December 11, 2020
Joe Biden hasn’t picked any of the nearly two dozen Democrats who ran against him to serve in his administration — and that bodes quite well for the former rival he did elevate as his No. 2, Kamala Harris.
Biden’s decision to forgo a Cabinet of ambitious pols in favor of a group heavy on seasoned loyalists and technocrats contrasts with Donald Trump and Barack Obama’s appointment of next-generation officials to top posts. And it could deny a springboard to potential Harris competitors in 2024 if Biden decides to retire after one term rather than running for reelection in his 80s.
While several people around Biden and Harris were reluctant to speak publicly about a topic they view as taboo, they acknowledged Biden’s choices for top positions reinforce Harris’s status as president-in-waiting.
Biden has built an administration free of political threats to Harris.
“He’s not putting together a team of rivals, he’s putting together a team. That sets him apart from everybody,” said Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist from Massachusetts who served in senior roles for John Kerry, Biden’s incoming special envoy on climate change. “Obama had a team of rivals, other presidents have had a team of rivals. He’s not interested in conflict as much as he wants to have people who have done the job before and they can all work together to get all the work done.
“That,” Marsh added, “benefits Kamala Harris.”
Several Democratic operatives argued Harris cleared the primary field of other moderate Democrats for 2024 the moment Biden chose her as his vice president. Even if Biden does elevate a 2020 rival to a high-profile Cabinet position, that person would have to resign midway through the term and then mount a challenge against the current vice president.
Harris’s mostly dormant political operation was subsumed by Biden campaign aides when he chose her as his running mate. Since their election last month, she’s focused on governing nuts and bolts: hiring her own staff, familiarizing herself with the new role and working to integrate with Biden and his camp. She participates in private Cabinet nomination discussions, meets with elected officials and activists and speaks at proposed nominee rollouts and events on the coronavirus and the economy.
One aide, offering an early assessment of her involvement, said Harris has been integral in the transition— “she’s been involved across the board” — and that there have been preliminary talks about how Harris could “split the work” of organizing the federal response to the pandemic.
While Obama ultimately put Biden in charge of the economic recovery, Harris has yet to be tasked with overseeing any one area. Nor has she made an explicit ask for specific assignments. Biden also served as Obama’s chief Senate liaison, in large part because of Biden’s personal and deep ties in the chamber. Harris joined the Senate nearly four years ago.
Harris’s earliest work is anchored in four of the biggest issues facing the new administration: public health, the economy, racial injustice and climate change. Aides said she could take on more defined responsibilities on any of the issues, but they stressed that wouldn’t pull her away from being a “full partner in the room for everything,” as another Biden transition official put it.
Biden still could bring in people with presidential aspirations. Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who is close with the president-elect, is expected to join the administration in what was described as a “significant role,” though it might not be a Cabinet-level position, two officials told POLITICO. Garcetti expressed a particular interest in Commerce secretary and has been talked up as a prospect to head the Transportation Department. Two sources said Garcetti is under consideration to serve as an envoy to U.S. governors and mayors on climate change and another said he could be under consideration to be put in charge of the Navy.
Former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who both ran in 2020, are also in the mix for posts. Patrick is one of four short-listers for attorney general, according to a person familiar with the transition talks. However, Patrick has told others he does not believe he is in contention, according to two other sources with knowledge of the discussions.
On Thursday, Biden tapped Susan Rice, an Obama and Clinton administration veteran, to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council. Rice was considered for vice president and has shown interest in possibly running for office, and the role could help balance out her background in diplomacy and national security.
But the Biden administration is not yet a bridge to the next generation, as he once suggested it would be — or even a conduit to the political leaders preferred by many younger voters.
The lack of 2020 rivals in the Cabinet in some respects reflects Democrats’ under-performance down-ballot in November, particularly in the Senate, where the fight over the majority has shifted to the two upcoming contests in Georgia. Democrats can hardly afford to remove a sitting senator from their ranks, even temporarily.
Yet in interviews, aides and allies of progressive Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren said they weren’t sure they would have been chosen for key administration roles even if Democrats had won a clear majority.
Installing a popular left-wing Democrat high in the Cabinet could help neutralize anticipated critiques of Biden by progressives over policy. Regardless of who Biden picks for his staff, liberals expect Harris to face primary challenges from her left flank—in either 2024, or 2028 should Biden run and win reelection.
Biden’s recent predecessors included more political strivers from varied ideological backgrounds.
Trump’s debut team included former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley as ambassador to the United Nations. A pair of congressmen, Mike Pompeo and Mick Mulvaney, took the helm of the Central Intelligence Agency and Office of Management and Budget, respectively. Trump also tapped Ben Carson and former Texas Gov. Rick Perry — both 2016 primary competitors — for his Cabinet.
Barack Obama named Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state, and appointed former Govs. Kathleen Sebelius, Janet Napolitano and Gary Locke to top positions. His labor secretaries, Tom Perez and Hilda Solis, went on to lead the Democratic National Committee and to a seat on the powerful Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. Other Obama Cabinet members who mostly came later in Obama’s presidency could still resurface for future offices, including Julian Castro, Anthony Foxx, John King Jr. and Shaun Donovan, who is running for mayor of New York City.
Andrew Yang, a 2020 Democratic contender, has yet to receive a slot in the Biden administration and could instead join Donovan in the growing field for mayor.
Marsh said the lack of other 2020 contenders in the Cabinet — pointing to Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Tom Steyer, Beto O’Rourke and Yang, among others — will further drive conversation around Harris as the de facto 2024 Democratic frontrunner. Historically that hasn’t been the case for vice presidents, particularly not before the administration gets off the ground.
“There’s nothing better than videos of her getting off the plane and getting into the SUV,” Marsh said. “That makes her look like a commander-in-chief when she walks down the steps across the carpet into the SUV like a boss.”