Biden’s Cabinet Nominees: Uniting or Dividing?

President Elect Joe Biden has stated that one of his major goals as president is to reunite our divided nation. However, our citizens are waking up to the fact that the root of our country’s problems run deeper than who is president. Our country is facing a division that reveals the core differences between our politics, our beliefs, and our values. It seems sometimes like the only thing that unites us is our shared nationality, and many have even begun to reject that. Joe Biden ran as the moderate candidate; he never had the grand leftist ideas of his fellow candidates Senator Bernie Sanders or Senator Elizabeth Warren. Instead, he ran on a ticket that wanted to get America back on track and when elected, announced that “America is back.” He, like everyone, recognized the divisions within our country, and his remedy was to straddle the middle ground, to be the nice guy, to appeal to and understand both sides.

In the few months leading up to Biden’s inauguration, there are minimal things he can do to begin to reunite the country as he has promised. He can continue to make speeches, announce intended policy, and of course, can assume the role of president elect (which is significant in and of itself). But due to limits on the office of president elect, it is impossible to take many concrete actions. The one thing that Biden can do is announce his picks for cabinet. His selections will still have to face approval from the presently divided senate, something may cost some nominees their intended seat, but Biden’s picks so far can give us insight into what type of administration Biden will actually run. Whether or not Biden will be able to unite the country through his cabinet nominees is a key question about the larger success of Biden’s rhetoric and administration.

There are a number of historically significant picks for Biden’s cabinet so far. With a roster full of “firsts,” Biden’s cabinet members do so far constitute the most diverse cabinet in US history. Avril Haines is the first woman to direct national intelligence, Neera Tanden is the first woman of color to run the Office of Management and Budget, General Lloyd Austin will be the first Black person to hold the role of Defense Secretary. And it’s important not to discount that achievement. However, it also seems that in efforts to build a diverse cabinet that follows the Biden administration’s objective of unification, Biden has built a cabinet that does not satisfy the wishes of either progressives or conservatives. 

General Lloyd Austin, for example, Biden’s pick for Defense Secretary, has raised concerns on both sides. Austin’s appointment would be significant and historic, as no African American has held the role of Defense Secretary before. However, Austin’s experience and his recent departure from the military may make him a less than ideal candidate. For example, Austin’s military experience has been within the realm of the Middle East. In a time when the US is attempting to step away from wars in the region and pivot towards potential conflict with China, it seems as if appointing someone with experience almost solely in the Middle East is counterintuitive. 

Additionally, to be Defense Secretary, an individual must be out of uniform for over seven years; Austin has only been out of uniform for four. Congress has waived this requirement before, most recently in the case of James Mattis in 2017. However, this is not a normal precedent. In a Vox interview, Senator Jack Reed (D-RI) explained that he would be open to hearing out Austin, going against his statements in 2016 that he would not vote to pass another waiver. Reed explained that he felt that Austin’s race was an important factor to consider and contributed to his decision to potentially support Austin’s appointment. The law exists to attempt to create a divide between military and civilian rule; after all, shaking off 40 years of military thinking in only 4 years seems difficult. Reed says he wants to let Austin “explain himself” before he makes any decisions. However, this speaks to the concerns that some critics have that Biden is sacrificing experience for diversity when he doesn’t need to. There are other qualified candidates of color who could have taken the role. 

Janet Yellen, Biden’s pick for Treasury Secretary, has been met with fewer concerns but equally little excitement. Yellen will also fill a historic role, as the first female Treasury Secretary ever (however, Yellen is still white). Yellen previously made history in 2014 as the first woman to be the chair of the Federal Reserve, and is an economist with vast experience who is known and respected by Democrats and Republicans alike. In many ways, Yellen represents the epitome of the Biden administration’s centrist approach. Which is not an entirely bad thing. Yellen is highly competent and has stated that “economics was of enormous relevance to our lives and had the potential to make the world a better place.” To attempt to make the world a better place, Yellen has attempted to work with both Wall Street and with normal Americans. However, her appointment will bring no major joy to either side. Instead, she is taking the place of a more of a middle of the road type candidate: competent but by no means wildly progressive or conservative.

A recent article from the New York Times noted that it seems as though the unifying factor in Biden’s nominees so far has been a close relationship with Biden. The fact that many of his picks have similar political beliefs to him is no surprise then. However, as is already clear with both Yellen and Austin, Biden’s picks run the risk of making nobody particularly happy. Additionally, by appointing people who hold similar political beliefs, Biden is creating a cabinet that is still very closely tied to the long standing political establishment of which Biden is a part. Instead of pushing the boundaries of what the US government could be, Biden’s cabinet is likely to stay safely within the bounds of Washington, something which Trump’s election in 2016 showed us is far from popular. In many ways, by believing that his election means that “America is back,” Biden is simply using the same rhetoric that Trump used when he said he wanted to “Make America great again” but in the opposite way. Instead of moving away from the norm, Biden wants to move back towards it. By creating a cabinet that is solidly centrist and visually diverse, Biden is staying true to his promises, but it seems as though his decision to have members that are far from diverse in terms of politics may do little to help mend the division that exists in politics in our society. 

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