Hi there. Welcome to On Politics, your final week in national politics. I am Lisa Lerer, your hostess.
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The holidays always feel like a transition period: the last eggnog-soaked parties of the year before the resolutions and reboots come.
This year I am missing those traditions – and who would have thought you could miss awkward small talk? – but this sense of future transformation is everywhere. The first shots of a new vaccine, the last gasp of the elections, and a new government waiting to take power.
Over the past few weeks, President-elect Joe Biden and his team have been dropping hints of the changes to come, gradually shaping the new government with their cabinet elections. Some of the largest posts, including attorney general, remain vacant. But we’re starting to get a first taste of the people who will help define US policy over the next few years.
Here’s what we know so far about Mr Biden’s cabinet and what his selection says about his approach to governance, political priorities and leadership style. (Would you like to know who was selected? We keep a rolling list.)
You’re the old guard. Literally.
Sure, Mr. Biden chose Pete Buttigieg, 38, to be his transport secretary. But don’t let the former Wunderkind mayor’s pick fool you. Mr. Biden’s cabinet is mature.
In 2009, the then 66-year-old Biden was the oldest member of President Barack Obama’s first cabinet. More than a decade later, five members of his own cabinet are older. Janet Yellen, his choice for Treasury Secretary, would be the highest civil servant at 74 – and still four years younger than Mr. Biden.
Only four of the 20 or so top officials he has selected are under the age of 50: Mr. Buttigieg, Jake Sullivan as National Safety Advisor, Katherine Tai as US Commercial Agent, and Michael Regan as Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But age is just a number, isn’t it? Yes, unless you are trying to usher in the next era of the Democratic Party. It is not just Mr Biden’s cabinet that is older, but the entire leadership of his party. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80; Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate minority, is 70 years old; and Mr. Biden will be the oldest president in American history when he takes office at 78.
During his campaign, Mr. Biden posed as a “transition candidate,” an elderly statesman who would help nurture new democratic talent. But his cabinet doesn’t look like a bridge between the generations.
They look like a restart from Obama.
When new presidents enter the White House, they usually fill our national political drama with a new cast of characters.
Many of Mr. Biden’s picks appear to be entering their second or third season.
Most of them served with Mr. Biden during the Obama administration – some even in the same position as Tom Vilsack, who was Obama’s Agriculture Secretary for eight years. Others received promotions: Alejandro Mayorkas was deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration and has now been selected for the top job.
With the pandemic still raging, Mr Biden and his team will inherit a country facing extraordinary economic, foreign policy and health challenges. Under the circumstances, the president-elect and his allies have argued that he must select seasoned Washington technocrats who know how to deal with the bureaucracy.
The risk of choosing the same old people, of course, is that instead of defining a new doctrine of governance, you will have the same old ideas.
They are diverse.
Mr Biden vowed to select the most diverse cabinet in history – and he appears to be well on his way to delivering on that promise. At least 10 of his top-level picks are women and 11 are people of color.
If this were confirmed, his cabinet members, to name a few, would be the first female Treasury Secretary (Ms. Yellen), the first openly gay Senate-approved cabinet member (Mr. Buttigieg), the first Latino and the first immigrant to run the department heads include of Homeland Security (Mr. Mayorkas) and the first Native American cabinet member (Deb Haaland as Secretary of the Interior).
At the same time, Mr Biden’s promise has sparked some fierce fighting within his party. When he selected Lloyd Austin as Secretary of Defense – possibly the first black man to head the Pentagon – some national security women were angry that Michèle Flournoy had been passed over. Hispanic lawmakers have pushed for at least two Latinas in crucial roles, and the Asia-Pacific-American caucus of Congress has also pushed for greater representation. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, are calling on Mr Biden to select a black attorney general with a proven track record on issues such as criminal justice and voting rights.
The early battles could be a preview of what Mr Biden will have to navigate as he tries to unite a fragile, diverse party behind his agenda.
The transition of the president
Apr. 18, 2020, 2:59 pm ET
Are you a team of … friends?
Just before Mr. Obama became president, he told reporters about his plans to create a “team of rivals” – and stole a sentence from Abraham Lincoln’s famous desire for cabinet members to challenge one another.
Mr Biden seems to be taking the opposite approach. Known for appreciating loyalty, he has made personal relationships a central part of his style of government. His chief of staff, Ron Klain, first worked for him as a congressional assistant more than three decades ago. Antony Blinken, his election as State Secretary, has been by his side for almost 20 years.
Mr. Obama selected Hillary Clinton, his main Democratic rival, as Secretary of State; Mr. Biden skipped Elizabeth Warren, one of his most formidable opponents, as Treasury Secretary.
Instead, he selected Ms. Yellen – the woman Mr. Obama nominated to head the Federal Reserve in 2013.
Joe Biden is still Joe Biden.
Progressives seem to have enough leverage to keep Mr. Biden from picking some people they speak out against – see: Emanuel, Rahm – but not enough power to put their allies in the top positions. With the exception of Ms. Haaland, the party’s liberal wing didn’t elevate many of its stars.
In fact, many of Mr Biden’s decisions appear to be designed not to upset Republicans, a strategic choice given that they might still control the Senate in January. Some Democrats are skeptical of this approach, arguing that Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, will torpedo all of Mr Biden’s initiatives, regardless of who is on his team.
What we can infer from all of these political maneuvers may not be particularly surprising: Mr Biden remains a centrist establishment politician. And he is building a centrist, established administration.
Happy New Year!
Thank you for accompanying us through this Annus Horribilis. Gio and I are taking a little break and see you in 2021. We hope for a new year full of vaccines, good health, and far fewer breaking news notifications.
What’s next before Inauguration Day?
On Monday, the electoral college cast its ballot papers for Mr Biden, officially confirming the president-elect’s victory. But there could be one last breath of election drama.
(The important word is drama. At this point, any effort to change the outcome of the 2020 election is pure political drama.)
Action now moves to Congress, which will officially count the votes in a joint session on January 6th in the House of Representatives, chaired by Vice President Mike Pence. No debate is allowed during the counting of votes. However, there is a process by which members can cast their opposition to a state’s ballot.
At least two members of the House of Representatives – new Georgia representative Marjorie Taylor Greene and Alabama representative Mo Brooks – are already planning to raise formal objections. It is expected that their efforts will be little more than a symbolic point of view. Any objection must pass both houses by a simple majority, which is highly unlikely given the democratic control of the house.
Recognizing the political reality, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky launched a campaign this week to prevent Republicans from joining the doomed effort in hopes of avoiding the spectacle of kicking off the new Congress with a chaotic partisan fight.
Maybe his biggest obstacle? The soon-to-be former President Trump could have other ideas.
Would you like to know more? Here is our explanation of what happens next.
In numbers: 7.8 million
… That’s the number of Americans who have fallen into poverty since June. This is based on new data released this week by researchers from the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame.
It is the largest increase in a single year since the government began collecting poverty statistics six decades ago.
As we say in the New York Times, remember the neediest this holiday season.
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