This week, the Biden transition team is expected to name some of the more prominent appointees, including Anthony J. Blinken for secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national-security adviser, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations.
They’re all veterans of the Obama administration, but that shouldn’t be surprising; most incoming administrations select staffers from the preceding one of their own party. Blinken and Sullivan both worked as Biden’s national-security adviser for periods when Biden was vice president. Thomas-Greenfield served in the U.S. Foreign Service for 35 years and was promoted to ambassador to Liberia in Bush’s second term. Blinken has already stated Biden will avoid any open disputes with Israel. (And Representative Rashida Tlaib, part of the “Squad,” is already grumbling a bit about Blinken.) Sullivan was considered one of the hawks in the Obama foreign-policy team. This is the Democratic foreign-policy establishment — the figures who generally infuriate the progressive grassroots.
You don’t have to dance a jig over these selections, but there’s no harm in acknowledging that as far as Democratic selections go, Biden could do a lot worse. We don’t see bigger names and more divisive figures such as Susan Rice, Andrew Cuomo, Stacey Abrams, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Tom Perez, Randi Weingarten, or Julian Castro joining the Biden administration yet.
Cabinet speculation tends to focus on bigger names such as members of Congress, governors, and former presidential candidates — regardless of whether or not those figures would make effective managers of a sprawling department full of disparate agencies, offices, bureaus, centers, branch offices, divisions, and administrations. Running a federal department involves a lot of management, a lot of attention to detail, the ability to sit through seemingly endless meetings, and constant efforts to avoid an embarrassing mistake that will end up on the front page, all in exchange for $210,000 per year. Robert Reich’s Locked in the Cabinet is a sometimes painfully funny portrait of just how little power cabinet secretaries have, and the struggle to stay on top of a complex, Byzantine bureaucracy that has its own internal pressures and preferred agenda to preserve the status quo. (Reich’s tale of getting lost in his own headquarters building, and how his staff tried to prevent him from wandering off, influenced The Weed Agency.) Cabinet posts are often perceived as a stepping stone to some more prominent position down the line, but rarely turn out to be so.
As Stephen Hess observed back in 2008, there are really two tiers of cabinet secretaries. The top tier includes State, Treasury, Defense, Justice, and perhaps these days we should add Homeland Security and the Department of Health and Human Services. The American people will be seeing a lot of those figures in the coming years. But the rest of the cabinet can sometimes feel like the witness protection program for once-promising political figures. Few Americans closely follow what’s new in the departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Interior, Labor, Transportation, Veterans Affairs, or Housing and Urban Development.
If an incoming president feels a need to placate a constituency or particular figure, and an ambassadorship just won’t do, those second-tier cabinet posts make lovely consolation prizes.