Joe Biden has not even taken office yet, but he appears to be jettisoning his promise to restore bipartisanship in Washington, DC—at least according to the makeup of the president-elect’s cabinet.
Biden, who has pledged to create an era of bipartisan cooperation, announced the final makeup of his cabinet last week, with high-profile choices to helm the Departments of Commerce and Labor, respectively. For those posts, the president-elect picked two respected elected officials, Gov. Gina Raimondo (D-RI) and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh (D), from his own party.
“This team will help us emerge from the most inequitable economic and jobs crisis. … They will work tirelessly to ensure every American enjoys a fair return for their work and an equal chance to get ahead,” Biden said when announcing the appointments.
Since being declared the winner of the 2020 contest, Biden has moved quickly to name the senior members of his cabinet. The quick pace has been a result of a desire of the incoming administration to immediately tackle the dual crises of the novel coronavirus pandemic and its economic fall out.
Although Biden and his running-mate, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, have promised their response to the crises will prioritize “equity” for all Americans, it appears that not everyone will have a voice in the new administration. Biden’s cabinet, in fact, will be the first since President Bill Clinton’s initial term to not have a member of the opposing party at the head of an administrative department.
In comparison, the past three administrations have had members of the opposing party in high-ranking White House and cabinet positions.
President Donald Trump, for instance, upon taking office in 2017, named two Democrats, Gary Cohn and Peter Navarro, to his staff. Cohn, a former Goldman Sachs executive and Democrat donor, was tapped by Trump as director of the national economic council, a position with wide purview over economic decision making. Navarro, an economist who had previously run for local office in San Diego, California, as a Democrat, was appointed to serve as the White House’s trade and manufacturing czar—a post he holds to this day.
Similarly, President Barack Obama had several high-ranking Republicans in his administration. During his first term, Obama appointed then-GOP congressman Ray Lahood, a fellow Illinoisan, to the post of transportation secretary. Obama also kept on President George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Robert Gates, in order to ensure continuity in national security matters. The retention of Gates was followed up by the appointment of two well-known Republican elected officials, then-Rep. John McHugh (R-NY) and Gov. Jon Huntsman (R-UT), to the posts of secretary of the army and ambassador to China, respectively.
Obama likely would have had a further Republican in his first term-term cabinet if his initial choice for commerce secretary, former Sen. Judd Gregg (R-NH), had not withdrawn before the confirmation process had begun.
At the time of the appointments, Obama was applauded for an unprecedented show of bipartisanship. The praise continued throughout Obama’s tenure, even though appointees such as Lahood later resigned after coming to the conclusion the White House was never “committed fully to a genuine bipartisan approach to policy making.”
While Bush’s cabinet was not as bipartisan as that of Obama, the president did appoint several Democrats to high-ranking administration posts.
Upon taking office in 2001, Bush tapped Norman Mineta, a former California congressman and Clinton Commerce Department official, for the post of transportation secretary. Mineta would go on to serve in the post until August 2007, becoming the longest-serving secretary of transportation in the department’s history. Apart from Mineta, Bush also appointed Democrats to the office of secretary of the army, as well as several prominent ambassadorships.
Even though Biden had previous administration’s as a guide, the president-elect chose to depart from that bipartisan tradition when deciding on his cabinet appointees. While Biden has picked respected and well accredited nominees for the four most senior cabinet positions—including former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen for treasury secretary and Judge Merrick Garland as attorney general—the rest of his choices are better known for political, rather than administrative accomplishments.
For the position of transportation secretary, in particular, Biden has picked Pete Buttigieg, his onetime rival for the 2020 Democrat nomination turned supporter. Buttigieg, a former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, has little prior experience in either infrastructure or transportation matters. In fact, during his tenure as mayor, Buttigieg struggled to come up with proper solution to the persistent pothole problem plaguing his city’s streets.
Biden, likewise, has tapped other Democrat elected officials with little direct policy experience for top cabinet posts. One of the most notable of such appointments has been California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as secretary of health and human services. Becerra, a former long serving congressman and ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), has raised concerns from many over his lack of expertise on health-related topics.
“I’m not sure what his Health and Human Services credentials are,” Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) told Bloomberg in December. “It’s not like [current Health Secretary] Alex Azar who used to work for pharma and has a health-care background.”
In attempting to defend Becerra from such criticism, allies on the left have only been able to point to the lawsuits he filed as California’s attorney general to uphold Obamacare.
Other Biden nominees, including former Gov. Jennifer Granholm (D-MI) as energy secretary, have also drawn criticism for their lack of experience. Granholm, who left office in 2011, has best been known in recent years for her punditry as a CNN contributor, a post she used to push theories of Russian collusion.
Biden’s decision to fill his cabinet with partisan allies stands in direct contrast to the promises made on the 2020 campaign trail.
“But while I’ll be a Democratic candidate, I will be an American president,” Biden said when accepting the Democrat nomination in August 2020. “I’ll work hard for those who didn’t support me, as hard for them as I did for those who did vote for me.”
“That’s the job of a president, to represent all of us, not just our base or our party,” Biden added at the time.