Biden Aims for Diverse Cabinet as Insiders Mostly Male and White
President-elect Joe Biden has promised to make history by putting more women and people of color in top cabinet jobs, but the inner circle of advisers who will counsel him in the Oval Office is likely to remain dominated by White men.
Biden took the first step this week toward filling out the ranks of his team by naming longtime aide Ron Klain as his chief of staff. Several other men are expected to be offered senior White House roles, including Ted Kaufman, Mike Donilon, Steve Ricchetti, Jeff Zients, Bruce Reed and Jake Sullivan, according to several people familiar with the transition.
They are a mix of longtime Biden aides and people who helped him with the campaign, and who now are advising him on the transition. Nearly all are veterans of past Democratic administrations. People familiar with the transition discussions say several of them are expected to get posts inside Biden’s White House, though none of those posts have been announced yet.
“President-elect Biden will build a diverse administration that looks like America, starting with the first woman of South Asian descent and first Black woman to serve as vice president-elect,” Cameron French, a spokesman for the transition, said in a statement. “He has only announced one White House staff hire, so any conclusions about staff are premature. As he did during the campaign to his transition, Joe Biden will be intentional in finding diverse voices to develop and implement his policy vision to tackle our nation’s toughest challenges.”
Biden insiders also point to others who likely will work closely with Biden at the White House: Symone Sanders, one of his highest-ranking Black staffers, and Cedric Richmond, a Black congressman from Louisiana who was a campaign co-chair. Sanders and Kate Bedingfield, the deputy campaign manager, are expected to get key communications roles, the people said.
Biden has promised that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who will be the first Black and Indian-American woman in the post, will be the last person in the room for all major decisions and key partner in governing, similar to Biden’s own relationship when he was President Barack Obama’s vice president.
Still, the pressure on Biden from activists and interest groups already has begun to build a diverse administration. In his victory speech last week, Biden said he was proud of building “the broadest and most diverse coalition in history.”
“White males continue to dominate inside White House positions, and that’s unfortunate because the promise was the most diverse White House, and we’re not seeing it,” said Domingo Garcia, the national president of the League of United Latin American Citizens. “We’re not seeing it in the transition or the preliminary appointments. That could impact policy, regulation and executive orders. When you have gatekeepers who don’t know the community, access is denied.”
Biden has promised to select even more women and people of color for his cabinet than Obama did. He is said to be considering at least two women for the job of Treasury secretary, which would be a first — former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen and Fed governor Lael Brainard. He is also said to be considering nominating Michele Flournoy to be the first female Defense secretary.
“I said from the outset I wanted a campaign that represented America, and I think we did that,” Biden said in his victory speech last Saturday. “Now that’s what I want the administration to look like.”
But in Washington, power is measured by physical proximity to the president. Having access to the Oval Office is critical to having influence over policy and other decisions, and aides in the West Wing generally outweigh even cabinet secretaries in terms of influence in most White Houses.
The scrutiny on Biden’s choices comes as he presides over an increasingly diverse Democratic Party, and Black, Latino and female voters were critical to his victory. Some of those voters preferred his rivals in the primaries and questioned whether in 2020 the Democratic nominee should be a 77-year-old White man, but Black voters in particular played a pivotal role in delivering Biden the nomination and the presidency.
President Donald Trump’s senior advisers are almost all White men, and while he put women in public-facing jobs like White House press secretary, very few non-White people work there. Most of Obama’s senior advisers were White men, as well, including chiefs of staff Rahm Emanuel and Denis McDonough, counselor John Podesta and others, while senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, a Black woman, was a member of the inner circle.
Klain, Reed and Ricchetti all served as Biden’s chiefs of staff at various times while he was vice president. Kaufman was Biden’s Senate chief of staff for many years and replaced him in the Senate when Biden became vice president. Sullivan was Biden’s national security advisor in the White House, Zients was director of Obama’s National Economic Council and Donilon is a longtime Democratic campaign aide.
In building his administration, Biden is working with Klain, Ricchetti, Kaufman and Zients along with Harris and Yohannes Abraham, who is Black and is running the day-to-day operations of the transition effort. Biden, who was first elected to the U.S. Senate at the age of 29, has depended on some of the same key advisers for years, and people who have worked with him say it takes time to earn his trust.
“It’s possible for White men in his inner circle to be allies, and we expect Ron Klain to be that, but for him to be successful as an ally he needs diverse experiences – women and people of color – with him when decisions are being made,” said Shaunna Thomas, the co-founder of UltraViolet, a women’s rights advocacy organization.
The top two women on Biden’s campaign are not expected to join the administration. Anita Dunn, his senior adviser, is returning to a communications firm where she is a partner, and Jen O’Malley Dillon, his campaign manager, is likely to return to the communications firm that she founded.
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