We have reached the stage in the unveiling of Joe Biden’s Cabinet and top White House staff when virtually every Democrat—with the possible exception of Kamala Harris—is upset by at least one pick and probably two or more.
Some of this is inevitable with the formation of any administration. “Every appointment creates nine enemies and an ingrate” is a truism about the realities of governing that has been attributed to everyone from Louis XIV to former House Speaker Sam Rayburn. And some of the current dissatisfaction flows from the suppression of political differences among Democrats during the campaign because of the shared passion to drive Donald Trump from the White House.
On Tuesday, Biden held a virtual meeting with civil rights leaders who pressed him for more diversity in the Cabinet. And on Wednesday afternoon, Biden offered a hint of his exasperation at the unreasonable expectations surrounding his choices. As he formally announced that he had tapped Pete Buttigieg for secretary of transportation, the president-elect felt the need to brag that he had already made “eight precedent-busting appointments,” before noting that Buttigieg was the ninth, as the first openly gay nominee for a Cabinet post.
The complaints about Biden’s choices come from all directions. His national security picks have been described as a “team of retreads.” The return of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, reprising the role he played under Barack Obama, has led to the mocking portrayal of the incoming administration as “has-beens who won’t step aside.” Certainly, some of Biden’s personnel decisions have been puzzling, such as his choice to place longtime foreign policy expert Susan Rice in the White House as the top figure handling domestic policy.
These critiques, coupled with the disappointment of the Democratic left, reflect a failure to appreciate Biden’s predicament. It’s not just the pandemic and the depressed economy, though these twin crises would be enough. Biden also faces more serious obstacles to governing than any incoming president has since World War II.
Formal transition planning, which usually begins a day or two after the election with the cooperation of the outgoing administration, was delayed for three long weeks by the illegal refusal of the General Services Administration to acknowledge Biden’s victory. With Mitch McConnell, the king of obstruction, as the likely Senate majority leader, Biden will have to struggle to win approval of each Cabinet and subcabinet pick. Since there are more than 2,000 Senate-confirmed posts, Biden will be lucky to have most of his administration in place by Labor Day.
The slowness of confirmations in prior administrations gave rise to dozens of portrayals of lonely Cabinet secretaries starring in a governmental remake of Home Alone 2. But there was a big difference back then: The new president’s team could depend on the best and the brightest of the federal civil service to guide them in their early days in office. But after Trump’s reign of terror and error, the upper levels of the civil service have been hollowed out in key departments. Also, the only coherent policy of the retreating Trump forces is to leave behind as many time bombs for Biden as possible.
That’s why Biden and the Democrats cannot afford the kind of learning curve that afflicted the early months of Bill Clinton’s and Obama’s first terms. No president since the nineteenth century has taken office with a majority of the opposition party backing bogus legal claims about an illegitimate election. No incoming president has been judged, as Biden will, over handling a pandemic, or taken office with democracy itself on trial.
Any hopes that the Democratic left has of a true governing majority in this decade depend on the success of the Biden administration. There is no margin for error anywhere. Nancy Pelosi will have a hairbreadth four-vote majority in the House with two seats still undecided. Already, two Democrats will relinquish safe House seats to fill slots in the Biden administration: Martha Fudge at Housing and Urban Development and Cedric Richmond in the White House. While Democrats will retain these two House seats, there will be vacancies until special elections are held.
Biden, with his unparalleled governmental experience, knows which figures he needs to help him govern. That’s why a strong case can be made for approving all of his appointees. Especially since the criticisms can be somewhat contradictory.
For example, Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice as the director of the Office of Management and Budget, has come under fire from Senate Republicans, for her partisan tweets, and from left-wing Democrats, for not being partisan enough on their issues. (Tanden’s major sin in the eyes of the left was endorsing, a decade ago, a package of Social Security reforms, many of which would have increased benefits, that included a provision changing the generous way that the program calculates inflation. The mind reels from this 2010 heresy during an era when the Obama administration was promoting fiscal responsibility.)
Vilsack has been attacked for his panicked 2010 firing of Shirley Sherrod, a Black woman who ran rural programs in Georgia, based on speech quotes taken wildly out of context. And Buttigieg, who won the 2020 Iowa caucuses and fell 4,000 votes short of triumphing in the New Hampshire primary, is once again ridiculed for merely having been being mayor of a small city, South Bend, Indiana.
Perhaps the apogee of idiocy has been the recent attacks on Jen O’Malley Dillon, Biden’s former campaign manager and the incoming deputy White House chief of staff, for describing, in an interview with Glamor, Capitol Hill Republicans as “fuckers” and Mitch McConnell as “terrible.” It is enough to give everyone with a Victorian sensibility the vapors—even though she also stressed that Biden can work with McConnell and company.
Judging from these mini-flaps, Democrats want Biden to appoint experienced officials who are fresh faces from bigger places than South Bend who have never used vulgar language, or written a partisan tweet that made a single Republican uncomfortable, or made a mistake in handling personnel matters, or offered a policy position that is out of step with Democratic orthodoxy 10 years later.
I, too, have problems with a few of Biden’s picks, particularly Lloyd Austin for secretary of defense. Austin, who retired as an Army general four years ago, would need a special congressional waiver to serve because a 1947 law requires the defense secretary to have been out of the military for at least seven years. There has been only one waiver granted since the Truman administration—to Jim Mattis in 2017, who was supposed to be the adult restraining Donald Trump.
But I also recognize that the most important factor is Biden’s level of comfort and trust with the men and women who will surround him. The odds are that Austin’s success or failure at the Pentagon will have little to do with whether he has been out of uniform for four years or the required seven.
It is also time to accept that Joe Biden is not a left-winger and never will be. Yes, he will take positions to the left of prior Democratic orthodoxy on issues like climate change because he recognizes that the political climate has changed. But this is the moment—with so much at stake—to allow Biden to be Biden.