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Essential Politics: Biden stocks his Cabinet with old favorites

President-elect Joe Biden removes his face mask as he arrives to introduce his nominees
President-elect Joe Biden removes his face mask before introducing his nominees and appointees to key national security and foreign policy posts Tuesday in Wilmington, Del.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

It has been quite a week for President-elect Joe Biden, and it’s only Wednesday.

On Monday, the General Services Administration began formal transition procedures, ending a weeks-long stalemate.

But perhaps the biggest news came yesterday. Biden unveiled a series of nominations to fill Cabinet and national security positions. It was a glimpse into how he will run the executive branch and a key step forward for his new administration.

So far, his picks suggest he is aiming to fulfill two of his major campaign promises — to craft a diverse administration and to pick pragmatic leaders who are ready to govern — while threading political needles unique to 2020.

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As Melanie Mason wrote, his victory was made possible by an especially diverse group of voting blocs, so he cannot renege on his campaign promise to appoint people of color and women to top jobs. He faces tensions in his own party — progressives are demanding Cabinet nominees without corporate ties, while moderate Democrats are resisting a leftward pull, Evan Halper and Janet Hook report.

His choices must be confirmed by a Senate without a clear majority. Even if Democrats win two Senate seats in Georgia in a Jan. 5 runoff and eke out control of the chamber, Biden will have little room for error. His picks, so far, suggest he is keenly aware that Sen. Mitch McConnell could easily retain his position as majority leader. The Kentucky lawmaker is, too: He has threatened to block nominees deemed too liberal.

Topping off the challenges, Biden must shake off any assumptions that he’s running a caretaker government until a younger Democratic leader comes along, Eli Stokols writes.

So far, Biden has worked around these tensions by selecting a historically diverse set of nominees who have long resumes of “pragmatic” government service and little, if any, political scandal, as Halper, Don Lee and Tracy Wilkinson write.

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Programming note: This newsletter will be off the rest of the week. Look for the next edition in your inbox on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

Biden’s picks so far

Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas
Mayorkas is a Cuban American and former federal prosecutor in California. He would be the first Latino and first immigrant to serve in the role. But his experience might also make him one of Biden’s most controversial picks. Molly O’Toole writes that Mayorkas was a primary architect of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a primary negotiator of the thaw in then-frozen U.S.-Cuban relations, which have become major political targets for Republicans.

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Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
Blinken is a veteran diplomat and former senior official at the State Department and National Security Council. He advised Biden during his presidential campaigns. The combination of Blinken’s reputation and experience make him an uncontroversial pick, Hook and Wilkinson write.

U.S. ambassador to the United Nations: Linda Thomas-Greenfield
Thomas-Greenfield was the highest-ranking Black diplomat at State when she was fired in 2017. A former U.S. ambassador to Liberia, she was assistant secretary of State for African affairs under Obama. She’s leading Biden’s State Department transition team.

Director of national intelligence: Avril Haines
Another female first, Haines is Biden’s choice for top spy. She has served as top deputy to both CIA and National Security Agency commanders. She has kept her political views private, supporting Trump’s controversial nomination of Gina Haspel to lead the CIA while advising Biden.

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Secretary of the Treasury: Janet Yellen
News organizations reported that Biden had settled on Yellen to lead the Treasury Department. Though the Biden campaign has yet to confirm reports, the news was met with positive response from investors. Yellen is a seasoned banker, former Federal Reserve Chair and another uncontroversial pick. She’s not so progressive as to scare Wall Street but is not so tied to big banks as to upset progressives. She also has previous experience guiding the country through economic uncertainty during a critical period of recovery from the Great Recession of 2007-09.

Anyone else who doesn’t need to be confirmed?
John Kerry was named special envoy for climate on the National Security Council, and Jake Sullivan was tapped to be national security advisor. Biden has also announced the filling of several senior White House positions. His chief of staff will be Ron Klain, a longtime confidant and Washington insider.

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The view from Washington

— What steps might Biden take next? Brian Contreras covers how Biden will approach governing in several key policy areas, including the pandemic, the environment and healthcare.

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— Trump is doing his worst to kneecap Biden before he takes office on everything from industry regulation to foreign policy, columnist Doyle McManus writes. He should take a page from the end of George W. Bush’s presidency instead.

— Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California said Monday she will not pursue leadership of the high-profile Senate Judiciary Committee or any other committee next year, Jennifer Haberkorn writes. It’s a dramatic step back following pressure from progressives who questioned her willingness to engage in tough, partisan politics.

— Nevada and Pennsylvania locked in their electoral votes for Biden, following similar decisions in Michigan and Georgia. The certifications effectively end the Trump campaign’s efforts to change the tallies. As Noah Bierman writes, it’s all over but the tweeting for Trump.

— Washington’s Archbishop Wilton Gregory has taken courageous stands to end clergy sexual abuse, become outspoken on race and stood up to Trump, writes Tracy Wilkinson. This weekend, Pope Francis will elevate him to cardinal, making him the first Black American to hold the Catholic Church’s highest rank and part of an elite group that has the final say on doctrine.

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The view from California

— Why did California’s affirmative action ballot measure fail? David Lauter writes that a new survey finds a disconnect between liberal leaders and the constituents they represent.

— With coronavirus cases surging to unprecedented levels in California, state and local officials are rapidly adding new restrictions in hopes of slowing the infection rate. The new measures are being met with pushback and skepticism, writes Rong-Gong Lin II. Without clear improvement, jurisdictions like Los Angeles County are considering a new stay-at-home order.

— A judge ruled that state officials improperly allowed hundreds of billboards advertising cannabis products along California highways, even though such advertising was banned under the 2016 initiative legalizing the sale of pot for recreational use, Patrick McGreevy reports.

— The new Supreme Court is sending surprisingly centrist signals, writes UC Davis law professor Aaron Tang, a former law clerk to Justice Sonia Sotomayor. In oral arguments, the court’s conservative justices have revealed a desire to find compromises that could satisfy both sides of the partisan divide, Tang says.

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