Biden’s top team takes shape. Diversity is required in principle though not always in practice.

2 Dec

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Where were you at the precise moment when Joe Biden was announced as the President-elect of the United States?

Flashbulb memories, a phrase coined by Brown and Kulik in 1977, are moments defined as if people had taken a photograph of themselves while learning of a public, emotionally charged event. The long delay prior to the first news network’s projection of Biden’s victory meant that any sense of sudden excitement had somewhat dissipated.

Days of staring at ‘Election Update’ beaming across the screen on CNN had become numbing. We were all waiting for Wolf Blitzer to put us out of our misery. The lack of one single election authority in the United States complicated matters further. Similarly, the knowledge that, if he were declared the runner up, Donald Trump would refuse to accept the result.

The delay and subsequent litigation meant tht the ‘moment’ Joe Biden was announced as president-elect was hardly momentous at all. Trump eventually tweeted through gritted teeth that he had instructed the General Services Administration to begin the customary transition process. The Biden/Harris transition website went from buildbackbetter.com to buildbackbetter.gov. Neither were exactly flashbulb memories. The change happened not with a bang, but a whimper.

Trump clings on, but not for long

Trump is not going down without a fight. The president’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, has resorted to claims of voter fraud entirely bereft of legal substance or evidence.

An electoral overturn was always borderline impossible given the magnitude of the president’s defeat in the swing states he required to retain the White House. Watching Giuliani peddle the President’s latest conspiracy theories, it is easy to forget that the man was formerly such an immense political figure first in New York and then around the world that he was given an honorary knighthood by the Queen. First as tragedy, then as farce.

A top team that holds up a mirror to modern America

Meanwhile, as the Trump show prepares to pack its bags and leave town, Biden has been quietly preparing for office. It has become clear that two guiding principles are motivating his choices: experience and diversity.

The President-elect has announced a list of senior appointmeints to the White House and prospective Cabinet nominees, the latter requiring Senate confirmation. Cognisant of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the fact that he hardly embodies diversity or youth himself, Biden has consistently expressed the need to build a team that reflected modern America in its range of background.

Glass ceilings are being broken, subject to Congressional approval. Janet Yellen would become the first female Treasury Secretary in its 231-year history. Those who refer to her gender as the primary motivation for her appointment overlook the fact that she could become the first person to have served as Treasury Secretary, Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors, and Chair of the Federal Reserve.

On the world stage, President-elect Biden’s primary motivation will be to announce that America is back – to leading from the front and bringing allies with her. He will not be able to shed the skin of Trump’s ‘America First’ mantra entirely – the Rust Belt has been scarred by a skills deficit and the offshoring of jobs for decades, culminating in  Trump’s victory in 2016 and an aggressively hawkish national stance towards China ever since.

But on the world stage, Biden has entrusted Anthony Blinken as prospective Secretary of State to take America back to the epicentre of global affairs and international cooperation. As Deputy Secretary of State under Barack Obama, Blinken helped with the rebalance to Asia. He spent his most formative years as a student in Paris and speaks fluent French. In 2019, he said in relation to Brexit: “This is not just the dog that caught the car, this is the dog that caught the car and the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog.”

Whilst Dominic Raab has his work cut out, commentators are too quick to dismiss the UK-US relationship purely on the anecdotal grounds of one personal view on Brexit. Assuming a deal is done between the UK and EU, the decision taken in 2016 will become an afterthought in American minds.

It is only if no deal is reached and the knock-on effects are seen adversely to impact the Good Friday Agreement and peace process that Blinken’s forethoughts become relevant. Brexit aside, the incoming administration has plenty to agree with Downing Street on – namely, promoting democracy around the world, combatting the rise of China and misinformation spread by Russia, and using diplomacy once again to cool Iranian nuclear ambitions.

In John Kerry, the former Secretary of State, the Biden White House will benefit from one of the foremost global leaders on climate change. Climate science will once again be trusted and not contested in the White House.  Biden and Kerry will look to old allies like the UK to pursue equally radical climate ambitions, addressing climate change with the required level of urgency. COP26 in Glasgow provides the perfect platform to push for global change.

In the White House, Biden will be advised by experienced heads whom he has trusted for decades. It is here where experience seems to have trumped diversity. Ron Klain served as Joe Biden’s Chief of Staff from 2009-11 and will perform the same role again. He also worked as an advisor on Biden’s 1988 and 2008 Presidential campaigns; his experience is undeniable.

The fringes of the Oval Office will be dominated by Steve Ricchetti (Counselor to the President) and Mike Donilon (Senior Advisor to the President). The President-elect’s closest circle of advisers certainly fail to fulfil his ambitions of diversity and representation. Instead, their selection looks to be based on trust and experience.

Ironically, it is the British system of Cabinet appointments which is positively presidential. The Commons or Lords have no say over whom the Prime Minister ascends to the Cabinet table. President-elect Biden has made his Cabinet picks with the Senate majority leader and Republicans in mind, who will inevitably select and handful of nominees to oppose.

Republicans might have lost the White House, but their supporters will thrive off a fight in the Senate. That would limit the President-elect’s ambitions and ability to surround himself with the voices and views he desires to deliver the change his campaign promised. As in so many years previous, huge power huge power lies in the hands of Senator Mitch McConnell.