Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
In what became an incredibly strange time between Joe Biden winning the 2020 election and taking the oath of office, the Cabinet began to take shape.
It presented a political maze of trickery to be navigated by a president who is seeking to counterbalance blue collar centrists with liberal millennials who make no apologies for their flirtations with democratic socialism.
That challenge is no more unique than Boris Johnson marrying post-Brexit free marketeers with big state interventionists. But whilst the Prime Minister need not spend a second considering what Sir Keir Starmer thinks about his Cabinet, let alone voting on his proposed appointment, President Biden must get his nominees approved by the Senate.
Having won the two run-off elections in Georgia, the Democrats have an effective majority in the Senate. With a 50-50 split, Vice President Kamala Harris will break the tie in any split votes. That should, in theory, mean the President can get his Cabinet appointments through – as long as the Democratic caucus remains united. The president is not reliant on Republican votes. He is looking for them, nevertheless.
The Biden presidency is seeking reach across the aisle wherever possible and work with Republicans. This reflects a desire to lower the political temperature from far further back than just the past four years. Tensions rose under Barack Obama and soared under Donald Trump. Everything became a political fight. The White House wants to calm the country down.
Optically therefore, the White House wants to project bipartisanship in its first 100 days by nominating Cabinet appointees who are able to gain at least pockets of Republic support.
When we think of bipartisanship, we tend to think of opposing political parties working together. The challenge for President Biden is deeper than that. His modus operandi is finding people and policies that can attract at least a modicum of Republican support. But his own party is increasingly fractious.
Biden’s first 100 days are likely to pass by during a honeymoon period of rapid-fire executive action, but the clash between blue collar Democratic towns and democratic socialists in California and New York looms large over the White House. The Cabinet is a fascinating first look at how he will manage those tensions.
In terms of Cabinet appointments, keeping competing interests together poses two major challenges. First, diversity. If all of Biden’s appointments are approved, this will be the most diverse Cabinet in US history. The list of would-be firsts is extensive – first Native American cabinet secretary (Deb Haaland); first female national intelligence director (Avril Haines); first Latino secretary of homeland security (Alejandro Mayorkas); first openly gay cabinet member (Pete Buttigieg). This week, Janet Yellen was confirmed as Treasury Secretary, the first woman to ever hold that role.
This is a modern Democratic Party that has evolved quickly into one that champions diversity of more than just gender, ethnicity or sexual orientation – hence the second test. To compile a Cabinet sufficiently stocked with liberal minds ready to enact left-wing policies.
A Senate majority gives Biden the green light to appoint his Cabinet
From his decades in public life and his inaugural address, it is clear that Biden will seek to govern in the first instance as a bipartisan president. Keeping his own side together will prove taxing, if not as challenging as winning over the opposition.
In seeking to avoid any major early fights with Republicans over Cabinet approvals, Biden has overlooked the dominant left-wing figures on Capitol Hill. No Cabinet jobs for Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. No promotion for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. He wants to keep his political powder dry over personnel, in order to push Republicans when it comes to hard policy – starting with a $1.9trn COVID relief package.
Cabinet appointments are crucial because they are the first signal of the intended direction of travel for any given administration. For Biden, a big question lingers: can the leadership tame the left of the Democratic Party?
Consider the nominations of Yellen (US Treasury) and Rohit Chopra (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), two of the more eye-opening appointments that Biden hopes will keep the left on side.
Chopra was an early hire of Senator Warren after she set up the CFPB in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis under the Obama administration. He will now oversee the financial products and services that are offered to consumers, with overall supervision of banks and financial institutions. A Federal Trade Commissioner since 2018, Chopra has sought to increase the scrutiny of Big Tech corporations that pose risks to privacy, national security, and fair competition. He now has the ability and scope to rein in Wall Street’s and Silicon Valley’s perceived excesses – a top priority for the types of Democrats listed above who were passed over for Cabinet roles themselves.
Yellen’s qualifications for the role are self-explanatory, hence her confirmation by Congress this week. As Chairwoman of the Fed, conservatives wondered if she was seeking to overtly politicise the role. Now, as Secretary of the Treasury, she will be responsible for guiding the Biden administration’s economic response to the pandemic – a seismic undertaking, and one that will fall heavily under the spotlight if the left of the party does not think the White House and Treasury’s proposed plans are generous enough.
She is in many respects a typical Biden appointment, in that she has a track record of securing bipartisan backing. Her nomination to the Fed in 2014 won support from some Republicans.
In her Cabinet confirmation hearing before the Senate Finance Committee, Yellen urged Congress to approve trillions of dollars more in pandemic relief and economic stimulus, saying that Congress should “act big” without worrying about national debt. “The focus now is not on tax increases. It is on programmes to help us get through the pandemic,” she stressed. Liberals will have cheered financial support being her guiding principle, with scant regard for the (soaring) US national debt.
The role of the Cabinet is to deliver the President’s agenda. This Cabinet, the proposed most diverse top team in US history, has a herculean task on its hands. Biden made it clear in his inaugural address that he wants to be a president for all Americans. Practically, that means finding bipartisan policies that he can work with Republicans on. That will not always mean keeping the liberal wing of his party on side.
On policy, the early round of executive actions has provided plenty for the left to cheer. The President has moved quickly to undo a litany of Trump administration policies by halting border wall construction, placing a 100-day pause on deportations, and embracing a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants through DACA.
The middle of the Venn diagram that charts issues supported by Democrats and Republicans is narrow. Both have been pushed to a more hawkish view of China. The insurrection at the Capitol has put big tech sharply in the spotlight again for being too slow to muzzle Trump (Democrats) and too authoritarian on freedom of speech (Republicans). Biden will need to tread carefully to keep both groups together as he tasks his top team with taming the tech titans.
People make policy
Keeping the left of the party on board will not be limited to just Cabinet appointments. With Congress confirming this week that it would not blow up the filibuster in the Senate, the biggest planks of Biden’s legislative agenda will only be able to pass Congress if it has bipartisan support. That means the left’s biggest wins will need to come from presidential executive actions – major policy shifts at the forefront of the left’s agenda like a $1.9trn COVID relief package and a $15 minimum wage requires legislation, not executive order.
That in turn reinforces the need for Biden to keep the left happy through the appointments he makes – after all, people make policy.