It’s probably not surprising for a nation addicted to reality shows like “The Bachelorette” or “The Voice” (or season four of “House of Trump”), but a popular online sport — while Joe Biden built a lead in the 2020 White House polls — was speculating on which big-time Democratic political celebrities would take jobs in his Cabinet.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren for Treasury! Sen. Bernie Sanders for Labor! Top Barack Obama aide Susan Rice for State! Oprah for Commerce! … OK, I made that last rumor up, but who wouldn’t want to wear the glitter of a new administration, undoing the stain of the Trump years?
Instead, the president-elect’s first bevy of hires has sent even hard-core political junkies to the Google machine, or to Wikipedia. Biden’s highest profile nomination — Antony Blinken to head the State Department, where he was a top deputy under Obama — was popular with D.C. insiders even though he’s unknown to the average voter, while names like Alejandro Mayorkas for Homeland Security or Avril Haines for director of national intelligence, eminently qualified though they may be, are even more obscure.
The best-known pick so far (aside from former secretary of state and presidential candidate John Kerry for the newly created slot of climate envoy) is former Federal Reserve chairman Janet Yellen at Treasury, although the 74-year-old economist doesn’t have much of a baked-in constituency, unlike Warren, a progressive fighter for consumers and labor.
Brendan Buck, a former high-level Republican aide on Capitol Hill, called the Democrat’s first batch of selections “so delightfully boring” (intended as a compliment), while longtime Beltway pundit John F. Harris at Politico cranked out a piece about Biden’s “careerists,” writing that the incoming POTUS and University of Delaware alum has a man-crush on “the Washington professional with impeccable credentials from elite institutions.”
There’s a perfect storm of reasons why Biden is spurning the pizazz of a Warren or a Rice — well-known to addicts of TV’s Sunday news shows — for the facial-recognition-foiling likes of Blinken and Mayorkas. The biggest one, in my opinion, is a wise political gamble by Team Biden — that smart, boring and anonymous is exactly what nearly 80 million Americans voted for this fall. Call it, cynically, a return to brunch without political agita for the Democrats’ new base of college-educated suburbanites, or call it a rejection of Donald Trump’s nonstop vulgar circus — but most of “Resistance Twitter” is in love with the Big Dull.
When I commented on Twitter at the start of Thanksgiving week that the surest route to Biden’s Cabinet was to be an “unknown, qualified and boringly non-controversial deputy cabinet secretary under Barack Obama,” I got a flood of responses tsk-tsk-ing me for implying that “boring” was a bad thing. “As long as they know how to do their job with skill, honesty and decency, they can stay as unknown as they wish to be,” one wrote, while another added (and I agree with this), “Given what we just went through, I’ll take boring, as long as competent is going along with it.”
No one epitomizes this more than Biden’s very first hire, his incoming chief of staff Ron Klain, who oversaw the Obama administration’s widely praised response to the threat of Ebola in 2014 and brings that air of assurance to the coronavirus fight. And some of the president-elect’s picks are aren’t so well-known now could become breakout stars — most notably Blinken, who wowed watchers of Tuesday’s rollout news conference with the dramatic story of his Polish stepfather’s 1945 rescue from a Nazi concentration camp by a Black U.S. solider, and how that shaped his family’s views of America. Ditto for his U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who has spoken movingly of witnessing KKK cross burnings as a Black girl growing up in segregated Louisiana and will now be the face of the nation on a global stage.
One can’t help but notice that Biden’s Cabinet is remarkable diverse, with a big role for women, after four years of a president in thrall to white guys named Steve. They believe in the formerly noncontroversial idea that the United States should work with its traditional allies instead of insulting them. After nearly 48 months of nonstop chaos, they are ready to start work on Day One, Like their boss, all the new president’s women and men are political tightrope walkers — epitomized by Yellen, who balances a surprisingly progressive take on climate change with a conservative, hawkish view of deficits that alarms progressives.
But the most important thing about Biden’s Cabinet is this: He’s picking anonymous competence not only because he wants to, but because he has to.
Indeed, if Biden is a political high-wire act, then getting his Cabinet through a Washington that hasn’t been this divided since 1861 is like crossing the Grand Canyon. The president-elect can’t risk losing the left-wing support that arguably was the difference between Hillary Clinton’s narrow loss of the battleground states in 2016 and Biden narrowly winning them. But the names that would get the progressive movement most jacked — especially Sanders and Warren — probably couldn’t get confirmed in such a toxic environment and (without getting into the complexities) would also give Dems a weaker hand in the Senate.
Right now, the flukes and flaws of America’s fragile, Balkanized democracy has placed any kind of bold action — including controversial Cabinet picks — on hold until Georgia holds its two Senate runoffs, which will decide who runs the chamber, on Jan. 5. No doubt, Team Biden worries that naming someone like a Sanders with his background as a socialist would be a boon to the GOP’s red-baiting TV ad-makers, while someone such as Rice — who’s admired by and has a long-relationship with the president-elect — would have triggered weeks of divisive and ridiculous Republican hearings on Benghazi.
Biden’s scheme for dealing with the left so far has been not to choose any actual progressives but instead people with a reputation for at least listening to progressives. For example, Sanders’ foreign policy guru, Matt Duss, praised Blinken, calling it a “great thing to have a top diplomat who has regularly engaged with progressive grassroots.” But this detente is fragile, and it could explode if Biden finds a top job for his former Obama administration pal and ex-Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, seen as a nonstarter for his role in covering up the police killing of Laquan McDonald.
But the real threat is that a Senate led by Mitch McConnell — if the GOP holds on to those two Georgia seats — will put Biden’s nominees, no matter how seemingly noncontroversial, through hell and likely block the confirmation of some, if not many. Just because there’s no obvious red flags with a Blinken or a Thomas-Greenfield doesn’t mean that a 2024-eyeballing Republican like Sen. Marco Rubio won’t blast them as people who “went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences (and) will be polite (and) orderly caretakers of America’s decline.”
In the coming weeks, Biden’s mimosa-powered suburban base may be shocked to learn the extent to which — for about 73 million angry Americans and their political avatars — an experienced resume means “deep state” or even “Satanist” to the QAnon crowd, respecting America’s longstanding alliances means “globalist” and Ivy League means “elitists” who’ll surely are looking down their noses at the hand-working “deplorables” who voted for Trump.
The 46th president is lobbing a hand grenade of boring competence into a political free-fire zone. Blinken, Mayorkas and Haines may be unknown, but we know that people like them have been the fuel for a global fire of right-wing populism that gave us four years of Trump — and is eager to spark again. There’s an underlying assumption in Biden’s strategy that a media that’s now over-caffeinated on conflict and a political right that can spin faux political outrage out of straw can somehow be lulled back into a pre-2015, or maybe pre-1985, state of calm. In the end, the “delightfully boring” Cabinet and White House staff of Joe Biden may not make much difference to a TV-reality-show-addled press and public that are mostly lying when they say they want to be bored.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Will Bunch is the national opinion columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer.
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