Joe Biden: Domestic Affairs
President Joe Biden came into office with two clear priorities—getting control over the coronavirus pandemic, which had killed more than 400,000 Americans by the time he took office, and restoring the US economy. Before he took office, the new president sent a clear signal that after four years of inexperienced leadership at many levels of government, it was time to build a mature team ready to take on the massive challenges facing the country. His cabinet and staffing choices also reflected Biden’s pledge to put together the most diverse cabinet in history. Biden encountered some criticism for recycling some officials who served under Barack Obama and for putting together a team whose primary policy ambitions appear aimed at tackling the twin pandemic and economic crises confronting America at the expense of pursuing the broad change that progressives desire.
Among Biden’s picks, the most senior is Janet Yellen, who at 74 will assume the role of Treasury secretary, the first women to lead the department. She served as chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018. As head of Treasury, she was immersed in politics in a way she never was at the Federal Reserve as she needed to work with Congress on stimulus efforts to ease the economic hardship from the pandemic.
The new secretary of Health and Human Services, Xavier Becerra, had the coronavirus pandemic as his chief focus. Under Biden, and Becerra, the first Latino to head HHS, the administration took a more aggressive approach than the Trump administration in combating the Covid-19 crisis. HHS encompasses a wide range of agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, and Food and Drug Administration, that are core to bringing the pandemic under control. Becerra also likely proved a valuable adviser to Biden in his bid to strengthen the Affordable Care Act after Trump repeatedly sought to undermine it. As attorney general of California, Becerra led a multi-state effort to preserve the ACA.
Biden said he was committed to building an administration, including his cabinet, that “is going to look like the country.” Several other cabinet members he has selected, in addition to Yellen and Becerra, broaden the diversity of Biden’s domestic policy team. Deb Haaland, named secretary of the Interior Department, was the first Native American person to serve in a cabinet position. A New Mexico representative, Haaland was a win for progressives who had lobbied for a Native American at the head of Interior. Her appointment signaled a change in the government’s long and often tragic relationship with the country’s indigenous population.
Biden also chose Michael S. Regan, who runs the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality, to be the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, and Brenda Mallory, a veteran of environmental law and regulation, to lead the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality. Both Regan and Mallory, who are Black, had personal and professional understanding of the adverse impact environmental practices and policies have on low-income and minority communities.
The Obama era resurfaces in several of Biden’s selections. Tom Vilsack, named secretary of the Department of Agriculture, served two terms in the same position under President Obama. Denis McDonough, whom Biden chose for secretary of Veteran Affairs, was Obama’s chief of staff for four years as well as serving as his principal deputy national security adviser. Biden also recruited another name from the Obama administration—Merrick Garland—although he did not actually serve in it. In 2016, President Obama nominated Judge Garland to a seat on the Supreme Court, but Mitch McConnell, Senate Majority Leader, refused to consider his nomination. Biden named Garland to be Attorney General and run the Department of Justice.
In another nod to diversity, Biden selected Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, and a presidential candidate in 2020, as secretary of the Department of Transportation. If confirmed, Buttigieg would be the first openly gay person in US history to have a seat at the table when President Biden’s cabinet convenes.