Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Biden’s cabinet has class at top, hacks below


Pittsburgh Post-Gazette



What we will get with Joseph R. Biden, in the way of an actual government, will be a great relief and reassurance to many and a cause of eye rolls for a few.

He is a professional at politics and government, which is welcome at this moment, but has its drawbacks, too.

His Cabinet picks, thus far, are professional like him — classy and able, at least in the top jobs.

Antony Blinken will come to the State Department as a known and respected quantity. He has a long and distinguished resume in diplomacy and national security. And he can rebuild a decimated department and quickly repair relationships with allies.

Gen. Lloyd Austin will bring knowledge, dignity and toughness to Defense — another department essential to the security of the nation and another department that needs to be rebuilt.

Janet Yellen is probably the best-qualified person in the nation to run Treasury and reassure markets, having been head of the president’s Council of Economic Advisers and head of the Federal Reserve.

Making Denis McDonough, a former White House chief of staff, the head of Veterans Affairs is actually creative. This is another deeply troubled and currently way too unhelpful and dysfunctional federal behemoth that could stand some management.

Other appointments seem both strange and cynical. What in the world qualifies Pete Buttigieg to run the Department of Transportation? (And if he thinks the job will help propel him to the White House, he’s on a magic carpet ride.)

Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, has no notable expertise in energy and, based on her performance as governor, is not likely to be a good manager at the Department of Energy. She is an uber-partisan, a hack’s hack.

Why bring Susan Rice back to government except to find a place for a loyalist? And why make her head of the Domestic Policy Council, when she has worked almost entirely in foreign policy, except that the Domestic Policy Council does not matter?

And how will her shrillness and air of superiority play in Peoria, Illinois; Lima, Ohio; or Washington, Pennsylvania?

Where Biden clearly does think the job matters and he is especially engaged — foreign and military policy, jobs, trade and the economy — the effort has clearly been to find the very best.

The second-tier jobs, on the other hand, seem to be seen as places to exhibit “diversity” or to pay back someone or some bloc.

And that is unfortunate, because the labor secretary, for example, can really make a difference. President Gerald Ford briefly had an excellent secretary of labor — John Dunlop. He was a Harvard professor and the nation’s leading expert on labor negotiations since Franklin Roosevelt. He lasted less than a year, picked off by the right. FDR had the all-time best secretary of labor — Frances Perkins. She served 12 years.

One person whom one would think Biden owes is Bernie Sanders, who is tired of the Senate and wants to be secretary of labor. But the man who promised a “revolution” can’t get a parking ticket from the Biden transition team.

Most members of Congress make terrible Cabinet members. They have never run anything but their mouths. But Sanders ran a city — Burlington, Vermont — and did it well. Moreover, he opposed NAFTA and “free trade,” which ought to be a requirement for a new Democratic labor secretary.

The same pattern is evident in the new president’s appointments at the EPA and the Department of Interior, which, in the long run, matters more than Treasury. Michael Regan is not only superb on environmental issues, he has worked for the federal EPA and run the North Carolina EPA. He is highly qualified. Deb Haaland, the choice for Interior, is qualified only in terms of poetic justice. Interior was the mechanism for oppression of Native Americans for years and years, and she is a Native American. But she is a one-term congresswoman who was a Democratic state party chair in New Mexico. She is not well-qualified, whereas Sen. Tom Udall, who was runner-up for the job, has been working to preserve the West and the national parks for over 20 years in Congress.

Biden should name some Republican to the Cabinet. How about Pat Toomey for Commerce or Small Business?

Biden has gone with people he knows, and aimed for competence and a renewal of established norms.

No one can argue with competence. And it is great that he knows how government works and looks and acts like a head of government. Biden knows where the levers of power and interest and (likely) dead weight are.

But Biden also needs some fresh blood and fresh thinking somewhere in the administration. Places like Labor, Commerce and Interior might be good places to start.

Things were not all perfect in Obamaworld. The entire administration, from the president on down, was too concerned with appearance, posture and legacy, and sometimes paralyzed by these concerns.

Not all the old norms are so good. That’s how we got Donald Trump.

And retreads are not always the answer. Sometimes you have to buy new tires.

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