What Biden's Team Is Telling Us About the Way He Wants to Govern

The Biden administration will have a lot of firsts, and a lot of familiar faces.
President-elect Joe Biden walks to speak to media as he arrives to meet virtually with the United States Conference of Mayors at The Queen theater Monday, Nov. 23, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

The transition of President-elect Joe Biden has been delayed, but over the past several weeks he’s started building his administration and given a strong indication of where it’s headed. And what’s quickly becoming obvious is that Biden’s administration will have a lot of firsts—and if personnel is policy, Biden’s policy is shaping up to look a lot like Barack Obama’s.

On Monday, Biden officially named several key nominations and appointments, including Secretary of State nominee Tony Blinken, Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, and ambassador to the United Nations nominee Linda Thomas-Greenfield. All were high-ranking deputies to Cabinet officials in the Obama administration. 


Biden also named former Secretary of State John Kerry to be the special presidential envoy for climate, a new Cabinet-level position that will have a seat on the National Security Council. And though it hasn’t officially been announced yet, Biden is expected to nominate former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen to run the Treasury department, the Wall Street Journal reported Monday

Taken together, these appointments—plus the ones Biden had already made, such as chief of staff Ron Klain—strongly suggest that Biden is going to lean heavily on bureaucratic expertise from the last Democratic administration. A lot of barriers are going to be broken, but ultimately, we’re looking at more of the same.

Biden is building a diverse administration

“I have made it clear from the beginning that, if I’m president, my administration, my cabinet, my vice president, the Supreme Court, etcetera, it will look like the country, it will look like America,” Biden said in April, after he had become the presumptive Democratic nominee. 

So far, that means Biden is looking to build a more diverse cabinet than the one he’s replacing—not exactly a tall order, all things considered. 

Among Biden’s picks would be the first Latino and the first immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security (Mayorkas), and the first woman to run the country’s intelligence community (Haines). Yellen would be the first woman to lead the Treasury Department, and Thomas-Greenfield would be the second Black woman to represent the United States at the United Nations. 


And, of course, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is set to become the highest-ranking woman ever elected in the history of the country. 

Other key appointments include Monday’s naming of two deputy directors of legislative affairs, Shuwanza Goff—a longtime aide to House Majority leader Steny Hoyer and the first Black woman to serve as floor director—and Reema Dodin, the deputy chief of staff to Sen. Dick Durbin and a Palestinian-American woman. 

By contrast, the Trump administration has been overwhelmingly white and male. By the second year of his presidency, Trump had appointed twice as many men to key roles as women, an analysis by the Atlantic in March 2018 showed. And a Reuters report in October 2017 showed that nearly nine in 10 of the more than 1,000 mid-level Trump appointees at the time were white, and 62 percent were men. 

Trump’s judicial nominations—which, while not part of his administration, are going to be the longest-lasting feature of his presidency—also lean heavily white and male. Biden, by contrast, has pledged to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, which would be another first. 

Back to the future

While the demographic makeup of the Biden administration so far shows that diversity is a priority, the central feature of the president-elect’s team so far has been experience working in the Obama administration, and often directly for Biden himself. 

In fact, every single member of Biden’s foreign policy team named on Monday—the five previously mentioned, as well as national security advisor-designee Jake Sullivan—served as a high-ranking Obama administration official. Kerry was Obama’s second Secretary of State. Blinken’s ties to Biden stretch back to working for him when Biden was on the Senate Foreign Relations committee. Sullivan both served as Biden’s national security advisor when he was Vice President, and Sullivan was a close aide to Hillary Clinton both at the State Department and on her 2016 campaign. Both Klain and counselor to the president Steve Richetti had stints as Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president. 


Blinken, a former journalist, was the deputy national security advisor and later the Deputy Secretary of State, the #2 position in the department, for the final two years of the Obama administration. Thomas-Greenfield was the assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under Kerry. 

Haines was the deputy director of the CIA under Obama, the first woman to hold the position. And finally, Mayorkas was first the director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services under Obama, and later the deputy secretary of DHS under Jeh Johnson.

As the revolving door turns

While Democrats might be relieved at the number of Biden picks with previous government experience when compared with the current administration, progressives have expressed alarm at several of the picks due to their ties to corporate interests. Richetti is a longtime traveler in D.C.’s corridor between government and the lobbying sector, and Klain, while lauded by progressives for his role as former director of the Obama administration’s ebola response, has K Street ties as well

And while Biden conspicuously left out a Defense nominee from his foreign policy team announcements Monday, leading contenders include Michéle Flournoy, a former Defense Department official in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. Flournoy, who would be the first woman to lead the Department of Defense, co-founded a “strategic consultancy” firm called WestExec Advisors, as the American Prospect reported in July

“There’s a difference between consulting and lobbying,” a Biden spokesperson told The American Prospect over the summer. “There’s a pretty strong line there … So, presumably we don’t have a ban on people who were consultants at one time or another, since I’m one myself.”