Biden’s Cabinet Selections: What’s at Stake?


Marc Pilisuk - TRANSCEND Media Service

17 Dec 2020 – Many of the democratic voters who helped sweep Biden into office are concerned with what will happen during his tenure. The concerns break down into whether Biden who has long been a player in policies that have contributed to inequality, favored a corporate and banking sector and engaged in costly militarism will be significantly changed. It is possible that the Biden appointees, and Biden himself will recognize that the past accommodations to neoliberalism have failed in their goals of improving human well being. It is possible also that they will recognize that widespread public belief in government ability to handle such problems leads many people open to the blaming and excesses of a Trump administration. Appealing as the stability of sane and experienced administration may be, if it fails to address the disillusionment that led to Trump, it will be short lived.

In examining several of Biden’s picks, it is important to view their past records as potential predictors of what they will do, but not as absolute indicators for times are different and some may change. They are easily rated on competence and experience. But how do they rate in the vision needed to transform a culture of death and despair to a culture of life?

Michelle Flournoy was dropped from consideration for Secretary of Defense amidst claims that she had been a strong supporter of the Iraq war, occupied positions with key defense contractors and favored an unduly provocative stance toward China.   Lloyd Austin, was then named as the Secretary of Defense.

Austin is a retired Army general and the former commander of the US Central Command. His appointment would require a waiver in eligibility standards specifying that the position be held by a civilian or a military person having been retired for a longer period of time. Austin also has ties with military contractors such as Raytheon. The two candidates reflect a general theme in Biden appointments, ie, they should seek people with expert knowledge and favor appointments of women and people of color. This is welcome but insufficient for constituencies calling for major change. While the president-elect has vowed to suspend arms sales to Saudi Arabia and end U.S. support for the kingdom’s catastrophic assault on Yemen, the person Biden has reportedly picked to lead the Department of Defense is on the board of Raytheon, a key sup­pli­er of bombs to the U.S.-Saudi war in Yemen that has lob­bied aggressively in opposition to curbs on arms sales to the Sau­di-led coali­tion. What a change oriented public would like to see are appointments who not only look like them but who are able to shape policies in dramatically different ways from those that lead to the American decline.

Biden nominee, Anthony Blinken, for Secretary of State is similarly problematic. Blinken is associated with the Ridgeline Partners Fund.  Ridgeline Partners, was co-founded by Tony Blinken’s WestExec and “provides strategic insight on U.S. and allied national security capability needs and emerging opportunities.”  A business advisory firm, co-founded by Joe Biden’s pick to run the State Department has ties to a little known venture capital fund. The companies listed on the Ridgeline website include data and tech start-ups that have seen government contracts, including deals with the Department of Defense. This background is in keeping with changes in war evolving into more data driven efforts to reveal capacities of potential adversaries and conducted with greater concealment. Blinken’s selection follows the requisite of technical and managerial expertise. The same advantages would describe Avril Haines, nominated as Director of National Intelligence.

Haines previously served as the deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency. Haines was also legal adviser to the NSC. She served as deputy chief counsel to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee while Biden served as chairman.

Alejandro Mayorkas was selected as Secretary of Homeland Security. He was deputy secretary of Homeland Security during the Obama administration, and served as the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s United States Citizenship and Immigration Services. While Trump’s use of the Department of Homeland Security was particularly destructive with regard to immigrants and refugees seeking asylum, the programs during the Obama administration were also sufficient to label him “Deporter in Chief”. The appointment of Mayorkas does not suggest a dramatic change in policy.

Katherine Tai, was named US Trade Representative. She is seen as an expert on China trade policy a matter of critical significance. The US is seriously indebted to Chinese Banking interests. The competition between China and the US as empires aggrandizing spheres of influence has implications for policy involving North Korea and for larger issues of how the most powerful nations can establish cooperation in dealing with global inequality.

Linda Thomas-Greenfield, selected as US ambassador to the United Nations is likely to restore a respected role for the United States in areas of humanitarian aid and economic assistance.

Thomas-Greenfield served as the assistant secretary for the Bureau of African Affairs from 2013 to 2017. And has an interest in African economic policy and development. Neither Tai nor Thomas Greenfield have been visible advocates for adherence to international law, so needed in the protection of human rights.

In appointments dealing with domestic issues and with health and human services, Biden follows the plan of favoring women and non-white candidates. To a large extent they include people with whom he has worked during the Obama administration.

Marcia Fudge, is the nominee for Secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Prior to running for Congress, Fudge made history as the first woman and first African American to be elected mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio. She served as mayor from 2000 to 2008. She has also chaired the Congressional Black Caucus.

Xavier Becerra has been named for secretary of health and human services. He currently serves as California’s attorney general, and is the first Latino to hold that office in the history of the state. Becerra served 12 terms as a member of the US House of Representatives and held several leadership posts. He was the chair of the House Democratic Caucus, the chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and the ranking member of the Ways and Means Subcommittee on Social Security. He was also the first Latino to serve as a member of the Ways and Means Committee. His background does not include training as a health professional. However,  he has been outspoken about providing healthcare and humanitarian treatment for undocumented immigrants and could become a force for universal public healthcare.

Vivek Murthy, has been chosen for US Surgeon General. As surgeon general under Obama, Murthy helped lead the national response to the Ebola and Zika viruses and the opioid crisis, among other health challenges. Murthy will undoubtedly work well with scientists from the Center for Disease Control and could be an advocate for greater Public Health expenditures related to prevention of serious illnesses. We have no indication yet as to whether Murphy might venture into the next step of inviting international cooperation necessary for the prevention of new viral infections reaching human communities. That would involve more dramatic environmental action against those commercial practices that are driving people from their traditional villages into forest areas where new viruses develop among other species.

Neera Tanden, was nominated for Director of the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden is the CEO and president of the progressive Center for American Progress and is the CEO of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. How seriously her efforts will benefit conditions of ordinary working people when conflicting with the demands of corporate trade associations is yet to be seen. The same maybe said about Janet Yellen appointed for Treasury Secretary.

Yellen already made history as the first woman to have chaired the Federal Reserve, serving from 2014 to 2018. She previously served for four years as the vice chair of the board, and president and chief executive officer of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco.  Yellen is likely to support fiscal policies that would favor development of infrastructure. However, whether she could become an advocate for control over excessive risk taken on by Banks or for banking reform is not known.

Tom Vilsack, the Agriculture Secretary pick. become the president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council (USDEC)

Reaction to Vilsack’s nomination from agricultural groups was largely positive and included endorsements from the Corn Refiners Association, the National Grain and Feed Association, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation, and the Environmental Defense Fund. Vilsack was the founder and former chair of the Governor’s Biotechnology Partnership, and was named Governor of the Year by the Biotechnology Industry Organization, an industry lobbying group.

          In March 2012, Vilsack joined three Midwest governors in a campaign to defend the use of a processed beef product made from trimmings left after beef carcasses are butchered, (dubbed “pink slime” by its critics). He said that “it’s safe, it contains less fat and historically it’s been less expensive” and that it should be available to consumers and school districts that want to buy it.

          At a Drake University forum on climate change in April, 2014 Vilsack stated “agriculture tends to take the brunt of criticism about climate change, but the industry contributes only 9 percent of the greenhouse gases blamed for a warming planet” and that while there were “challenges globally in terms of agriculture and its contribution to greenhouse gas emissions that’s not necessarily the case in the United States. In sum, Vilsack appears to be a well informed promoter of agricultural innovations that may be somewhat kinder to agricultural workers and to the environment but not a visionary leader in the paths needed to change the major control by agribusiness which prevents the restoration of small local farms providing more pesticide free and healthier produce.

The value of removing the chaos of the Trump era is visible in the appointees. But those progressive forces calling for change take a systems view noting the inter-relatedness of societal problems and the cumulative consequences of social decline. We are a society beset by anxiety and grief. Mental health services are over-flooded. Farm suicides and suicides among youngsters are high. Credit card and student loan debt reduce hope. Hospitals are often desperate in trying to accommodate the Covid 19 load. The rules of the market do not assure people with housing or even with sufficient food. Weather disasters such as  floods, fires hurricanes and drought have grown more intense and the massive effort needed to address climate change, the culprit of these destructive events, is barely addressed. And in every case the burden falls most heavily upon people of color and the poor. Amidst such suffering the wealthiest continue to increase their share of wealth and resources and their control over tax laws has made most of this legal. Clearly the cures needed in an unfair and failing system require major a vision by which humans can place greater value on sharing than on individual acquisition. Growth based upon increasing species destruction and devastation of nature will hasten ruin of our only planet. The old mindsets that promised security from evil enemies by the capacities for overwhelming military force have failed in Korea, VietNam, Central America, Afghanistan and Iraq. 800,000 people, mostly civilians have been killed by US involved wars since Afghanistan. We need to end wars and proxy wars in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria and elsewhere

Will the Biden team, however well meaning and however well informed, deliver a world which prioritizes decent lives for its people? Concretely, will it find the money to rebuild a sustainable society by taxing excessive fortunes and controlling reckless development? Will it go where discretionary money is now bound up by ending and converting the excessive preparation for war? Will it put an end to the expansion of the entire nuclear weapons complex at a cost of close to two trillion dollars over the next three decades?

A new nuclear arms race with Russia and China is already underway. Immediate needs are to extend the new Start Treaty and to review the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Initiatives to abolish nuclear weapons and support a no first use agreement are imperative. We need to officially end the Korean War and assist North Korean and South Korean negotiations. A policy led by a vision of a life honoring priority needs to eliminate contracts for costly and unnecessary weapons . A first step is to end US support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen. “The worst humanitarian crisis in the world. To honor priorities favoring human life we need to end boycotts where the primary victims are innocent people. This would be especially true for Venezuela, North Korea and Iran.

With temperatures rising and Arctic ice disappearing we most hold all corporations and government agencies, including the US military, to strict standards on carbon emissions. Weaning the planet from fossil fuels can be seen as a matter of creating new jobs and new contracts. That is what the Green New Deal proposes and its major propositions enjoy popular support.

Pentagon spending and cutbacks in corporate taxes have created an austerity for people seeking food, housing education and an environment less likely to cause climate catastrophes of fire, flooding, hurricanes and drought. A enlightened leadership would redefine national security as a practice of protecting people against the COVID 19 and other predictable virus infections as well as the victims of austerity.

Use both pressure and persuasion to reclaim resources from national defense and taxes sheltered by the wealthy. Transfer of such funds can translate the tenets of a Green New Deal into concrete plans for new projects essential to providing alternative energy and universal protection of public amenities. Workers and managers at all levels who now cling to jobs traceable to departments of defense funding need to see security and promise in green alternatives. The domination of students and consumers by debt should be replaced by investments in local community building and in small businesses and worker cooperatives.

It would be wonderful if the presidential appointments reflected a stronger representation of those who most clearly see the need to change in a system that has been failing them. Unfortunately that system is real and entrenched. Biden’s cabinet choices reflect the grip of an old way of thinking ie, the world is a place for competitive aggrandizement and that the earth will be able to support our lives without international efforts to preserve it. That message limits the choice of advisors Biden selects. They are fortunately not a group of anti-factual zealots. As Biden himself has moved responding to the pressures of climate and racial justice realists, so must his appointees be pushed toward doing more than trying to regain tranquility while covering failures of the system. It is up to the public to see that those in power move toward a just and sustainable society regardless of which picks Biden chooses for his Cabinet.


Marc Pilisuk, Ph.D. is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment, professor emeritus at the University of California Davis, and a faculty at Saybrook University, Berkeley, California. He is the author of 10 books and more than 140 articles over an academic career spanning five decades including a 3-volume anthology, Peace Movements Worldwide, with Michael Nagler (Eds) Santa Barbara, 2011; and The Hidden Structure of Violence: Who Benefits from Global Violence and War, with Jennifer Achord Rountree, 2015. He was a founding member of the first Teach-In, The Society Against Nuclear Explosions, and The Psychologists for Social Responsibility and a past president of the Society for the Study of Peace, Conflict and Violence. Among his recognitions is the Howard Zinn Award from the Peace and Justice Studies Association. Email:

The author thanks Alisha Lucero and Salvador Cumigad for assistance in preparing this article.

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This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 21 Dec 2020.

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