The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden is picking a Cabinet built for comfort. What he needs is vision.

Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III and President-elect Joe Biden during a news conference in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.
Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III and President-elect Joe Biden during a news conference in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
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The “comfort-level” Cabinet that President-elect Joe Biden is assembling has some obvious benefits, especially after four years of the petulance and backbiting that turned the White House into what one Trump chief of staff reportedly called “Crazytown.”

Yes, Biden needs to help the United States take a deep breath, without presidential appointees sniping at each other and jostling for position. He’s gathering a Cabinet that mirrors his own strengths — sane men and women, each one likable and competent. Like Biden, they can play the old tunes so well that maybe Americans will begin to forget what they’re so angry about.

But the virtues of calm and collegiality can be overstated. A team of elbows-in former colleagues and aides may end up looking more like a Senate staff than a dynamic Cabinet. Biden understandably doesn’t want a fractious “team of rivals,” as Doris Kearns Goodwin dubbed President Abraham Lincoln’s Cabinet. But he shouldn’t have a team of retreads, either.

Biden’s challenge is that after cooling the national fever, literally and figuratively, he needs to shake things up. The federal government is a mess. The distribution of economic rewards is so palpably unfair that it embarrasses even Wall Street tycoons. Military strategy and procurement need to be reinvented to cope with a rising China. The intelligence community, similarly, needs visionary leadership for the future, not just a repair job after the abusive Trump years.

Biden has appeared conflict-averse in his initial Cabinet picks. His primary metric, in addition to competence, seems to be his familiarity and personal ease with his appointees. That’s obviously true with his picks for secretary of state, defense and national security adviser — Antony Blinken, retired Army Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III and Jake Sullivan, respectively. They’ve all worked smoothly with Biden in the past.

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The comfort factor extends to keeping powerful interest groups happy, too. Biden’s commitment to assembling the most diverse Cabinet in U.S. history is unambiguously positive. But in terms of ideological diversity, it’s worrying that potential nominees who drew fire from the left, such as Michèle Flournoy for defense or Michael Morell at the CIA, seem to get bypassed in favor of blander, safer choices.

Leticia and her son crossed the Rio Grande seeking asylum from danger in Guatemala. Instead, they were torn apart by a policy designed to inflict trauma. (Video: Jeremy Raff, Connie Chavez/The Washington Post)

Biden should add intellectual firepower with some contrarians who’ll urge him to take risks. Professors, think-tank chiefs, top executives at our best technology and consulting companies who can help rethink policy toward Russia, China and other countries, perhaps as ambassadors. Bringing on such luminaries would accelerate Biden’s takeoff.

Biden tiptoed across the finish line, with a relatively low-energy, self-protective campaign and without bold plans about the future — other than the essentials of dumping President Trump and getting the pandemic under control. If he and his team are going to inspire enthusiasm for the future, we’ll need to see some boldness once the electoral college has voted Dec. 14 and this is truly a done deal.

Biden and his team should get the “vision thing” going in four areas that need drastic attention after the Trump years. The first is racial justice. The nation hit an inflection point this past summer after the killing of George Floyd. There’s a constituency for creative change — not anti-police but pro-community. As Lyndon B. Johnson told cautious advisers when he became president in 1963, “what the hell’s the presidency for,” if not to tackle big issues like this.

A second twin task is economic justice. The unfairness of how the United States distributes rewards is part of what got Trump elected and what many of his 74 million voters are so angry about. Every prominent business leader knows this needs to be fixed. To make real change, Biden will need the support of business leaders (yes!) who understand the urgent need for change: If Biden is so scared of offending progressives that he doesn’t build such alliances, shame on him.

The intelligence community is the third big challenge. Trump’s crazy talk of a “deep state” has been damaging, but the real problem is that digital technology is transforming every aspect of the spy business — collection, analysis, secret cover, reconnaissance and advance warning. The right leaders will break some crockery and offend colleagues as they update how things are done.

The final challenge is the Pentagon. The United States doesn’t have a clear strategy for dealing with China, and it doesn’t currently have the right weapons for the job. Preparing for this adversary means a rethink, top to bottom. It’s the biggest management and technology challenge the new administration faces. If Austin is the right person to lead this transformative effort, he needs to show it.

Biden has chosen a low-maintenance Cabinet. That’s sensible, up to a point. But as Biden might say: Folks, it’s not enough.

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