanden the Center for American Progress was too beholden to Wall Street and overseas donations from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

And the economic direction doesn’t get any clearer when considering the rest of Biden’s prospective team. Cecilia Rouse, tapped to head the Council on Economic Advisers, is a known progressive, as is her designated deputy Heather Boushey, who helped found the left-leaning Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which has almost entirely focused on redressing economic inequality. Others on the team include Jared Bernstein, who was chief economic advisor to Biden during his vice presidency and is a left-leaning, pro-labor economist. In one way, that adds up to a progressive economic team, said Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel Prize-winning economist at Columbia University. 

“Cecilia Rouse is all about discrimination. And Janet Yellen was the very first central banker who talked about inequality,” he said. 

Yet, Biden’s choice to be head of the National Economic Council, Brian Deese, worked for the giant Wall Street hedge fund BlackRock, as did some other Biden nominees, including Adeyemo, who was a senior advisor there. That makes progressives worry they may be more captives of Wall Street than champions of the working class. 

“For the most part, they fit into a consistent pattern that I would say is more progressive than Obama, but less progressive than Sanders,” Stiglitz said. “The real point is, will the Biden team remember how the Democrats lost the working class? There’s always going to be a little bit of lack of a little bit of clear consistency and vision. I’d say it’s going to be a pragmatic progressivism.”

Most of the new nominees worked in some fashion for Obama, who’s come under fire again from progressives for the lack of contrition shown in his recent memoir. McDonough was the former president’s chief of staff, while Tai, who could become the first Asian American to become trade representative, served as chief counsel for China trade enforcement from 2011 to 2014, a time when the administration did little to respond to Chinese dumping of low-wage goods or theft of intellectual property. 

One early test will be Biden and Tai’s approach to the Obama-era Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. Progressives hated the deal, which favored U.S. multinationals, but Democratic centrists and many Republicans believed it would be a way to blunt China’s trade strength in the region and eventually coerce Beijing into accepting open trade norms. Trump withdrew from the TPP as one of his first acts in office, saying it was a terrible pact that infringed on U.S. sovereignty. (The other signatories carried on without the United States and formed their own Pacific trade group.) 

Biden has said he wants to join the TPP under certain conditions—but it’s not clear what those are. Progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren have criticized the deal for including clauses that give companies the right to sue governments if laws or investment conditions change while giving little attention to workers’ rights. Stiglitz called those investor dispute clauses a “sop to the Business Roundtable.”

Things are only a little clearer when it comes to national security and foreign policy, where progressives have won some early, if perhaps Pyrrhic, victories and where Obama-era alumni are vowing to change their stripes. 

Biden’s pick of retired Gen. Austin did knock Michèle Flournoy out of the running for defense secretary; progressives lambasted her ties to defense firms and fondness for foreign interventions. But Austin will require only the third waiver in history for a recently retired general officer to take up the senior civilian spot atop the Pentagon. When Trump, a political and national security neophyte, sought a waiver for former Gen. James Mattis, it was readily granted, because Trump clearly needed guidance. But Biden, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who cast his first major vote during the Vietnam War, has no such need of national security crutches. 

Austin seems to indicate that defense policy will be run more out of the White House than the Pentagon—which leaves progressives to wonder whether that policy will reflect the Biden who supported the Iraq War or the Biden who later grew skeptical of U.S. deployments overseas. 

Perhaps the most predictable cabinet choices are Antony Blinken as secretary of state and Jake Sullivan to be national security advisor. Both served Obama and Biden at senior levels in the past. Both are, by their own admission, looking to reinvent traditional liberal internationalism and to consider more restrained U.S. deployments overseas. Most importantly, both are trying to update traditional Democratic thinking about how international relations can work for American workers. 

In an article in the Atlantic last year, Sullivan wrote that both Democrats and Republicans erred because they “came to treat international economic issues as somehow separate from everything else” and failed to address the troubles of the ailing middle class by not protecting and retraining them in the face of competition from China and other low-wage competitors. Speaking on background by email, a senior member of the Biden transition team said that this would be a major agenda item of the new administration, breaking with centrist Democratic politics of the past.

Though Trump’s neoisolationist approach was “dangerous,” Sullivan wrote in his Atlantic article, “he has surfaced questions that need clear answers,” especially regarding the “hollowing out” of the middle class. 

“Those of us who believe that the United States can and should continue to occupy a global leadership role, even if a different role than in the past, have to explain why Trump is wrong—and provide a better strategy for the future.”

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh