Secretary of the interior isn’t the most high-profile Cabinet post, but it might be the most glaring example of how President-elect Joe Biden’s selection process is going awry. The clear front-runner for the job is New Mexico Representative Deb Haaland, who was elected to the House in 2018. Since then, she’s won the praise of tribal leaders, progressive lawmakers, and even some Republicans for her consensus-driven approach to Indigenous issues and public lands. If nominated, Haaland would also be the first Native American to lead the Department of the Interior—a potent historical move, given the department’s troubled history with tribal communities.
“[Haaland] has been a champion for our environment and public lands and has worked tirelessly to improve the nation-to-nation relationship between the United States and Indian tribes,” Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, a progressive Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, wrote in a letter signed by more than four dozen other House Democrats. “By selecting her to be your Secretary of the Interior, you can make history by giving Native Americans a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time.” Alaska Representative Don Young, the dean of the House GOP, praised Haaland as a “consensus builder” and someone who has been “open to working across the aisle to get things done.”
This should be a slam dunk for the Biden transition team. Instead, members of that team have taken to anonymously criticizing Haaland to the press. They’ve surreptitiously told reporters that Haaland is “unqualified” for the job, a specious claim at best, and signaled that her support for the Green New Deal is somehow unacceptable. Those anonymous barbs drew criticism from both tribal leaders and some congressional Democrats, who warned that the Biden team was treating Haaland unfairly and undermining its broader relationship with Indian Country. Biden’s reported offer of the job to another New Mexico politician hasn’t helped matters, either.
No Cabinet selection process ever goes perfectly for a president-elect, and even the most skilled of them can’t please every faction or interest in their own party along the way. But Bidenworld’s approach to the Department of the Interior posting and other top Cabinet positions is at odds with the vision he put forward for his administration. With roughly half of the positions already filled by prospective candidates, Biden appears to be prioritizing familiarity and political expediency over experience and deliberation. It has made for some neck-snapping inconsistency: The president-elect is somehow simultaneously overthinking and under-thinking some of the most important decisions he’ll make in his presidency—with potentially serious consequences for his administration’s effectiveness.
Adding fuel to concerns over the Interior process, for example, were reports that Biden offered the post to New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, and that she declined it after Hispanic leaders had pushed for her to be chosen to lead the Department of Health and Human Services. Biden instead tapped California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for the HHS role, which made his offer of the Interior Department to Luhan Grisham look like a consolation prize. Along the way, it also undercut prospective nominees for the Interior posting. “In a way, it makes it seem like the transition team went elsewhere to look for someone other than those two, and I don’t think that’s fair to either of them,” Grijalva told The Washington Post, referring to Haaland and retiring New Mexico Senator Tom Udall, who is also up for consideration. “I wish this whole psychodrama hadn’t had to happen.”
This wasn’t Biden’s only attempt at a fumbling switcheroo. After the election, Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge began quietly lobbying for the chance to run the Department of Agriculture, with the support of party heavyweights like South Carolina Representative James Clyburn. It would be a natural fit given Fudge’s experience on hunger and nutrition-related issues on the House Agriculture Committee. But Biden instead tapped former Iowa Governor Tom Vilsack for the job. Vilsack has already done an eight-year stint running the Department of Agriculture, under the Obama administration, during which time he reportedly drew scorn from small family farmers for showing favor to corporate agricultural interests. Fudge, who lamented in an interview last month that departments like Labor and HUD are typically reserved for Black Cabinet members, was asked by Biden to be the secretary of housing and urban development instead.
In the British system and those modeled on it, Cabinet ministers can be somewhat interchangeable, since they lean more heavily on career civil servants to run day-to-day operations and implement policy. That doesn’t hold true for modern American governance. Even the most capable secretary of state might be ill equipped to run the sprawling Defense Department bureaucracy. Secretaries of the interior might have a wealth of experience and knowledge about the energy industry from its interactions with public lands, but that wouldn’t translate to running the Department of Energy or its national laboratories.
Other choices suggest that Biden is prioritizing familiarity in his Cabinet over other considerations. It’s been widely assumed in Washington for years that Michèle Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official under Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, was all but guaranteed to get the nod for secretary of defense under the next Democratic president. Biden instead tapped Lloyd Austin, a retired general who oversaw the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq in 2011, for the top post instead. The two men got to know each other in part through Austin’s friendship with Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer in 2015, during the younger Biden’s service in Iraq.
If confirmed, Austin would be the first Black secretary of defense in the nation’s history. But his path to lead the Pentagon is far from straightforward. Federal law prohibits former military personnel from serving as secretary of defense within seven years of their retirement; Austin retired in 2016. While Congress could waive that requirement, it would require the assent of the House as well, drawing an entirely new set of lawmakers into the voting calculus. Some senators have already expressed misgivings about further eroding the principle of civilian control of the military. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren told reporters on Tuesday that she would vote against a waiver.
Biden and his allies have noted that Congress granted a similar waiver to James Mattis four years ago when Trump nominated him for the same job. But that comparison is awkward at best. Mattis drew broad bipartisan support because lawmakers at the time expected that he would serve as a potential check on Trump’s worst impulses, and because Mattis would have the stature to defy an illegal order if Trump gave one. For obvious reasons, members of Congress didn’t quite say this out loud at the time, and those factors aren’t at play for Biden or Austin. Biden may yet see Austin confirmed, but he’ll have to expend some political capital to get it done.
Some in Bidenworld have argued that the president-elect is prioritizing experience over other factors. But Biden’s hiring moves on Thursday seem to undercut those claims. Denis McDonough, who is reportedly his pick to run the Department of Veterans Affairs, is a former White House chief of staff who also served as a member of the National Security Council in the Obama years. It’s unclear how that background will translate to the massive health care bureaucracy that is the V.A. (Most V.A. leaders were also veterans; McDonough is not.) Biden’s announcement that Susan Rice, Obama’s former national security adviser, will lead the White House Domestic Policy Council is equally puzzling. Rice is one of the most prominent foreign policy experts in Democratic circles and was once considered for secretary of state; her experience with domestic policy issues appears to be minimal at best.
And then there’s Rahm Emanuel. The controversial mayor of Chicago’s name keeps coming up as a potential contender for Cabinet slots, including secretary of transportation or other prominent administration roles. Emanuel, like many other Biden picks, is a familiar face from the Obama years. But he brings no apparent qualifications for running the Department of Transportation. His own handling of transit and environmental justice issues in Chicago is middling at best, and his role in covering up the Chicago Police Department’s killing of Laquan McDonald in 2014 makes him radioactive for progressives and civil rights activists.
I don’t want to give short shrift to the challenges Biden is facing. He could be the first Democratic president since 1885 to enter the White House without full control of Congress. The House Democratic majority hinges on fewer than a dozen seats, and any members who resign might not be replaced for months. To capture the Senate, Democrats would also need to win both of Georgia’s Senate seats in the runoff elections next month to secure a 50-member majority with Vice President–elect Kamala Harris’s tie-breaking vote. This outcome isn’t impossible, of course. But Biden would be foolish to assume that it will happen when building his Cabinet.
This state of play effectively rules out some senators and representatives from contention. Biden couldn’t choose Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren or Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, for example, without giving those states’ Republican governors the chance to appoint a replacement. (Warren’s name came up in early discussions about the Treasury; Sanders quietly lobbied before the election to be secretary of labor.) Likewise, there’s a practical limit to the number of House members that Biden can tap for Cabinet or White House roles at any given time.
Biden also faces a more complex intraparty environment than Trump did four years ago. The Democratic Party’s factions run the gamut from democratic socialists like Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and progressives like Warren and Jeff Merkley to centrists like Biden himself and conservatives like Joe Manchin. Biden also owes his victory in key states to Black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native communities. Congressional leaders from those caucuses, as well as civil rights groups and activists, have pressed Biden to nominate the most diverse Cabinet in American history. Trump, by comparison, was relatively free to install figures like Jeff Sessions, Scott Pruitt, and Betsy DeVos in his first Cabinet without resistance from his own party.
The Biden transition team has yet to announce a final choice for Interior, so Haaland’s promising candidacy still has a chance. Multiple Cabinet posts remain to be filled, including that of attorney general, which may be the most important staffing decision that Biden makes over the next four years. Biden campaigned on the promise of steady leadership and experienced policymaking. In an age when Congress rarely passes major legislation and most policy is crafted by the executive branch instead, these personnel choices are his best opportunity to put what he preached into practice. It’s not too late for him to reaffirm why record numbers of Americans put him into office in the first place.