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Confirmation hearings have begun for President Joe Biden’s nominees to key Cabinet positions.
Those confirmed to their roles by the Senate will shape policy in the Biden administration at a time when the country faces deep political divides on top of a pandemic that has now killed more than 400,000 Americans and left millions without jobs.
Representation and diversity have also been central to Biden’s choices for top White House positions. As a candidate in the 2020 presidential election, Joe Biden promised to nominate “the most diverse Cabinet in history,” stressing that he wanted leaders that look like America. The presidential Cabinet, comprising some of the most senior positions in the executive branch, has remained mostly male and white, even in recent years.
If all of Biden’s nominees are confirmed, his Cabinet will contain more women and people of color than any other Cabinet in U.S. history. But even as Biden sought a wide range of nominees, he has received some blowback that his picks are not diverse enough, with critics pointing to the differences between leadership roles and true executives with decision-making and agenda-setting power.
Among the Cabinet appointees confirmed in the first 100 days of the last three presidential administrations, almost 72 percent were white, and 73 percent were male, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. Women have never made up more than 41 percent of a presidential Cabinet, a milestone hit more than 20 years ago during President Bill Clinton’s second term. And Black Americans have never accounted for even a third of the Cabinet.
Among Biden’s first 100-plus staffers, around 60 percent were women, more than 50 percent were people of color and 20 percent were first-generation Americans, the transition team told the PBS NewsHour last month.
Graphic by Megan McGrew/PBS NewsHour
Retired four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin served for more than four decades in the U.S. Army, retiring in 2016. During his career, he oversaw U.S. military strategy in the fight against the Islamic State and led U.S. Central Command. He would be the first Black secretary of Defense in the nation’s history, if confirmed by the Senate. Because he’s been retired from the military for fewer than the seven required years, Lloyd requires a special exemption from Congress in order to serve as Defense secretary. If confirmed, he would be the third career military official to serve in the traditionally civilian-held position, following James Mattis in 2016 and George Marshall in 1950.
Biden has nominated California Attorney General Xavier Becerra to run the Department of Health and Human Services, a critical Cabinet position as the nation grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and navigates a nationwide COVID-19 vaccine rollout. If he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Becerra would be the first Latino to serve as HHS secretary. Prior to becoming California attorney general, Becerra served 12 terms in the U.S. House, rising to a top leadership post and helping to steer the Affordable Care Act through Congress.
Antony Blinken was deputy secretary of State during President Barack Obama’s administration and was also a key adviser on the administration’s response to Russian incursion into Crimea in 2014. He has close personal ties to the president, having first worked on Biden’s Senate staff in 2002. Blinken’s nomination is a stark departure from Trump’s “America First” approach to foreign policy. Throughout his career, Blinken has emphasized the importance of allyships across the world and endorsed heavier American involvement in foreign conflicts.
Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg is Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Transportation. Buttigieg was among the final competitive shortlist of Democratic presidential candidates heading into the 2020 primaries, but dropped out of the race to endorse Biden. The former mayor, a Navy veteran who served in Afghanistan, has no prior Washington experience. He would be the first Senate-confirmed LGBTQ Cabinet member if his nomination goes through.
Connecticut Public Schools commissioner and former elementary school teacher Miguel Cardona is President Joe Biden’s pick for secretary of the Department of Education. In the nomination, the president delivers on his promise to nominate a teacher for the top education job. Now Connecticut’s top education official, Cardona began as a teacher at his former elementary school. He became the state’s youngest principal in 2003, and eventually the district’s assistant superintendent. Cardona has previously voiced support for re-opening schools safely, saying that key aspects of education cannot be replicated in a virtual environment.
Rep. Marcia Fudge, a Democrat who has represented Cleveland, Akron and other parts of northeast Ohio for a decade, is Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Before her election to the U.S. House in 2008, she was the first Black person and first woman to be mayor of Warrensville Heights, a community outside Cleveland. Various progressive and civil rights groups pushed for Biden to nominate Fudge as Agriculture secretary instead of his eventual pick, Tom Vilsack, who served as Obama’s Agriculture secretary.
Biden has nominated Judge Merrick Garland to serve as attorney general in his administration. Garland currently sits as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, a role he’s held since 1997. In March 2016, Obama nominated Garland to the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia. Garland’s nomination was never taken to a vote due to a tense political battle between the Obama administration and the Republican-led Senate, who refused to consider Garland because they said it came too close to the end of Obama’s presidency.
Former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm is Biden’s nominee for secretary of the Department of Energy. Granholm served as governor of Michigan from 2003 to 2011, the first woman to hold that role. As governor, she backed policies promoting renewable energy, putting her in line with Biden’s campaign promise to cut U.S. net emissions to zero by 2050. She also worked closely with the auto industry, which is a central part of Michigan’s economy. If confirmed, Granholm would be the first Canadian-born Cabinet member and the second woman to head the Department of Energy.
Biden has nominated Rep. Deb Haaland to head the Department of the Interior, charged with leading a department that includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as overseeing national parks and natural resources. She was first elected to the U.S. House in 2018 and was reelected to a second term in November. She would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary, if confirmed.
Alejandro Mayorkas previously served as deputy secretary of Homeland Security and as U.S. Customs and Immigration Service director during the Obama administration. In 1998, Mayorkas became the youngest U.S. attorney in the country. He served as the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California until April 2001. He’s currently an attorney at the global law firm WilmerHale. If confirmed, he will be the first immigrant and Latino to hold the job.
Former Obama White House chief of staff Denis McDonough is Biden’s choice to run the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to being Obama’s chief of staff from 2013-2017, he served in several national security roles in the administration, including deputy national security adviser. If he’s confirmed by the Senate, McDonough would be the second VA Secretary with no military experience, a point of contention for some veterans’ groups.
Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo is Biden’s choice to lead the Department of Commerce. Before becoming governor in 2015, Raimondo served as Rhode Island’s general treasurer and overhauled the state pension system. If confirmed, Raimondo, who had a background in venture capital and economics before her time in politics, will oversee a department that includes the Census Bureau, National Weather Service and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Biden has chosen Tom Vilsack to reprise his role leading the Department of Agriculture in the incoming administration. Vilsack, currently the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, served as Obama’s Agriculture secretary for eight years. Before that, he served two terms as Iowa’s governor — the first Democrat to lead the state in 30 years — starting in 1999. If confirmed by the Senate, Vilsack will be one of the longest-service USDA secretaries in history.
Biden has chosen Boston Mayor Marty Walsh to serve as secretary of the Department of Labor. Walsh has a deep history of work in labor unions: first as a union worker, and later as president of a local labor organization. Walsh also became head of a union umbrella group before running for mayor. The son of Irish immigrants, Walsh is also Catholic, as is Biden, who became the country’s second Catholic president on Wednesday. The two have a long-standing relationship; Biden presided at Walsh’s second mayoral inauguration in 2018, praising Walsh’s focus on building up Boston’s middle class.
Yellen, a veteran economic policymaker, served as head of the Council of Economic Advisors under Clinton and became the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve, the U.S. central bank, in 2014. Yellen’s monetary policy and leadership at the Fed are credited with helping the U.S. economy recover after the housing market crashed in 2008. If confirmed, Yellen would be the first woman to lead the Treasury since its inception in 1789. She would also be the only person in history to have led all three major economic agencies of the executive branch: the Treasury, the Federal Reserve and the CEA
Biden has nominated William J. Burns to lead the Central Intelligence Agency. Burns, currently president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, previously worked in government as deputy secretary of State. He retired from the U.S. Foreign Service in 2014 after a 33-year career in diplomacy, including U.S. ambassadorships in Russia and Jordan. In a July 2020 essay, Burns wrote that the next presidential administration “will have to reinvent U.S. alliances and partnerships and make some hard — and overdue — choices about America’s tools and terms of engagement around the world. And it’ll have to act with the discipline that so often eluded the U.S. during its lazy post–Cold War dominance.”
Guzman is currently the director of the Office of Small Business Advocate in the California Governor’s Office of Business and Economic Development. Prior to her work in California, she worked in the SBA during the Obama administration as deputy chief of staff and senior adviser. Guzman has also started small businesses as an entrepreneur. “And as head of the SBA, Isabel will be leading that critical mission to not only rescue small businesses in crisis, but to provide the capital to entrepreneurs across the country so they can innovate, create jobs, and help lead us into recovery,” Biden said at a January event introducing Guzman as his choice.
During the Obama administration, Avril Haines was deputy national security advisor and deputy CIA director — the first woman to hold both of those positions, and will be the first woman director of national intelligence if confirmed by the Senate. She is currently part of the Biden transition’s national security and foreign policy team. She also serves on several advisory boards, including the Nuclear Threat Initiative and Refugees International.
Biden has chosen geneticist Eric Lander to head the Office of Science and Technology Policy in a position that has been elevated to Cabinet level. Lander, a biology professor at both MIT and Harvard, is best known for his work in mapping the human genome and for founding the Broad Institute in Boston, the biomedical research center behind gene-editing technology CRISPR. He will be the first OSTP head with a background in life sciences, another nod to the Biden administration’s focus on shaping policy around the coronavirus pandemic.
Michael Regan, the head of North Carolina’s Department of Environmental Quality, is Biden’s choice to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. In his current role, Regan has overseen a major cleanup of coal ash ponds, which can contaminate air and water. Before leading North Carolina’s state environmental agency, Regan worked for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund and in the EPA under Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. If he is confirmed by the U.S. Senate, he will be the first Black man to lead the agency.
Katherine Tai, currently the chief attorney focused on trade policy for the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, is Biden’s choice to become U.S. trade representative, a role tasked with developing U.S. trade policy, negotiating trade deals and resolving trade disputes with other nations on behalf of the federal government. In her role as the House’s top trade lawyer, Tai negotiated key parts of the recent U.S. trade agreement with Mexico. She has also specialized in China trade policy throughout her career. If she’s confirmed by the Senate, she will become the first woman of color and first Asian American to hold the job.
President Joe Biden nominated Neera Tanden to manage the agency that, most notably, develops the president’s yearly budget proposals. Tanden, who helped draft the Affordable Care Act during her time in the Health and Human Services Department under Obama, would be the first woman of color to head the White House Office of Management and Budget if confirmed by the Senate. Some Senate Republicans panned the choice, noting her past criticisms of GOP lawmakers on social media. Tanden currently serves as president of the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank.
Biden chose his former vice presidential chief of staff and longtime Democratic adviser to follow him to the presidency. Klain first worked with Biden in 1989, serving as the chief council on the Senate Judiciary Committee when then-Sen. Biden was chairman. He has also advised on the campaigns of every Democratic nominee for president since Bill Clinton. Klain managed the Obama administration’s response to Ebola in 2014, prompting him to be a strong and vocal critic of Trump’s response to coronavirus since early 2020. Last January, he wrote in an “Atlantic” opinion piece that “the combination of Trump’s paranoia toward experienced government officials,… inattention to detail, opinionated rejection of science and evidence, and isolationist instincts may prove toxic when it comes to managing a global-health security challenge.”
Correction: This story has been updated to show that 20 years, not 30, have passed since the number of women in a presidential Cabinet set a milestone. We regret the error.
Dan Cooney is the PBS NewsHour's Social Media Producer/Coordinator.
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