As Biden hopscotches around the country in the campaign’s final weekend, his allies are jockeying over Cabinet appointments, ambassadorships and other plum positions, while Biden’s advisers have quietly begun mapping out an administration, according to people familiar with the activities.
That’s igniting tensions among various factions, tensions that are poised to erupt into ferocious fights should Biden win, because the appointments would dictate the direction and shape of a Biden presidency. Liberals, who are demanding rewards after muting their criticism of Biden’s centrism during the campaign, are scrutinizing the records of more moderate potential picks in hopes of derailing them, while longtime Biden allies are looking for work.
“There are a lot of mouths to feed,” said one person familiar with the dynamic, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to comment frankly. “Finding space for them will be a challenge.”
The stakes are higher than usual. Biden’s appointees, if he wins, will determine the United States’ response to the Trump era — whether it is a return to traditional centrism or a plunge into liberal activism. And they will be tasked with repairing what Democrats see as the severe damage of the Trump White House, as many federal agencies have departed from long-held practices and norms.
“In their early announcements, they’re going to set tones and demonstrate the commitment to the diversity that he cares about — and the priorities that he cares about,” said Hilary Rosen, a Democratic consultant and a close ally of the Biden team. Rosen said Biden’s aides have “cast a very wide net.”
But don’t expect bomb-throwers, she said. “He is not somebody who is coming in to disrupt Washington. He’s coming in to heal Washington,” Rosen added.
This article is based on interviews with 22 Democratic aides, strategists and advisers to Biden’s campaign, as well as outside allies with knowledge of the process, many of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to share private deliberations that could distract from the campaign’s final push. They stressed that final decisions have not been made and the situation is fluid.
“The Biden-Harris transition team is not making any personnel decisions pre-election,” said Cameron French, a transition spokesman.
Biden’s team hopes to quickly name a White House chief of staff, according to allies with knowledge of the situation. An early favorite is Ron Klain, who was Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president and also served as President Barack Obama’s “Ebola czar,” which means he has experience dealing with pandemics.
A second, if less likely, possibility is Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), according to two people familiar with the talks. Richmond would be the first African American to be chief of staff, and if he is not chosen, he is likely to be given another role with broad responsibilities in the White House, Biden allies said.
Richmond received a recent boost from Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a highly influential figure in Biden’s orbit, who said in a Washington Post Live interview that Richmond has “one of the best political minds that I’ve encountered” and that he thinks Richmond should have a big role in a Biden administration.
Other top White House staffers also could be named quickly, in part because they don’t require Senate confirmation, unlike Cabinet secretaries and agency heads. Biden allies have floated several possibilities for press secretary, for example, including Symone Sanders, a senior Biden adviser who would be the first African American to hold the job.
If Biden wins, he will face demands from an unusually broad range of political camps, having forged a campaign coalition of Republicans, centrists, liberals and socialists who set aside their differences in an effort to defeat Trump and will want to be represented.
Despite Democrats’ desire not to show arrogance or take a win for granted, competition among them has heated up early amid growing optimism that not only will they capture the White House, but also will win a Senate majority, giving them wide latitude on appointments.
“I’ve seen a ton of names and, you know, for every one of these positions, there are anywhere from five to ten A-plus potential people,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). “I think Biden will want diversity as well as excellence in his Cabinet, and people he can trust.”
Some of the biggest fights are over economic posts, given the fierce disagreement between liberals whose power has surged in the Trump era and traditional Republicans who are quietly supporting Biden in the expectation of a steady, business-friendly presidency.
Several organizations have sent letters to Biden transition officials asking them to reinstitute Obama’s policy of banning lobbyists from top jobs, which the transition has largely done (though, unlike Obama’s rules, waivers can be issued).
A particular focus is Biden’s pick for treasury secretary. Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor, is a leading possibility, according to Biden allies; another is Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a former finance executive who angered liberals by raising the retirement age and overhauling the pension system in her state. Either would be the first woman to fill the role.
Also mentioned is Roger Ferguson, president and CEO of the financial firm TIAA, who previously served as vice chairman of the Federal Reserve and would be the first African American in the job.
All three names upset liberals, who want a potential Biden presidency to aggressively tackle income inequality and similar issues and fear that a centrist would have other priorities.
The Center for Economic and Policy Research, a liberal think tank, has formed a group called the Revolving Door Project, which seeks to torpedo such nominees. “Our relative expertise is researching the problematic people,” said Jeff Hauser, who directs the group, adding that it is “disentangled from long, ongoing interests so that we can be critical of people.”
Hauser and other liberals want Biden instead to name Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), or someone who shares her views, as treasury secretary.
But Warren, a fiery liberal, would face opposition from business leaders. And it could be tricky for Biden to pluck Warren from the Senate for any job because Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would pick her replacement. (Still, Democrats have a supermajority in the state legislature and in theory could write a law requiring Baker to choose a Democrat).
One Biden ally cited three other economists who are well positioned for top economic positions in the White House: Ben Harris, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey.
Another priority would be naming individuals to lead the fight against the pandemic, given Biden’s criticism of Trump as having botched the response. Though Biden is unlikely to name a covid-19 “czar” if he wins, according to people familiar with the deliberations, he is expected quickly to name a surgeon general and a secretary of health and human services to show urgency.
Jake Sullivan, a top policy adviser to Biden’s campaign who has often been on the campaign trail with him, could be in line for a top job on health issues, several Biden allies said. Sullivan also is mentioned as a potential chief of staff.
Law enforcement jobs could also be extremely high-profile, after Trump’s challenges to an array of legal norms. Xavier Becerra, California’s attorney general, is being floated to head the Justice Department, and Alejandro Mayorkas, a former Obama administration official, could become secretary of homeland security.
Meanwhile, Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor who ran against Biden in the presidential primary and then endorsed him, has charmed Biden and impressed his top lieutenants with crisp appearances on Fox News and local television stations, according to several people familiar with the campaign’s thinking.
Some see Buttigieg as a potential U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, in part because Buttigieg, a former Rhodes scholar, speaks several languages and is one of the party’s most polished communicators.
“I think Mayor Pete Buttigieg impressed virtually everybody, and it’s fairly clear he does not have a clear path forward in Indiana,” said Steve Westly, a top Biden fundraiser, referring to the conservative bent of Buttigieg’s home state. “I think for Biden and the country, I really hope they choose Mayor Pete for a role.”
Over the summer, one of Buttigieg’s top fundraisers, Bryan Rafanelli, made a similar pitch during a virtual fundraiser with Biden’s wife, Jill. “I think I’d love for him to be U.N. ambassador,” Rafanelli said.
Biden’s calculus could be affected by the Senate’s post-election makeup, according to several close allies. If Democrats win a comfortable majority in the chamber — where the GOP holds a 53-to-47 edge — Biden would have more latitude to weather resistance from Republicans and defections by Democrats.
A narrow majority, or a Senate that stays in Republican hands, might require nominees who appeal to a broader cross section of senators, potentially forcing Biden to decide which positions are worth a fight. As one ally put it, he would have to determine “where you take your bullets.”
Some Biden allies, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity, cited former national security adviser Susan E. Rice as someone whose fate could be determined by the Senate balance. Well-regarded in Biden’s orbit and seen as a potential short-lister for secretary of state, Rice has attracted criticism in conservative circles for her comments in the aftermath of the deadly 2012 terrorist attack on a U.S. diplomatic outpost in Benghazi, Libya.
If Republicans control the Senate, the allies said, Biden might not be able to get Rice confirmed, despite his high regard for her. Another name frequently mentioned for secretary of state is Antony Blinken, a longtime Biden foreign policy aide.
The secretary of defense position could also break a barrier, with many close to the process saying Michèle Flournoy, a former department official, is being carefully considered. She would be the first woman to lead the Department of Defense.
For education secretary, Biden’s team is focused on finding someone with experience in primary or secondary education, according to one Biden ally familiar with the search process. Democrats have criticized Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, for reasons including that she lacks a background as an educator.
One possible Biden pick is Randi Weingarten, head of the American Federation of Teachers. Weingarten, saying in an interview that she is “fixated” on electing Biden, declined to comment on the speculation.
Weingarten endorsed Warren in her personal capacity during the primary, but she has played a major role in uniting the party, and undertook a 30-plus-day bus tour to support Biden’s candidacy.
Lily García, a former head of the National Education Association, also is being considered, according to two people familiar with the discussions.
Another person thought to be in the mix is Linda Darling-Hammond, president of the California State Board of Education.
The Biden team is also expecting to include Republicans in the administration if he’s elected. “I know for a fact, just because I’m on the transition team, they said they are considering all — not just Democrats, but Republicans and all people as part of the administration,” said Cindy McCain, the widow of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).
McCain demurred when asked whether she’d be interested in a post. “I’m very superstitious, so let’s get past Tuesday,” she said with a laugh.
Laura Meckler contributed to this report.