The Year in Review

An Unprecedented Presidential Transition

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden swiftly named his cabinet despite continued resistance from the defeated Donald Trump. Where he’ll go from here is another question.

By , a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy.
Vice-President Joe Biden looks on during a bilateral meeting between President Obama and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine in the Oval Office of the White House September 18, 2014 in Washington.
Vice-President Joe Biden looks on during a bilateral meeting between President Obama and President Petro Poroshenko of Ukraine in the Oval Office of the White House September 18, 2014 in Washington. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

The outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election has been the rockiest since 2000, when it took the Supreme Court more than a month to decide for Republican George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore, who had won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College in a squeaker. Yet in many ways the transition has been even more tumultuous this time, with President-elect Joe Biden fighting a refusal by President Donald Trump and legions of Republicans to concede the election, while at the same trying to quell the angry divisions in his own party between centrists and progressives. It wasn’t until Dec. 14 that Biden’s victory was formalized by the Electoral College, making Trump only the fourth elected incumbent president in a century not to win reelection.

The outcome of the 2020 U.S. presidential election has been the rockiest since 2000, when it took the Supreme Court more than a month to decide for Republican George W. Bush against Democrat Al Gore, who had won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College in a squeaker. Yet in many ways the transition has been even more tumultuous this time, with President-elect Joe Biden fighting a refusal by President Donald Trump and legions of Republicans to concede the election, while at the same trying to quell the angry divisions in his own party between centrists and progressives. It wasn’t until Dec. 14 that Biden’s victory was formalized by the Electoral College, making Trump only the fourth elected incumbent president in a century not to win reelection.

Despite the headwinds created by Trump’s desperate attempts to overturn the election results in the courts by claiming fraud—ultimately finding himself rebuffed by a conservative-majority Supreme Court—Biden swiftly named his main cabinet picks. They proved to be an eclectic bunch of veterans and newcomers who the incoming president hopes will help to unite a deeply polarized nation. But many progressives are dismayed by the presence of so many establishment types, and if Republicans end up controlling the Senate—to be determined by a Jan. 5 runoff for two remaining open seats in Georgia—Biden will find his plans for many bold initiatives on the economy and climate stymied.

Here are five Foreign Policy reads on how the new administration is likely to play out following Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, 2021.


1. Biden Has the Team Obama Always Wanted

by James Traub, Nov. 24

After four years of diplomacy-by-tweet, the foreign-policy establishment in particular is relieved that the professionals are back in the center of the action. With the announcement of Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security advisor, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Biden hopes his deeply experienced team will restore American power and prestige abroad. As James Traub writes, “The Biden team promises restoration, not transformation.” But the author also pointed out in a Foreign Policy series on Biden’s likely foreign-policy choices, this doesn’t mean a return to the status quo ante. While reaffirming American leadership, Biden will have to find a “sweet spot” that also creates a more equitable global system. 


2. Where Is Biden’s Cabinet Heading?

by Michael Hirsh, Dec. 11

In some ways, Biden may be trying to thread the needle between tradition and change a little too carefully. His cabinet is in some ways a multicultural dream team: Though two of his top choices, Blinken and Sullivan, are white men with all the usual elite credentials, others mark historic departures. Janet Yellen will be the first female secretary of the treasury. Susan Rice, the pick to be domestic policy advisor, is Black, and Lloyd Austin, the designee to run the Pentagon, will be the first Black American to become defense secretary. Biden’s choice for U.S. trade representative, Katherine Tai, is Taiwanese American, and his nominee to head of the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, is Indian American, as is Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. 

Yet some progressives worry that the mix is superficial, and that in policy terms there is too little progressive thinking, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. 


U.S. President-elect Joe Biden walks off stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 16.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden walks off stage in Wilmington, Delaware, on Nov. 16. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

3. Why Biden Will Lose the Left—and How That Could Help Him

by Jonathan Tepperman, Dec. 11

Biden, a career centrist, will face many challenges from the left. But his success will depend on where these voices come from and whether they’re really as powerful as they appear. He’ll have to face down the online left, the grassroots left, and the congressional left. But Biden, who unlike Trump pays no attention to Twitter, will largely ignore the angry voices online, say the right things to the grassroots, and do his best as a master political deal-maker to forge compromises in Congress.  

And progressives may have overestimated their ability to block moderate compromises in the House. In fact, only a handful of House members are die-hard progressives, and a fight with the left could actually help Biden politically by giving him credibility with the pragmatists on Capitol Hill if he avoids alienating his moderate base.


4. Biden’s Secretary of State Pick Bodes Return to Normalcy for Weary Diplomats

by Robbie Gramer and Jack Detsch, Nov. 23

The State Department has had a rougher time over Trump’s four years than almost any other agency. Trump’s first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, was repeatedly mocked by the president and reportedly fired while on the toilet. His successor, Mike Pompeo, earned little but distrust from career diplomats and a spate of investigations by the inspector general’s office. Then there was Trump’s impeachment, when career foreign-policy experts were pressed by Congress to reveal everything about the president’s documented abuses of power. Hence the great sigh of relief that rolled through Foggy Bottom upon the nomination of Antony Blinken. “Blinken’s appointment will be a salve to a wounded State Department and will reassure U.S. allies, who know him well,” one former diplomat told Foreign Policy.


5. Report Sheds Light on How Biden’s Future NSC Chief Wants to Reshape U.S. Foreign Policy

by Edward Alden, Dec. 7

Along with other senior members of the Biden team, incoming National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan spent the past several years reassessing what went wrong with the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016, and he and others have concluded that the old approach to U.S.-dominated liberal internationalism must change. Sullivan has charted a humbler, less ambitious approach to U.S. foreign policy—one that offers a turn inward that’s not quite “America first” but is honest in assessing what went wrong in creating so much anger among the middle class, leading ultimately to the rise of Trump. Sullivan was a co-author of a recent report called “Making U.S. Foreign Policy Work Better for the Middle Class,” and it condemned “the overextension that too often has defined U.S. foreign policy in the post-Cold War era.” The key takeaway: a national strategy that would for once align U.S. foreign and domestic policies—something that’s expected to be among the Biden administration’s top priorities.

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