Biden and the Lost Art of Political Cabinetry

Photograph Source: thierry ehrmann – CC BY 2.0

The worst president in U.S. history and the worst Cabinet in U.S. history will soon be succeeded by Joe Biden and the promise of the best and most effective Cabinet in recent time.  Biden’s success will ultimately be determined by the political posture of Senator Mitch McConnell, but the initial appointments to his administration point to a strategy designed for political success.  The punditry class that dominates the mainstream media is wrong to suggest that his first nominees are insufficiently progressive or merely represent Obama 2.0.  Without exception, Biden has turned to individuals with the experience and expertise needed to rehabilitate a government that Donald Trump has severely ravaged.

At the top of the list are three individuals who are uniquely prepared to address serious problems for our governance: Janet Yellin, Alejandro Mayorkas, and John Kerry.  Yellin brings her much needed background in labor economics to a Department of the Treasury that has been weakened by Steven Manuchin and to a country that faces serious unemployment issues and rapidly expanding poverty.  Mayorkas brings his background in immigration policy to a Department of Homeland Security that has been compromised by a series of inept leaders, most of them in an “acting” capacity that has violated U.S. law.  Kerry, one of the most underrated politicians of our generation, brings a long-time concern for the climate challenge into a serious leadership position.  His diplomatic and political skills in negotiating the Iran nuclear accord will be put to good use in dealing with a challenge that the Pentagon has labeled our foremost security threat.

Biden’s nominees for secretary of state (Antony Blinken) and national security adviser (Jake Sullivan) have drawn the most criticism thus far, but the critics are missing a key point.  It is true that Blinken and Sullivan have been too supportive of U.S. military intervention in the Third World; Blinken was too enthusiastic about the Libyan operation.  Neither one is an out-of-the-box thinker on national security issues, but hopefully they will recognize the importance of such thinking in appointing assistant secretaries at the State Department or deputies at the National Security Council.

What is more important, and thus far unrecognized, is that over the past fifteen years, Biden has turned against the overwrought operational tempo of previous administrations.  Biden tried to dissuade Barack Obama from the Libyan nightmare; he tried to convince Obama that Afghanistan wasn’t the “good war”; and he warned Obama to be careful with the machinations of Secretary of Defense Bob Gates and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to maneuver against the president with a private and even public campaign to surge forces in Afghanistan.

Unlike Obama, Biden was well aware of the shortcomings of Bob Gates.  He voted against the confirmation of Gates as CIA director in 1991, and he took Gates to the woodshed in 1992 for withholding sensitive information from the Congress.  Biden was opposed to maintaining Gates at the Department of Defense, but Obama was intimidated by the military at the outset of his presidency and didn’t want to make waves at the Pentagon.  Gates’ harsh treatment of Biden in his memoir “Duty” can be attributed to this history.  Obama’s memoir, “The Promised Land,” which I will be reviewing next week, gives the benefit of the doubt to Gates and too many others.

Unlike Obama, and Bill Clinton for that matter, Biden’s experience in Washington has translated into a successful transition period, particularly the important formation of a Cabinet.  The awkward U.S. political system gives candidates for the presidency two years to campaign for the post, but only two months to form a government.  Clinton’s Cabinet was a particular failure, including Les Aspin at the Department of Defense, Warren Christopher at the Department of State, and Tony Lake at the National Security Council.  Obama, in addition to maintaining Gates at Defense, appointed a Marine general, Jack Jones, to be national security adviser, and placed a tired public servant, Leon Panetta, at the Central Intelligence Agency.  Panetta was essentially captured by the clandestine cadre who sold him on the virtues of covert action and convinced him to weaken the agency’s vital instrument for oversight, the Office of the Inspector General.

Unfortunately, Obama, a Harvard Law graduate and a professor of constitutional law, supported weakening the position of Inspector General throughout the government.  An IG at the Department of State, for example, may have convinced Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that creating her own server for official email wasn’t a good idea.  There’s a “What If?” that would have changed history.

The appointment power of the president is not only the first test of a new president’s political acumen, but it is one of the most powerful tools in the presidential arsenal.  President Ronald Reagan remarked that “personnel is policy,” and we have just witnessed a hopefully temporary “deconstruction of the administrative state” with Trump and his personnel attacking governance.  Virtually every department and agency of government has lost a good deal of its institutional memory and its ability to mentor the next generation of leaders because of Trump’s war on governance.  The Department of Justice and the intelligence community have been politicized; the regulatory agencies have been compromised; and the Departments of Education and Housing and Urban Development have been neutralized.  Biden’s half-century of experience allows him to place key individuals into essential positions to reverse the damage.

One final observation.  The fact that Biden hasn’t filled two key national security positions is particularly noteworthy.  Michele Flournoy was the consensus choice for secretary of defense, but it is possible that the critics of Flournoy (and I’m one of them) understand she is a conventional part of the military-industrial establishment and that there are better choices, such as Jeh Johnson.  Similarly, Mike Morell seemed to be the consensus choice for CIA director, but the critics of Morell (and I’m one of them) deplore his whitewashing of CIA’s torture and abuse policy.  Obama couldn’t appoint John Brennan, another agency apologist, as director for that reason in 2009, but Brennan managed to rehabilitate himself and unfortunately received the post in 2013. An agency outsider, such for former deputy secretary of state William Burns, would be an excellent choice.


Melvin A. Goodman is a senior fellow at the Center for International Policy and a professor of government at Johns Hopkins University.  A former CIA analyst, Goodman is the author of Failure of Intelligence: The Decline and Fall of the CIA and National Insecurity: The Cost of American Militarism. and A Whistleblower at the CIA. His most recent books are “American Carnage: The Wars of Donald Trump” (Opus Publishing, 2019) and “Containing the National Security State” (Opus Publishing, 2021). Goodman is the national security columnist for