Top contenders for Biden’s Cabinet draw fire from all sides

Aides to Biden who are managing the selection process are revealing little about whom he intends to choose
Last Updated 28 November 2020, 17:13 IST

There are leading candidates and dark horses. There are potential roadblocks from progressives and conservatives. And there are competing factions hoping to be part of the next president’s inner circle, all jockeying for influence.

President-elect Joe Biden moved quickly this past week to name the first two members of his Cabinet, picking one of his closest confidants to be the nation’s top diplomat and choosing an immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security for the first time.

But as he fills out the rest of his team in the days and weeks ahead, the task will become more complicated, forcing him to navigate tricky currents of ideology, gender, racial identity, party affiliation, friendship, competence, personal background and past employment.

Aides to Biden who are managing the selection process are revealing little about whom he intends to choose. And yet, as is typical in Washington in the early days of a transition, the names of those the president-elect is said to be considering are a frequent source of discussion. This time, the gossip is spreading via Zoom calls, Twitter posts and encrypted text messages sent by lawmakers, lobbyists and political consultants.

“I can assure you, there will be more Cabinet announcements in the weeks ahead, so buckle up for December,” Jennifer Psaki, a senior transition adviser, told reporters this past week.

Whom Biden will tap to be the next attorney general is among the most talked about — and politically fraught — decisions that the president-elect will make, as civil rights issues roil the country and some Democrats expect investigations into President Donald Trump and his associates.

Sally Yates, the deputy attorney general in the final years of the Obama administration, had long been considered the front-runner. Biden is close to her and has told friends that he could imagine her as the nation’s top law enforcement official. But some advisers fear that Republicans would block her nomination because of her refusal to defend Trump’s first travel ban and her role in the early stages of the investigations into his campaign and associates.

Biden could instead pick Lisa Monaco, the former homeland security adviser for President Barack Obama who was a finalist in 2013 to be FBI director. And like Yates, she worked well with Biden when he was vice president.

But both women are up against Deval Patrick, the former Massachusetts governor who served as the head of the department’s civil rights division in the Clinton administration and would be the second Black man to be attorney general.

The president-elect’s aides see civil rights issues as a far more deep-seated problem than simply one that has arisen because of Trump. The aides believe that Patrick’s experience at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc. and his stewardship of the department’s civil rights division positions him to take on that issue.

Others around the president-elect are not eager to reward Patrick, who jumped into the Democratic nomination last year to challenge Biden as a politically moderate answer to the party’s more liberal candidates. Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, is also under consideration for attorney general.

Biden has also not yet announced his pick to lead the Pentagon, despite having introduced other members of his national security team.

One candidate for the job, according to people familiar with Biden’s deliberations, is Michèle Flournoy, a senior defence official for President Bill Clinton and Obama. But her lock on the job may have slipped in recent days, as some progressive groups have attacked her work at consulting firms that have represented military contractors and foreign governments.

“Her employment at these two companies as well as her time as a paid board member for defence contractor Booz Allen Hamilton creates potential conflicts of interest,” said Mandy Smithberger of the Project on Government Oversight, an ethics watchdog group.

If Biden does not choose Flournoy, Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, a former deputy energy secretary and National Security Council member, and Lloyd Austin III, a retired Army general and head of the U.S. Central Command, are possibilities, people close to the process said. The Biden team could also tap Jeh Johnson, who served as a top Pentagon lawyer before becoming secretary of homeland security under Obama.

Should Biden tap Yates for attorney general, it may enhance Johnson’s prospects for the Pentagon because otherwise the traditional top four Cabinet department posts — Justice, State, Defense and Treasury — will have gone to white nominees.

Republicans in the Senate will try to reject some of Biden’s nominees. But his team is just as worried about opposition from Democrats.

Michael Morell, a former acting CIA director and one of the two leading candidates to be nominated to that position, has drawn the ire of liberals for his outspoken defence of the CIA’s interrogation program.

“Mike Morell wrote that torture was effective and moral,” Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., wrote on Twitter on Wednesday. “He’s wrong on both counts.”

Thomas Donilon, a former national security adviser in the Obama administration, is also a leading possibility to take over the CIA. His brother, Mike Donilon, is one of Biden’s closest political advisers. Others under consideration are Sue Gordon, a former principal deputy director of national intelligence who was pushed out by Trump; Vincent Stewart, a retired lieutenant general who led the Defense Intelligence Agency; and Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA analyst and White House national security aide.

Aides to the president-elect said Wednesday that he intended to announce more members of his economic team this coming week after choosing Janet Yellen, a former Federal Reserve chair, to be his Treasury secretary.

Biden could pick Roger Ferguson Jr., an economist who was vice-chair of the Federal Reserve and was under serious consideration for the Treasury job, to lead the National Economic Council or a new board overseeing the recovery from the recession.

Picking Ferguson, who is Black, to lead the council would help Biden keep a promise to make his administration look like the rest of America. Other names under consideration for the position are white men, including Bruce Reed, a former chief of staff to Biden, and Austan Goolsbee, an economist who was chair of Obama’s Council of Economic Advisers. Gene Sperling, a veteran economic adviser dating to the Clinton administration, is another possibility, as is Brian Deese, who was deputy director of the National Economic Council under Obama.

Reed, a noted centrist and deficit hawk, was Clinton’s domestic policy director and helped develop the welfare overhaul that Clinton signed into law requiring work and setting time limits.

He has come under fire from prominent liberal members of Congress, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, who also oppose his consideration to lead the Office of Management and Budget, which helps the White House determine economic priorities. But blocking Reed, who travelled with Biden for much of the campaign, from the budget office post may only ensure he winds up in the West Wing, where the president-elect could make him a senior adviser.

To lead the Agriculture Department, Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, the highest-ranking Black member of Congress, is pushing for Rep. Marcia Fudge, an African American Democrat from Ohio. Clyburn, an early and important backer of Biden, has said the department should be focused more on hunger.

But traditionalists eager to keep a voice from rural America in the post are advocating Heidi Heitkamp, a former senator from North Dakota, or Tom Vilsack, the former Iowa governor who served as agriculture secretary for Obama.

To coordinate the response to the pandemic, Jeffrey Zients, who was director of the National Economic Council under Obama, could become Biden’s “COVID czar.” That job could also go to Vivek Murthy, the former surgeon general who helps lead Biden’s transition panel on the virus.

Mary Nichols, California’s climate and clean air regulator, is seen as the top candidate to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. And there is a growing campaign to persuade Biden to name a Native American as interior secretary. Among the names, he is considering: Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., a rising star in Democratic politics; and Michael Connor, the former deputy interior secretary in the Obama administration. Steve Bullock, the governor of Montana, is also a candidate.

The possibility that Ernest Moniz, Obama’s energy secretary, could reprise his role troubles environmental groups who believe that Moniz did not do enough to steer the country away from fossil fuels. Biden could also turn to Arun Majumdar, who runs the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford.

Rahm Emanuel, Obama’s former chief of staff and the former mayor of Chicago, is a candidate to run the Transportation Department but is disliked by some liberals for how he handled police issues as mayor. Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, is another top candidate.

Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif.; Alvin Brown, the former mayor of Jacksonville, Florida; and Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, are being discussed to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico is interested in becoming secretary of Health and Human Services and would be another Latino in the Cabinet.

Some allies of Biden’s on Capitol Hill worry that Biden’s choices for the biggest jobs in government look too much like professional staff, with no big personalities who may be better suited to helping drive policy. He could rectify that if he picked one of his Democratic primary rivals — Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont or Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts — to lead the Labor Department or the Commerce Department. Liberals would cheer such a nomination, but transition advisers have told Biden that confirmation of either would be difficult.

In an interview with NBC News, Biden strongly hinted that he was likely to leave both senators where they are.

“Taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House — particularly a person of consequence — is a really difficult decision that would have to be made,” Biden said. “I have a very ambitious, very progressive agenda. And it’s going to take really strong leaders in the House and Senate to get it done.”

(Published 28 November 2020, 17:13 IST)

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