Biden’s mistakes in appointing cabinet and top officials suggest he will be a transitional President

No greater proof of Joe Biden’s poor judgment in naming cabinet and other top officials can be found than in his appointment of Susan E. Rice to head his Domestic Policy Council.

At times, Biden appears to be working from a list of friends and colleagues he is determined to name to top-level positions, before deciding where to place them. This is clearly the case with his nomination of Denis McDonough, a non-veteran, to head the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Obama’s Chief of Staff during his second term and having ably occupied national security positions before that, McDonough. is a highly qualified individual, and may turn out to be a successful Secretary of Veterans Affairs.  His primary qualification for that position, however, would appear to be that his office will be across the street from the White House.

Susan Rice’s appointment as Head of the Domestic Policy Council appears to be due to two factors. First, Biden has worked with her closely in the past, and seems to have a very close personal realtionship with her.

Second, she became the object of Republican anger and frustration over the Benghazi affaire, when the U.S. Ambassador was one of four Americans killed when Islamic militants overan the American consulate in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an act of great political cowardice, sent Susan Rice, then the U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., t o appear on all the Sunday talk shows following the incident. Rice  stumbled, defending talking points prepared by others that were disingenuous and obfuscatory.

So, the conventional wisdom in Washington became that she could never gain Senate confirmation for a cabinet position such as Secretary of State, for which she is extraordinarly well-qualified by experience, if not by temperament.

In the event, Biden chose Tony Blinken, his long-time national security adviser, to be Secretary of State. Blinken appears to be a superb appointment, though only time will tell if he is better than Susan Rice would have been.

How, then, could Biden name Rice to a top position that would allow him to collaborate with her on a daily basis?

The answer he came up with was to name her as head of the Domestic Policy Council.

This was a bad decision, for two reasons. First, Rice’s vast expertise is in foreign affairs, not domestic policy. Consequently, Biden appears to be wasting her talents.

Throwing Rice into the domestic policy arena could make sense if she had political ambitions. However, she has shown no inclination to run for public office in the past.  She is not a politician.  Still, the decision could make sense if Biden is trying to groom her for the Vice-Presidency, either in 2024 or 2028.

The second reason the selection of Rice was a bad decision is that it deprives the Council of Domestic Policy of the deep knowledge and experience a more logical candidate might have brought to the position.

The nomination of Lloyd Austin to be Secretary of Defense seems to have followed a related but different logic. In the case of Austin, Biden seems to have yielded to great pressure from black groups to name a black Secretary of Defense.  The search seems to have been: “I want to name a black. Who is the best black who I’ve worked with, like, and am comfortable with?”  The name of Lloyd Austin must have quickly risen to the top.

Women and many others were lobbying for Michele Fleurnoy, by all accounts a far more exprienced and qualified candidate. Her negatives: Not a Biden buddy, and someone who in the past had the strength and independence to oppose Biden in internal policy debates under Obama, on Libya and Syria in particular. The fact that she appears to have been right and Biden wrong in those policy debates apparently did not help her case.  Finally, she is a woman (a big deal at Defense), and white (potentially a big deal with black groups lobbying for a black).

See,

“How Biden and Democrats can lose the Georgia Senate run-off elections,” The Trenchant Observer, December 9, 2020.

There is, however, one possible consideration that could have weighed in Austin’s favor in Biden’s thinking. If Biden were concerned about the possibility of Trump’s involving the military in his attempted coup d’état, the choice of Austin would make eminent good sense.

Should Trump attempt to resort to the use of federal troops in his remaining days in office, an incoming Secretary of Defense of Austin’s stature, and even race, could stiffen the spines of any military officers and soldiers who might be ordered to take actions which violate the Constitution.

Aside from this consideration, Fleurnoy would appear to be by far the stronger candidate.

With these appointments, Biden increasingly appears to be a transitional candidate, who is not likely to run for re-election in 2024. He is gathering around himself a cabinet of people he knows and likes, and with whom he is comfortable. “A cabinet of buddies”, not a cabinet of rivals like the one Abraham Lincoln named.

See,

1) Michael D. Shear and Shane Goldmacher, “Team of Rivals? Biden’s Cabinet Looks More Like a Team of Buddies; In making his picks for the new administration, the president-elect has put a premium on personal relationships,” New York Times, December 9, 2020.

2) David Ignatius, “Biden is picking a Cabinet built for comfort. What he needs is vision,” Washington Post, December 10, 2020

The risks of “groupthink” are so obvious that they hardly need to be mentioned. See the classic work,

Irving Janis, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes (2nd Edition, 1982).

By his appointments, Biden is revealing himself to be a transitional President. He wants, and perhaps needs, a trusted coterie of advisers to help him steer his way through the next four years.

By proceeding with these appointments, despite strong criticisms and even the potential negative impacts on the Georgia Senate run-off elections, he is showing himself to be what he promised: steady, consistent, not particularly nimble on his feet, and loyal to his principal supporters.

In a transitional administration, that may be enough.

The Trenchant Observer

About the Author

The Observer
"The Trenchant Observer" is edited and published by The Observer, an international lawyer who has taught International Law, Human Rights, and Comparative Law at major U.S. universities, including Harvard, Brandeis, the University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Kansas. He is a former staff attorney at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights of the Organization of American States (IACHR), where he was in charge of Brazil, Haiti, Mexico and the United States, and also worked on complaints from and reports on other countries including Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala. As an international development expert, he has worked on Rule of Law, Human Rights, and Judicial Reform in a number of countries in Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, South Asia, and the Russian Federation. In the private sector, The Observer has worked as an international attorney for a leading national law firm and major global companies, on joint ventures and other matters in a number of countries in Europe (including Russia and the Ukraine), throughout Latin America and the Caribbean, and in Australia, Indonesia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The Trenchant Observer blog provides an unfiltered international perspective for news and opinion on current events, in their historical context, drawing on a daily review of leading German, French, Spanish and English newspapers as well as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and other American newspapers, and on sources in other countries relevant to issues being analyzed. The Observer speaks fluent English, French, German, Portuguese and Spanish, and also knows other languages. He holds an S.J.D. or Doctor of Juridical Science in International Law from Harvard University, and a Doctor of Law (J.D.) and a Master of the Science of Law (J.S.M.), from Stanford University. As an undergraduate, he received a Bachelor of Arts degree, also from Stanford, where he graduated “With Great Distinction” (summa cum laude) and received the James Birdsall Weter Prize for the best Senior Honors Thesis in History. In addition to having taught as a Lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, The Observer has been a Visiting Scholar at Harvard University's Center for International Affairs (CFIA). His fellowships include a Stanford Postdoctoral Fellowship in Law and Development, the Rómulo Gallegos Fellowship in International Human Rights awarded by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and a Harvard MacArthur Fellowship in International Peace and Security. Beyond his articles in The Trenchant Observer, he is the author of two books and numerous scholarly articles on subjects of international and comparative law. Currently he is working on a manuscript drawing on the best articles that have appeared in the blog.

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