It was fitting that, the day after supporters of outgoing president Donald Trump stormed into the Capitol Building in Washington DC, president-elect Joe Biden chose to announce his nominee for the key role of attorney general. In naming federal judge Merrick Garland (as well as a supporting cast of highly credentialled jurists as Garland’s deputies and associates) Biden stressed that his nominees would act to restore “the honor, the integrity, and the independence” of the Justice Department.
Biden’s cabinet choices have clearly been made with the aim of fulfilling his campaign promise of restoring competence and stability to Washington. He has prioritised individuals who have solid experience and credentials, as well as those with whom he has strong working relationships. Some of the key domestic and foreign policy positions are as follows.
Attorney General: Merrick Garland
The attorney general (AG) heads the Department of Justice (DoJ) and serves as the chief lawyer of the federal government. Garland, Biden’s nominee, became a household name in Washington in 2016 when the Republican-controlled Senate declined to vote on his nomination to the Supreme Court under then-President Barack Obama. He is a moderate who is widely respected and known for his collegiality.
With the DoJ viewed as increasingly politicised under Trump, Garland’s selection is in line with Biden’s aim of restoring the department’s independence from the White House and improving morale. His noted professionalism will also aid him in navigating hundreds of ongoing cases and lawsuits put in place by the Trump administration, and bringing transparency to the probe into the business affairs of the president-elect’s son, Hunter Biden.
Treasury: Janet Yellen
The secretary of the treasury advises the president on all economic, financial and monetary issues. Biden’s pick, Janet Yellen, is a former chief of the Federal Reserve, the US’s central bank, and has been credited with helping steer the economic recovery after the 2008 financial crisis and recession.
Known for drawing attention to rising inequality and unemployment, she has rare support from across the political spectrum, and will be the first woman to serve as treasury secretary.
She will play a key role in guiding the administration’s economic recovery to the pandemic, and will be central in helping Biden stay committed to his campaign promises of prioritising the working class in economic decisions.
State department: Antony Blinken
The secretary of state is the president’s chief foreign affairs adviser and the first cabinet member after the vice president in the line of succession. Biden’s nominee, Antony Blinken, served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration, and worked closely with Biden in the Senate.
He has an especially close relationship with the president-elect, with the two often described as having a “mind-meld”.
Raised by Holocaust survivors, Blinken has been a long-time advocate of humanitarian intervention in cases of mass atrocities, which in the past put him at odds with Biden and some other foreign policy advisers on issues such as Syria. But he shares Biden’s overall approach to international relations, emphasising multilateralism and shoring up relationships with allies. He will be a key member of the team as it navigates policies regarding Iran, Afghanistan and other areas of concern.
Defense: Lloyd Austin
Biden’s pick of retired four-star general Lloyd Austin (pictured at the top) to head the Pentagon was somewhat unexpected. But Austin comes with strong credentials and has had a close working relationship with Biden – especially during the Obama administration. He served as the US commander in Iraq, overseeing both the US troop surge and withdrawal, and later headed Central Command, as well as leading the US response to ISIS.
If confirmed, Austin will notably be the first African American to serve as defense secretary. But his nomination is generating concerns from liberals and conservatives alike due to his recent time in uniform. Secretary of defense is a civilian leadership post – and civilian control is a key aspect of the US military. Defense secretaries are required by law to have been retired for at least seven years and Austin has only been retired for four. While it is possible for Congress to pass a waiver allowing them to serve, which was the case with General James Mattis, Trump’s initial defense secretary, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle may be reluctant to normalise the practice.
Climate and environment
Biden notably introduced a new cabinet-level position in nominating former secretary of state John Kerry to be his lead climate envoy. In this role, Kerry will sit on the National Security Council, underscoring how the new administration is promoting climate change as a key security and foreign policy issue.
On the domestic side, Michael Regan will bring a fresh face to climate policy as the nominated head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while Gina McCarthy, a former EPA chief, has been nominated to serve as White House climate coordinator.
Other notable Cabinet picks include former presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg as secretary of transportation, where he will be the first openly gay man to serve in a cabinet post; Deb Haaland as secretary of the interior, the first Native American to serve in a cabinet role; and Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security, the first Latino to head that department.
What happens next?
Cabinet members are nominated by the president and presented to the Senate for confirmation by a simple majority. Following the two Democrat upsets in the Georgia runoffs, the Senate will essentially be split 50-50, with the vice president serving as the tie breaker, giving Democrats the majority for the first time since 2014.
Even with a potential impeachment trial of Trump looming, Biden will be looking to hit the ground running by his inauguration. The first 100 days are important for all incoming presidents, but they will be especially crucial for Biden as he seeks to lead the country through the winter wave of the pandemic, and the roll-out of the vaccine and economic recovery, as well as healing the country after last week’s events.
His team will need to be ready to address these urgent crises, while also getting to work on longer-term issues and policies – both foreign and domestic – and setting a new course for the next four years.