As they declared victory, Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris noted that President-elect Joe Biden had the “audacity to choose a Black woman to be his running mate.” In the next few months, Biden may create even more firsts by nominating women, people of color and openly LGBTQ individuals to key positions in his Cabinet.
Biden will have to make his Cabinet decisions carefully to appeal to a divided Senate, as well as the moderate and liberal wings of the Democratic Party. And yet, he is also focused on building an administration that reflects the diversity of the country. These appointments are not only about political symbolism. Rather, a diverse Cabinet will provide Biden with better advice and encourage more Americans to feel invested in his presidency, just like diverse cabinets have served his predecessors well.
The cabinet is not in the Constitution, but President George Washington created the institution in November 1791 because he recognized that some issues were too big and complex to discuss with just one adviser. International crises, domestic rebellions and constitutional questions touched on issues in several departments, and Washington found it helpful to gather his department secretaries to debate and offer different opinions. From the very beginning, Washington depended on his secretaries to provide diverse perspectives — even if that meant disagreeing with him or one another.
Washington’s attitude toward the cabinet was a continuation of his vision for federal departments themselves. In 1789, he appointed Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, Henry Knox and Edmund Randolph to his administration. Though they were four White men, contemporaries viewed Washington’s appointments as diverse and representative of the citizenry.
Hamilton had made his home in New York City and cozied up to the merchant elite. He thought the federal government should invest in a strong military, industry and trade. Hamilton thought cities were the future of the nation and favored a close relationship with Great Britain, the U.S.’s largest trading partner.
Jefferson, by contrast, was born into a slave-owning, elite plantation family in Virginia. He believed the ideal citizen was a yeoman farmer and that cities were dens of sin, corruption and disease. An ardent Francophile, Jefferson preferred a close alliance with France and hated Britain.
Knox and Randolph are less well-known, but they also offered important perspectives. Knox was originally from Boston, but had claimed Maine as his home state and represented the newer Northern states, which often pursued a different agenda than the more-established Massachusetts or New York. Like Jefferson, Randolph was from Virginia, but he was one of the foremost legal minds in the nation and his expertise as the first attorney general was invaluable.
This diversity was essential because the nation was holding together by a thread. Most citizens felt strong state allegiances, but there was no sense of nationalism. Washington used his Cabinet and other federal appointments to build emotional ties between citizens and the new government. He knew that if people felt represented in the administration, they would be more likely to support it. Washington also wanted to serve all Americans — not just Virginians — and sought out different opinions accordingly.
Over the past 230 years, presidents have followed Washington’s lead, making increased diversity and representation of religions, backgrounds, genders and races a central part of the cabinet story, particularly after the passage of the 19th amendment, which granted suffrage to women, and civil rights legislation, which protected the rights of Americans of color. As the country gradually included women and Americans of different races and religions as full citizens, presidents sought to include those backgrounds in their cabinets.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt appointed Oscar Straus, the first Jewish cabinet official, as secretary of commerce. Frances Perkins, the first woman in a cabinet, served as secretary of labor under President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The Department of Housing and Urban Development has been led by both the first African American male and female secretaries. Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robert Weaver in 1966, and Jimmy Carter appointed Patricia Roberts Harris in 1977. In 1988, Ronald Reagan selected Lauro Cavazos as secretary of education and the first Hispanic cabinet secretary. Bill Clinton appointed Norman Mineta, the first Asian American cabinet official, as secretary of commerce in 2000.
Perkins’s tenure as secretary of labor demonstrated the value of diverse perspectives in the cabinet. One of only two secretaries to serve all four terms in Roosevelt’s Cabinet, Perkins was instrumental in the creation of many New Deal programs, as well as the establishment of unemployment benefits, pensions for elderly Americans and child labor laws.
Yet despite this demonstrated value, the process of inclusion has always taken time, as cabinet secretaries are usually at the top of their respective fields. It took decades for women and people of color to combat institutional prejudices and reach the leadership positions and experiences that would qualify them for cabinet nominations.
Further, even as the cabinet as a whole has reflected America’s increasing diversity over time, the big four cabinet departments, so-known because of their symbolic importance, institutional power, global reach and number of employees, have remained a bastion of White men. Though three women have been secretary of state in the past three decades, including one of color, and two women have been attorney general, again including one Black woman, neither the Treasury Department nor the Defense Department, which dates to 1947, or its predecessor, the War Department, have been led by anything other than White men.
The lack of female leadership in the Defense Department has largely been attributed to the small numbers of women in the officer corps (women couldn’t join the military as full members until 1948, when President Harry S. Truman signed the Women’s Armed Services Integration Act). The lack of diverse leadership at the Treasury Department is somewhat more perplexing.
Biden has the opportunity to change this pattern. According to Politico’s recent reporting on potential Cabinet candidates, all six individuals under consideration for treasury secretary — Lael Brainard, Sarah Bloom Raskin, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Roger Ferguson, Mellody Hobson and Raphael Bostic — are women or African American men. Two of three candidates for the Pentagon, Michele Flournoy and Sen. Tammy Duckworth, are also women. Even more so than at Treasury, a female secretary of defense would be a particularly powerful statement as the military faces increasing reports of sexual harassment and assault.
Duckworth is also being considered for the Department of Veterans Affairs, which dates to the creation of the Veterans Administration in 1930, with a cabinet-level secretary since 1989. But while the department’s leaders have been racially diverse, like the secretary of defense, there has never been a female at the helm of the department. Duckworth would also be the first secretary of any department with an amputation — a powerful symbolic choice for a department dedicated to caring for veterans and their families.
Two other reported possibilities for the department, Pete Buttigieg and Jason Kander, would be firsts of a different sort. Kander has spoken openly about his struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after serving as an Army intelligence officer in Afghanistan. He is one of the first politicians to publicly acknowledge his struggle with mental health and advocate for veterans with similar struggles. The military has reported that as many as 20 percent of veterans who served in the War on Terror suffer from PTSD, which would make Kander a potentially strong spokesperson for men and women who have served the nation.
Buttigieg is under consideration for several cabinet-level positions, and regardless of what position he receives, he would be the first Senate-confirmed, non-acting, openly-gay Cabinet official — an important milestone for the LGBTQ community.
History shows that these decisions are not just about optics. Presidents are better able to serve all citizens if a variety of American experiences are represented in the administration. No one person can speak for all walks of life, and presidents need to surround themselves with advisers who provide information and insights different than their own. Additionally, representation in the cabinet encourages Americans to feel invested in the administration and trust in the federal government. Biden is poised to continue this well-established tradition with glass ceiling-shattering nominations, and his Cabinet could help him unify the Democratic Party and the country under his presidency.