A spotter’s guide to Washington’s new political landscape
By Roland Flamini
It should come as no surprise that it’s turning out to be harder to put Donald Trump back in the bottle than it was to release him from it for his fractious one term as president.
The narrative of the recent election has had to compete with the antics of a soon-to-be-former president determined to overstay his welcome. In rejecting the reality of Joe Biden’s victory, he’s been a sore loser, raising the bar of Trump petulance to new levels.
More disturbing, though, are the signs that he plans to set himself up as the lunatic fringe of American politics in the hope of keeping alive the flame of his core support for a return bid in 2024.
It took two and a half spiteful weeks before Trump was willing to loosen his grip on the transition mechanism that allows the president-elect and his team full access to the cooperation every incoming presidential team is entitled to, and normally gets.
But long before the final victory, the Biden campaign had been quietly shaping the team that will help the president-elect guide the nation’s destiny for the coming four years. As a result, in spite of Trump’s obstructionism, Biden’s key Cabinet members and many of his White House staff were named in record time—before Trump’s in 2016, and Barack Obama’s in 2012.
Foreign policy analyst Max Boot described Biden’s Cabinet nominations as “centrist, mainstream figures with great credibility on both sides of the aisle” with “decades of [Washington] experience.” Inevitably, former Obama appointees make up a backbone of the list, but the real common thread is a shared personal connection with Joe Biden in the U.S. Senate or as vice president, in some cases going back decades.
Secretary of State-designate Tony Blinken’s close ties with Biden stretch back nearly two decades. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden’s new Special Climate Envoy, and the president-elect have been fellow senators, and close friends for years.
That’s a huge contrast from the collection of billionaire neophytes with zero government experience in Trump’s Cabinet, and the short-lived platoon of generals he sweet-talked into serving in the administration until reality set in, and each one parted company on anything but cordial terms.
Biden’s top foreign policy and security appointments are focused on the urgent need to mend broken fences with long time allies, and restore confidence in the United States’ historic role as a global leader. Getting to grips with the coronavirus pandemic, and repairing the nation’s battered economy, are obviously two domestic priorities.
But in discussing his appointees, Biden has said he expects them to speak truth to power. It seems that the days of two different and contradictory narratives about the world, and about America, with very little overlap, only one of which is true, are over in Washington.
Our list of the Biden-Harris team below combines appointed or nominated members of the Biden-Harris team and the strongest candidates mentioned for the remaining posts.
Jennifer Granholm - Energy
Michael Regan - Environmental Protection Agency
Kamala Harris - Vice President
Jeh Johnson - Justice
Anthony (Tony) Blinken - State
Lloyd Austin - Defense
Janet Yellen - Treasury
Marcia Fudge - Housing and Urban Development
Deb Haaland - Interior
Pete Buttigieg - Transportation
Denis McDonough - Veterans Affairs
Xavier Becerra - Health and Human Services
Alejandro Mayorkas - Homeland Security
Andrew Yang - Commerce
Tom Vilsack - Agriculture
Linda Thomas-Greenfield - United Nations
Randi Weingarten - Education
Katherine Tai - U.S. Trade Rep
Andy Levin - Labor
Neera Tanden - Director, Office of Management and Budget
Jennifer Granholm - EnergyTwo-term governor of Michigan Jennifer Granholm will be a key figure in one of the major programs on which Biden is hanging the success of his administration - the $2 trillion switch from carbon emissions to clean energy projects over the next 15 years. Granholm has good relations with Michigan's auto industry, which should help with a plan that includes a shift in emphasis to electric cars, and the construction of a vehicle charging network. Little known fact: As Energy Secretary, Granholm will be responsible for maintaining the U.S. nuclear weapons arsenal, a task that's the main item on the department's budget.
Michael Regan - Environmental Protection AgencyBiden has named Michael Regan, North Carolina's environment secretary, to initiate ambitious climate action at an agency fractured and demoralized by the Trump administration's efforts to roll back environmental and pollution regulations. Regan will be the first Black administrator of the EPA, but he had worked there previously for nearly a decade on air quality issues during the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations
Kamala Harris - Vice PresidentHaving been unsuccessful in her own presidential bid, Kamala Harris, the former California Senator, stepped into a promising position as the running mate of a virtually certain one-term president – and with the prospect of a bumbling Donald Trump as her challenger, and the Republican Party in disarray. What with Covid and an ailing economy, the Biden-Harris team faces a challenging two years. Barring mishaps, Harris now would seem to have a clear run in 2024.
Jeh Johnson - JusticeJeh Johnson, now an attorney in private practice, was Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration from 2013-2017. He has also held Pentagon posts under earlier presidencies, notably under-secretary for defense policy, and general counsel. In the latter post he wrote the report that led to the repeal by Congress of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy in the armed forces.
Anthony (Tony) Blinken - StateBlinken, a seasoned senior diplomat and long-time confidant of the President-elect will play a key role in Biden’s policy of restoring relations with U.S. allies, alienated by Donald Trump. Blinken’s career as a foreign policy and security specialist has included senior posts in the State Department, the Security Council, and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the latter when Biden was chair.
Lloyd Austin - DefenseRetired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin will, if confirmed, be the first Black secretary of defense following a solid career including head of CENTCOM, the U.S. Central Command responsible for operations in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and parts of South Asia. Austin was the first Black general to command an Army division in combat. Some lawmakers object to Austin’s appointment because it would break the tradition of a civilian as defense secretary, but reports said Black advocacy groups lobbied hard for a Black nominee to head the key cabinet post.
Janet Yellen - TreasuryBiden’s nominee has never worked at the Treasury Department but has years of experience as a regulator and economist. Unusual for a Treasury chief, she has been chair of the Fed, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, and senior economic adviser to President Bill Clinton. Her first and most urgent challenge is to deal with the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic in all its damaging ramifications.
Marcia Fudge - Housing and Urban DevelopmentRep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio), has been a member of the House since 2008 and serves on various committees. She was chair of the 2016 Democratic Convention. National Public Radio reported that the incoming administration recognized Fudge’s “track record championing affordable housing and urban revitalization, and her ideas for addressing poverty and issues of equality.”
Deb Haaland - InteriorRep Deb Haaland (D-NM), is a member of the Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. Her appointment to administer 500 million acres of surface land, including 1.7 million acres of U.S. coastline, is a historic first for the Department, and a fulfillment of Biden’s campaign pledge to “ensure tribes have a seat at the table at the highest levels of the federal government.”
Pete Buttigieg - TransportationPete Buttigieg, the former presidential candidate at the opposite end of the age gap from President-elect Biden in the 2020 campaign has been picked to run the Transportation Department in the new administration. If confirmed, Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Ind. would, at 38, be one of the youngest cabinet members in history. But that distinction is overshadowed by the fact that Buttigieg is also the first openly gay cabinet secretary. The appointment gives him a key role in ambitious areas of Biden's agenda, including rebuilding the nation's infrastructure, and the suppression of fossil fuels in the fight against climate change. It also boosts his political identity for a future presidential bid.
Denis McDonough - Veterans AffairsIn 2014, from his White House post as Obama’s chief of staff, Denis McDonough was responsible for untangling the massive wait-time for treatment crisis at Veterans Affairs. With that troubled department facing a new scandal, President-elect Biden has once again called on McDonough to confront it - this time first-hand as the VA’s new secretary. If confirmed by the Senate, McDonough, 51, would be just the second non-veteran to lead the agency.
Xavier Becerra - Health and Human ServicesXavier Becerra, California’s State Attorney General was Biden’s surprise pick to oversee the ongoing battle against the Covid pandemic, the incoming administration’s most urgent challenge. Becerra served in Congress for 20 years, representing downtown Los Angeles. As attorney general Becerra sued the Trump administration 82 times, including on environmental issues, and in defense of Obamacare.
Alejandro Mayorkas - Homeland SecurityCuban American Alejandro Mayorkas is the father of the D.A.C.A. program (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals). He developed it as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and was deputy secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration.
Andrew Yang - CommerceAndrew Yang caught public attention as an articulate rival to Biden in the 2020 Democratic race. At the heart of his economic program was a plan to provide every U.S. citizen with $1,000 a month as basic income. He was also a strong advocate of raising standards in math and science teaching. His campaign slogan was MATH, or “Make America Think Harder.”
Tom Vilsack - AgricultureTom Vilsack’s nomination to lead the Department of Agriculture is a homecoming. He held the top job at USDA throughout the eight years of the Obama administration. Biden is said to regard him as a safe pair of hands at a difficult time in the agriculture sector, hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic and in need of strong government support. Another possible reason is that rural American has a strong, stubborn pro-Trump streak and needs to be won back.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield - United NationsIn appointing Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran senior diplomat, Biden is reaching out to the African nations that had felt neglected by the Trump administration, and at the same time the president-elect is making good on his pledge to name a diverse cabinet. Thomas-Greenfield was assistant secretary of state for African affairs from 2013-2017.
Randi Weingarten - EducationRandi Weingarten is the long-time head of the American Federation of Teachers, a strong defender of the public school system – and its reform.
Katherine Tai - U.S. Trade RepKatherine Tai is a trade lawyer with years of expertise in trade negotiations with China. If confirmed, she will be the first woman of color to lead the U.S. Trade Representative’s office. Tai is currently chief Democratic trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, but from 2007-2017 she was a forceful lawyer in dealing with China trade issues in the U.S. Representative’s office. Her appointment is seen as confirmation of Biden’s campaign commitment to be tough in his dealings with China.
Andy Levin - LaborRep. Andy Levin (D-Mich) an organizer with labor unions, he had the support of several major groups, including the United Auto Workers.
Neera Tanden - Director, Office of Management and BudgetNeera Tanden is either another member of Biden’s strong economics team or “a sacrifice to the confirmation gods,” as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) described her nomination. The CEO of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, Tanden could run into confirmation problems in part because “she has used Twitter to regularly criticize President Trump and Republican lawmakers,” according to the Wall Street Journal.
Ron Klain - Chief of Staff
Jen O'Malley Dillon - Deputy Chief of Staff
Jake Sullivan - National Security Advisor
Avril Haines - Director, National Intelligence
Susan Gordon - Director, CIA
John Kerry - Climate Advisor
Jen Psaki - Press Secretary
Kate Bedingfield - Director of Communications
Cecilia Rouse - Chairman, Council of Economic Advisors
Brian Deese - Director, National Economic Council
Dana Remus - White House Counsel
Mike Donilon - Senior Advisor to the President
Steve Ricchetti - Counselor to the President
Julie Chavez Rodriguez - Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs
Cedric Richmond - Senior Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Public Engagement
Ron Klain - Chief of StaffRon Klain has a long history as a close Biden staffer. He was Biden’s chief of staff in the Obama-Biden administration, and before that, chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden served as its chairman. He was an advisor on Biden’s two previous presidential attempts in 1988 and 2008. He first came to public attention when President Obama made him his Ebola czar.
Jen O'Malley Dillon - Deputy Chief of StaffJen O’Malley Dillon, the first woman to manage a victorious Democratic presidential campaign. That distinction has earned her rare admission to Biden’s inner team as manager of White House operations.
Jake Sullivan - National Security AdvisorJake Sullivan was Biden’s national security adviser during Barack Obama’s second term. He was also one of a small group of U.S. officials who met secretly with Iranian officials in 2013 to lay the groundwork for the historic nuclear deal Trump cancelled and President-elect Biden is expected to revive through re-negotiation.
Avril Haines - Director, National IntelligenceAvril Haines once ran a bookstore cafe which held monthly readings of erotic literature, but her first connection with President-elect Joe Biden came later, in 2007, when she served as deputy chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when he was chairman. She has also been deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency and deputy national security advisor to President Obama.
Susan Gordon - Director, CIASue Gordon was one of the many casualties of Trump’s running feud with the intelligence community. She resigned as the deputy director of national intelligence after Trump failed to give her the top job. But most of her intelligence career had been in the Central Intelligence Agency where, over 25 years she held various senior posts but is best known for developing the CIA’s technology, including its cyber operations.
John Kerry - Climate AdvisorFormer Senator, Secretary of State (and former presidential candidate) John Kerry will be Biden’s Climate czar, with, for the first time, a seat on the National Security Council. Biden’s high profile choice underlines his determination to advance climate change policy. As secretary of state, Kerry negotiated U.S. membership of the Paris Climate Accord, subsequently canceled by Trump. Kerry is expected to re-join.
Jen Psaki - Press SecretaryAs White House press secretary, Jen Psaki “will become the face of the new Biden administration,” as the Washington Post put it. She is currently a key aide in the transition team. Under Obama, Psaki held various communications posts in the White House and was spokesperson for John Kerry when he was secretary of state.
Kate Bedingfield - Director of CommunicationsKate Bedingfield is a long-time Biden aide who served as his communications director when he was vice-president and held the same position in the Biden-Harris campaign. She moved to politics from an earlier career in showbiz as the vice president of corporate communications at the Disrtrict-based Motion Picture Association of America.
Cecilia Rouse - Chairman, Council of Economic AdvisorsCecilia Rouse, a prominent economist, was a member of the Council in the Obama administration and served in the National Economic Council under Bill Clinton. She is currently dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs.
Brian Deese - Director, National Economic CouncilBrian Deese is the president’s top economic advisor, tasked with implementing Biden’s economic agenda. It’s familiar territory for the Council’s former deputy director during the Obama administration, who later became a senior advisor to the president, with climate change and energy issues as his main areas of responsibility.
Dana Remus - White House CounselEarlier in her career, Dana Remus clerked for conservative-leaning Justice Samuel Alito, but since then she has worked in the Obama White House (Obama officiated her wedding in 2018), and was an early member of the Biden campaign. She will lead the Counsel’s office in the inevitable battles to achieve his agenda.
Mike Donilon - Senior Advisor to the PresidentMike Donilon, the quintessential Biden veteran, is said to have been the main shaper of the presidential campaign as a Biden-Trump contest of character. In the White House, the New York Times said recently, he will be “the defender of the Biden brand."
Steve Ricchetti - Counselor to the PresidentSteve Richetti “inherits” an office made notorious by its most recent holder, Kellyanne Conway. But the close Biden confidante is expected to spend much of his time advising the president, and none of it spinning Conway-style “alternative facts.”
Julie Chavez Rodriguez - Director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental AffairsCalifornian Julie Chavez Rodriguez is a crossover from Kamala Harris’ office where she was co-national political director and, later, travelling chief of staff.
Cedric Richmond - Senior Advisor and Director of the White House Office of Public EngagementRep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) brings generational and racial diversity to the Biden White House. At 47, he will be one of the youngest senior staff members and will also be one of the administration’s highest-ranking Black officials.
Anthony Fauci - Chief Medical Advisor
Vivek Murthy - Surgeon General
Rochelle Walensky - Director of CDC
Marcella Nunez-Smith - Chair of the Equity Task Force
Jeff Zients - Coordinator
Natalie Quillian - Deputy Coordinator
Anthony Fauci - Chief Medical AdvisorAnthony Fauci, leading expert on infectious diseases and adviser to six U.S. presidents. The Washington Post calls Fauci “a national symbol of sound medical advice” on the Covid-19 pandemic.
Vivek Murthy - Surgeon GeneralVivek Murphy, is reprising his role as U.S. Surgeon General, having held the post in two Obama administrations.
Rochelle Walensky - Director of CDCRochelle Walensky, appointed Director of the Centers for Disease Control Prevention, is recognized internationally for her work to improve HIV screening and care in Africa.
Marcella Nunez-Smith - Chair of the Equity Task ForceShe is director of Yale’s Equity Research and Innovation Center created to address inequities in health and health care.
Jeff Zients - CoordinatorNo stranger to the White House, he held different economic posts in the Obama-Biden chair of the administration.
Natalie Quillian - Deputy Coordinator
Tina Flournoy - Chief of Staff
Nancy McEldowney - National Security Advisor
Symone Sanders - Spokesperson to the Vice President
Ashley Etienne - Communications Director to the Vice President
Tina Flournoy - Chief of StaffTina Flournoy, an operative with decades of Washington experience, but since 2013 the chief-of-staff of former President Bill Clinton. Flournoy also worked on Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign.
Nancy McEldowney - National Security AdvisorNancy McEldowney is a former diplomat who was U.S. Ambassador to Bulgaria, and later director of the Foreign Service Institute. She is currently academic administrator at Georgetown University.
Symone Sanders - Spokesperson to the Vice PresidentSymone Sanders transitioned from the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign to the Biden-Harris campaign a year later. Sanders has been a consultant and an activist for juvenile justice reform, serving as a member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice.
Ashley Etienne - Communications Director to the Vice PresidentAshley Etienne was communications director to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, the first woman and first person of color appointed to that post. She took the job on the advice of the legendary Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform where Etienne was communications director. She previously served as special assistant to the president in the Obama White House.
Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón - Chief of Staff to the First Lady
Elizabeth Alexander - Communications Director to the First Lady
Anthony Bernal - Senior Adviser to the First Lady
Mala Adiga - Policy Director to the First Lady
Carlos Elizondo - Social Secretary
Julissa Reynoso Pantaleón - Chief of Staff to the First LadyJulissa Reynoso Pantaleón was born in the Dominican Republic, came to the United States at the age of seven and grew up in the Bronx. A lawyer currently with Winston & Strawn LLP, she is a graduate of Harvard, the University of Cambridge and Columbia Law School.
Elizabeth Alexander - Communications Director to the First LadyElizabeth Alexander is a Biden veteran from way back. Prior to her time as a senior advisor to the Biden-Harris campaign, she was Vice President Biden’s press secretary and previously his communications director as U.S. senator. But she has also been a staffer to Senate Minority Leader Sen. Charles Schumer and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.).
Anthony Bernal - Senior Adviser to the First LadyAnthony Bernal has been a member of Jill Biden’s staff in various capacities for several years, mainly responsible for her travel arrangements and engagements. Throughout the presidential election campaign, he was her deputy chief-of-staff.
Mala Adiga - Policy Director to the First LadyMala Adiga was senior policy advisor to the Biden-Harris campaign while also advising Jill Biden. Her ties with the Bidens go back to the Obama administration, where she held senior positions at the State Department and the Department of Justice.
Carlos Elizondo - Social SecretaryFor Carlos Elizondo, the appointment as White House social secretary is a natural progression from the same position he had with the Bidens through eight years of the Obama-Biden administration.
Biden Inner Circle
Edward (Ted) Kaufman
Valerie Biden Owens
Edward (Ted) KaufmanTed Kaufman was Joe Biden’s chief-of-staff in the U.S. Senate from 1976 to 1995 and in 2008 was named to succeed Biden as Democratic senator from Delaware after Biden was elected vice-president. A year later, Kaufman chose not to run for the seat and returned to his old role as Biden’s adviser.
Valerie Biden OwensBiden’s younger sister, has been his campaign manager since his first U.S. Senate bid in 1972, including six subsequent re-elections that kept him there. A recent profile in Vogue magazine calling her “the Joe Biden whisperer” captures her closeness to the president-elect.
Bruce ReedBruce Reed, whose affiliation with the top Democratic leadership goes back to speechwriting for Vice President Al Gore, was a top White House policy advisor in both the Clinton and Obama administrations. He will have the same role in the Biden White House, focusing on economics.