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The Cabinet Appointments That Really Matter In The Incoming Biden Administration

Presidential transitions result in a lot of very inside-the-Beltway stories — an endless stream of leaks and counterleaks that are mainly about some of the world’s most ambitious people jockeying for jobs. Oy. But the transition itself is still an important story.

Who staffs the government matters, and it matters even more when the nation is in its ninth month of struggling to deal with a pandemic. And sometimes the results of all that jockeying are crucial. Imagine how history might have unfolded if President Barack Obama had not tapped Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state — or if President Trump had chosen Mitt Romney, who he courted but ultimately rejected for the role of top diplomat and who four years later became the only GOP senator to support Trump’s removal from office?

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Some slots are already filled, with Biden naming a senior team of White House advisers that includes his longtime aide Ron Klain as chief of staff, his campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, as a deputy chief of staff, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s prominent Black supporters during the campaign, as a senior adviser.

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But there are a lot of jobs still to be filled (around 4,000). So here’s FiveThirtyEight’s guide to the transition process:

Many of the rumors about who will get what job won’t turn out to be true and sometimes that misdirection is intentional. The transition process is a perfect opportunity for:

  1. Reporters to flatter sources by suggesting those sources should be considered for major jobs.
  2. Team Biden to float someone’s name to flatter him or her.
  3. A person who wants to be considered for a key job to float his or her own name.
  4. Other constituencies in the Democratic Party to push their preferred choices.

Many of the stories about who will get various jobs in the administration are full of unnamed sources. And those stories often say Biden is “considering” someone, but we have no idea how serious that consideration really is.

For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is fairly unlikely to be chosen as Biden’s Treasury secretary, even though she wants the job, at least according to “three Democratic officials who have spoken with her inner circle,” per Politico. But Warren probably knows why she’s unlikely to get the appointment: The party’s centrist wing doesn’t want her running the department and Republicans might block her during the confirmation process. Instead, her public candidacy might really be an attempt to make sure Biden picks someone fairly liberal to run the department — or at least someone not too centrist.

Remember, the president will be the ultimate decision-maker in the administration — so don’t focus too much on who gets other senior jobs. There is a certain logic to the idea that if Biden appoints a person whose views are similar to Warren to a key job, that person will implement lots of liberal policies in that job, and a less-liberal person would implement more moderate policies. But that isn’t really how a presidential administration usually works.

On any really big policy matter (like who to nominate for an open seat on the Supreme Court), Biden is likely to make the final decision. Cabinet secretaries or lower-level officials at agencies can make policy, but only if it’s in line with what the president already thinks or if it’s not a big issue he needs to weigh in on. Additionally, top White House aides can stall agencies’ moves if they disagree with them, again meaning the president is the one who makes the final call. And, of course, if a Cabinet secretary, White House aide or other political appointee disagrees with the president too often, he or she will be sent packing.

The Trump administration showed why we shouldn’t put too much stock in what team of advisers a president initially chooses. In his 2016 campaign, Trump took stands that weren’t traditional for a Republican presidential candidate — he seemed wary of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was skeptical of NATO, and he was eager to ease tensions between the U.S. and Russia. But during his presidential transition, Trump put a bunch of people with more establishment GOP views into key national security roles, most notably James Mattis as the defense secretary. Trump, of course, ended up feuding with this early set of advisers and eventually replaced them with people who would hew to his vision.

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But keep a careful eye on the appointees, particularly those in jobs below chief of staff and Cabinet secretaries. Of course, even with the president making the final call, White House staffers and agencies’ political appointees can make a big difference, particularly if they are working on an issue that isn’t going to appear on the homepage or front page of The New York Times every day.

The best example of this might be Trump domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, who has masterminded a slew of changes that made it harder to immigrate to the United States. Trump, of course, agrees with Miller’s broad goals, but it’s not clear that he would have implemented all of these policies if Miller were not in the administration.

On Team Biden, Richmond could use his role as the director of the White House’s outreach arm to make himself the administration’s de facto point person on Black issues, which might be both a major portfolio but also not so high-profile that Biden would interject and make all the big decisions.

Appointments can signal a president’s inclinations. Take another progressive Democrat whose name has been floated for a Cabinet position: Sen. Bernie Sanders as Biden’s secretary of labor. If Biden were to choose Sanders, that could be a signal that the former vice president will let the Vermont senator freely implement Democratic socialist policies through that department. But I don’t think that’s how we should think of such an appointment. Rather, it would likely be a signal that Biden plans to take fairly liberal stances on labor issues anyway, so he’s comfortable having a left-wing figure like Sanders implement that agenda.

For example, in the 2008 transition process, Obama’s selection of Wall Street-friendly people like Tim Geithner (as Treasury secretary) and Larry Summers (as top White House economic adviser) to key posts foreshadowed that the administration would not be as populist as some liberals wanted.

Appointments can also be more about placating various blocs within the party than policy. An incoming president who has just won an election usually tries to reward the people and groups who helped him get there. These constituency dynamics partly explain who’s being touted by the media as potential Biden appointees: former Ohio. Gov John Kasich and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman (anti-Trump Republicans); Warren and Sanders (progressives); former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen (women); Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (Latinos).

But an appointee who is picked mainly for political reasons may not have much sway in his or her role. Let’s revisit the idea of Sanders becoming Biden’s Labor secretary. It’s possible that Biden doesn’t want to implement liberal policies through the Labor department, but that he would nonetheless pick Sanders to placate progressives during the transition and then basically ignore the senator’s ideas once he is in the job.

A good example of this dynamic in a previous administration was Trump picking South Carolina’s then-governor, Nikki Haley, as the ambassador to the United Nations at the start of his first term. Haley had little foreign policy experience coming into the role — and it wasn’t clear that she exerted much influence on Trump’s agenda in her nearly two years in the administration. But choosing Haley was an important nod to voters of color (she is Indian American), women and establishment Republicans (at that point she was aligned with that wing of the GOP).

Expect Biden to choose people who aren’t considered really liberal or really centrist. Biden has always tried to be in the center of the Democratic Party — so it’s likely his administration will reflect that approach. Take his pick of Klain as his chief of staff. Yes, Klain was a top adviser to more center-left Democrats like Biden, Clinton and Obama, but more left-wing figures like Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also like him. So expect Biden to make more picks like Klain and not many picks like Warren as treasury secretary. Maybe former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel can get a fairly low-profile job like transportation secretary, but there is probably too much opposition from the party’s left for Biden to put him in a more prominent role.

Additionally, because Biden is likely to staff his administration with people who unify rather than divide the party, I doubt there will be factions of the Biden administration fighting intensely with each other the way high-ranking aides did in the early stages of the Trump administration.

The biggest unknown might be how Biden deals with the Senate. It’s unlikely Biden will wait until the Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia to name his picks for the Cabinet and other top posts in federal agencies that require Senate confirmation. Waiting that long would mean that those picks probably wouldn’t be ready to start soon after Biden takes office on Jan. 20.

So the incoming president has three choices: First, he can choose whomever he thinks is appropriate for a given job and dare Republicans to block that person, if the GOP has a majority after the Georgia races. Second, he can try to choose nominees who he thinks Sen. Mitch McConnell will allow to come up for votes (assuming McConnell remains majority leader) and who can get the support of at least two Republican senators. (The GOP will have at most 52 votes, so a 50-50 split would allow Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote.) But there is a third option, too: Biden can use federal laws and procedures to make the people he wants “acting” secretaries without Senate confirmation, as Trump has done.

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How much Republicans would try to block Biden’s picks is a wild card; in the Obama and Trump transitions, the president’s party controlled the Senate, so we haven’t seen an opposition-controlled Senate voting on a new president’s appointees recently. It will be interesting to see if Biden avoids nominating people to jobs that require Senate confirmation if those nominees are viewed as too liberal (like perhaps Sanders and Warren) or have frosty relationships with the GOP (say, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who some Republicans dislike from her days in the Obama administration). Also, with such tight margins in the Senate, Biden may be wary of nominating Senate members from states where a Republican governor could appoint their replacement (Warren) or where Democrats might have a hard time holding onto a seat in a special election (Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar).

Of course, it’s also possible that this presidential transition may not follow these general parameters. With COVID-19, a president who won’t concede or participate in the transition, a GOP that’s increasingly willing to break with democratic norms and values and control of the Senate still hanging in the balance because of the runoffs in Georgia, there are also a lot of unknowns.

But ultimately, I suspect Biden will run his transition in a fairly traditional manner. After all, Biden is deeply familiar with how things have been done in Washington and, as we saw during the campaign, part of the reason he ran in the first place is that he wants to restore some of that normalcy.

Perry Bacon Jr. was a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.