Biden’s administration appointments: Making a cabinet that “looks like America”

Joe Biden's provisional picks
credit: Sky News

Biden has promised a cabinet that ‘looks like America’. But having already disappointed the NAACP with some of his appointments, Alice Spall investigates whether Biden will be able to curate the most progressive presidency in history.

When former President Barack Obama endorsed Joe Biden earlier this year, he said “Joe already has what is the most progressive platform of any major-party nominee in history”. As the Biden-Harris Presidential transition begins to announce the appointments to their administration, many have questions quite how progressive this new presidential era is. 

In a statement last week, the Biden team made their stance clear by saying they will build a cabinet that “looks like America”. He has already made history in the deliberate appointment of Kamala Harris as Vice-President, who has shattered several glass ceilings as the first woman, first black and first Indian VP. But just one appointment is not enough to be representative of America today. Here’s what America currently looks like: 60.1% white, 18.5% Hispanic, 13.4% Black, 6.1% Asian or Pacific Islander and 1.3% Native American.  If Biden plans to stick to his word exactly, that would mean roughly 14 white, four Hispanic, three Black, and one Asian or Pacific Islander and potentially one Native American. It would also mean at least half of these people would be women, and at least one should be from the LGBTQ+ community. This has created a difficult puzzle for the Biden-Harris transition team in the last couple of weeks as they try to please both sides of the Democratic party, whilst sticking to their pledge to be progressive in their appointments. 

Who are Joe Biden's top cabinet picks? | Biden administration | The Guardian
Some of Biden’s cabinet picks, clockwise from top left: Anthony Blinken, Janet Yellen, Jake Sullivan, Avril Haines, Alejandro Mayorkas, John Kerry and Linda Thomas-Greenfield. Credit: The Guardian

Of course, it would not be difficult for the President Elect Biden to have a more progressive cabinet and team than his predecessor, President Trump. President Trump’s first cabinet consisted of 18 white men,  2 non-white men, and 4 women, the two latter groups notably all in lower ranking positions in the cabinet. Trump faced criticism for his choices in cabinet, as many felt it was one step forward, two steps back from Obama’s diverse administration. Maybe Trump’s cabinet was not representative of the real America, but it was clear that it was representative of his own vision of America, after a 4 year battle against the rights of women, the LGBTQ+ community and people of colour. 

Biden’s presidential campaign was criticised for not being as vociferous about Trump’s presidency as it could have been, but since Biden’s victory has been confirmed, he has been more vocal in his decisions to undo some of Trump’s actions. For many, creating a more diverse cabinet and team is a clear way to show Biden and Harris’s commitment to this cause. Some argue that the lack of minorities in government for the last four years means that more must be appointed now to make up for this loss in progress. Known as affirmative action, this way of appointing political positions has been used successfully in the past; the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats party in the UK have used women-only shortlists to make up the gender disparity in the houses of parliament. 

The democratic party is fractiously divided, but young people who turned up in numbers to secure Biden’s victory are demanding their voices be heard. In particular, young Black people played an incredibly important role in the election. Places like Atlanta, Georgia saw the young Black vote increase considerably, thanks to activists like Stacey Abrams, who campaigned against voter suppression. Without the activism of Black women and young Black people, Biden may not be the President Elect. Representing these voices then, in his administration, seems fundamental. Groups such as the NAACP have made it clear that they are not happy with the appointments so far, but Biden has not laid out his entire administration yet.

Biden is also facing calls to make his administration more representative of the left. Many liberal voters felt they were settling for Biden, and want more liberal voices to be heard in power. Biden has shown his willingness to do so, having released a co-authored platform with Senator Bernie Sanders, a voice for the left, outlining plans for climate change, criminal justice, the economy, education, health care and immigration. Prominent voices such as Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez have made it clear that more liberal and progressive voices must be selected to get full support from this wing of the Democratic party. This week, the idea that former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel could be selected for cabinet was floated by the Biden team. AOC was one of many who made it clear that this would not be an acceptable choice, as Emanuel actively covered up Laquan McDonald’s murder by police. In the year that America was brought to a stop by the Black Lives Matter movement, it would be a contentious starting point for Biden to have Emmanuel on his team.

By all other standards, Emanuel is qualified for the job; which makes the Biden team’s task of appointing the administration even harder. Finding qualified politicians who don’t make either side of the Democratic Party angry is not an easy task. Many politicians who are popular choices are already tied up in congress, where the Democrats cannot afford to lose a single seat. Adding the extra requirement that they must be a minority doubles the challenge. Those on the more conservative side of the Democratic Party believe this means the most suitable candidates will not get the job. However, to argue that there are not qualified minorities for the role highlights a bigger structural problem. There is an overwhelming amount of white men in Washington D.C., and change in representation comes from the top. If there are not minorities in the Whitehouse to represent and make changes in education and work accessibility then the cycle of the white, male Whitehouse continues. Whether Biden manages to form a representative cabinet this time or not, he must act as an ally to address the structural inequalities which hold minorities back in society if he truly wants to have the most progressive presidency in history.