Joe Biden’s key Cabinet picks raise conflicting clues about his plans, with some hinting at a post-Trump return to establishment control and others signaling a leftward lurch that could have centrists from both parties pining for the Obama years.
Here’s what we know so far:
The most important economic policymaker in Washington is the Treasury secretary, who plays a role in taxing and spending, regulating the financial system, and negotiating the terms of trade. For that position, Biden has chosen Janet Yellen, the former Federal Reserve chairwoman.
Yellen’s nomination was applauded by liberals who believe she will favor greater spending measures to aid the recovery from the pandemic. She’s also viewed as a regulator who will be tough on Wall Street excess.
Yet, Yellen is not a Bernie Sanders-style socialist. An academic economist by background, she has advocated in the past for budget reform, a stance that makes her a relative fiscal conservative within the Democratic Party.
Nevertheless, Yellen has said that the situation right now calls for greater deficits to ensure a stronger recovery. That is a view shared by Biden’s choice for budget director, Neera Tanden, the head of the liberal think tank the Center for American Progress. Unlike Yellen, Tanden has a long record of strident partisanship — she deleted more than 1,000 tweets, many of them critical of Republicans, on being nominated — and faces a difficult confirmation.
Brian Deese, Biden’s choice for National Economic Council director, is a veteran of the Obama White House who played roles in directing the auto bailout and working toward the Paris climate accord. He drew some criticism from the Left because he worked for the investment firm BlackRock.
Other liberals, though, took Deese’s selection as a sign that climate change will be a major factor in Biden’s economic policy.
Energy and environment:
Biden’s picks for energy and environment positions look like a “dream team” to liberals desperate to curb climate change.
Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico, Biden’s choice to lead the Interior Department, rode the possibility of being the first Native American Cabinet secretary to beat out longtime Biden pal, retiring Sen. Tom Udall. Haaland is an original Green New Deal sponsor and an advocate for transitioning the U.S. to 100% clean energy.
Meanwhile, North Carolina’s top environment official Michael Regan got the nod for Environmental Protection Agency administrator after liberals boxed out Mary Nichols, California’s air pollution chief who was once considered the favorite.
Biden’s choice for Energy secretary, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm, has also aligned herself with the “keep it in the ground” movement.
Further pleasing the Left, former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy will serve as Biden’s national climate adviser, a newly created position.
Biden’s diplomatic team has been hailed (and, by turns, derided) as “the return of the Washington establishment.”
Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken is a longtime Biden loyalist, while former Assistant Secretary of State Linda Thomas-Greenfield spent decades paying her dues in Africa before Biden selected her as the next ambassador to the United Nations. They send a gratifying signal to Democratic voters who regard the Trump administration as lacking professionalism and diversity. Yet, the world has changed since they were last in power, and the intensifying rivalry with China will test their ability to derive wisdom from experience.
Former Secretary of State John Kerry’s return to government as Biden’s climate envoy at the White House National Security Council may thrill environmentalists, but Biden’s team will have to beware China’s attempt to dangle the prospect of climate cooperation as a way to freeze Western efforts to counteract Beijing’s predations elsewhere. Conservative foreign policy experts are quietly pleased by the appointment of Jake Sullivan to be White House national security adviser. The former Hillary Clinton aide spent some of his time out of power studying how “to fashion a foreign policy that supports the aspirations of a middle class in crisis,” and he has used his platform during the presidential transition to caution European allies against hasty bargains with China. Republican lawmakers may not agree with much that Biden does, but Sullivan is quietly regarded as a best-case scenario pick for this White House.
Infrastructure and transportation:
Biden’s decision to tap former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg for Transportation secretary was met with some praise on the Left for contributing to Biden’s pledge to nominate the most diverse Cabinet in the nation’s history — if confirmed, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay Cabinet member.
But Buttigieg’s diversity appeal was overshadowed among progressives by his centrist campaign platform, prompting doubts about the former mayor’s infrastructure bona fides.
A friend texts: “If you would’ve told me Pete Buttigieg getting a cabinet position would be a victory for progressives at the beginning of this year I would’ve called you crazy.”
— Nathaniel Rakich (@baseballot) December 15, 2020
Buttigieg’s minimal direct experience with transportation makes it difficult to speculate about the course he’ll chart for the department, but on the campaign trail, Buttigieg pledged to restore Obama-era vehicle emissions standards, something that falls under the DOT’s regulatory purview. Buttigieg also pushed for a carbon-neutral U.S. by 2050 and supports Biden’s goal of building more electric vehicle charging stations across the country, suggesting that climate change will remain front-of-mind in the department’s plans.
Buttigieg also helped South Bend win national Smart Street and Overall Success awards in 2016 for making the city’s roadways more pedestrian-friendly.
One of Buttigieg’s more controversial proposals during his presidential campaign was funding the Highway Trust Fund through a road tax based on how many miles people travel instead of a gas tax, according to Car and Driver. Biden has not expressed support for the move, which would be a “radical departure” from the status quo.
Should Connecticut Commissioner of Education Miguel Cardona be confirmed as secretary of Education, the most pressing agenda item will be getting children back to school amid the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden has stated he wants children going back to in-person learning within the first 100 days of his administration. In addition to that tall task, Cardona will likely work toward rescinding many of the policies his predecessor, Betsy DeVos, spent four years implementing, such as new rules for handling sexual assault allegations on college campuses and the undoing of Obama-era civil rights guidance.
Cardona is also likely to advance forms of instruction that Trump has opposed in federal government training programs as “anti-American race and sex stereotyping and scapegoating.” In Connecticut, Cardona championed a minority-studies course that focuses on black, Puerto Rican, and Latino studies for high school students. The class is intended to “analyze how race, power, and privilege influence group access to citizenship, civil rights, and economic power.”
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