Although President-elect Joe Biden has yet to chart an explicit policy program or legislative agenda, as the saying goes in Washington, “personnel is policy.” Biden’s early cabinet picks signal a return in force of the centrist wing of the Democratic party, to the consternation of activists on the party’s more progressive flank. This tendency is particularly pronounced in the realms of foreign and defense policy, where seasoned policy hands with good relationships across the partisan divide have edged out more controversial picks that would have required confirmation battles with a likely-Republican-controlled Senate.
BLINKEN FOR STATE
Biden’s nomination for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, is a veteran of the Democratic foreign policy establishment. Having held a long string of senior foreign policy positions in both the Obama and Clinton administrations, Blinken is widely perceived to be both a steady hand and a “non-ideological consensus-builder.” His bearing toward foreign affairs is also more interventionist-oriented than the dominant strain of thought during the last Democratic administration. During his time at the NSC and State Department in the Obama White House, Blinken advocated for a more robust U.S. involvement in the Syria conflict, noting that “In Syria, we rightly sought to avoid another Iraq by not doing too much, but we made the opposite error of doing too little,” and reminding his superiors that “force can be a necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy.”
Also of note was Blinken’s public break with Biden in 2011, then his direct superior, to support the armed intervention in Libya. Lastly, Blinken served as a close adviser to Biden in 2003 when the then-senator supported the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. He continues to believe that diplomacy needs to be “supplemented by deterrence” and is powerfully shaped by the experiences of World War Two and the Holocaust on his parents’ generation.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Blinken has drawn the ire of some voices on the more progressive end of the political spectrum. One prolific critic, for example, admonished Biden for nominating “a card-carrying member of what is sometimes called the ‘Blob’, the DC foreign policy establishment, which has a consensus set of beliefs that the US must remain a dominant global power, and a willingness to use military force to maintain that power.”
FLUORNOY FOR DEFENSE
Likewise, Biden’s leading contender to lead the Defense Department is Michèle Flournoy. Fluornoy served in a variety of posts in the Obama campaign and administration, including as the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy from 2009 to 2012 as well as the principal advisor to the Secretary of Defense. Out of government, Fluornoy helped co-found and lead the Center for a New American Security, a prominent center-Left think tank, as well as WestExec Advisors, a prominent Washington consulting firm.
Flournoy has long been at or near the top of the Democratic shortlist to lead the Pentagon, which would make her the first woman to serve in that capacity. Although not yet formally nominated, Fluornoy recently won the endorsement of several former Secretaries of Defense and State, who wrote in an open letter that she "knows that a top priority of the Biden administration must be to restore U.S. leadership on a variety of issues, including on nuclear risk reduction."
Fluornoy’s hawkish tendencies are more pronounced than Blinken’s. For instance, in a 2007 article she co-authored, Flournoy opposed plans for partitioning a then highly-unstable Iraq, arguing instead for “a strategy focused on maintaining Iraq’s territorial integrity and sovereignty, as well as creating an internal balance of power among Shia, Sunnis, and Kurds that reduces the chances of mass violence and improves the chances of political reconciliation.” She went further, contending that “the United States must retain sufficient ‘top-down’ engagement with Iraq’s federal government in order to retain leverage, influence behavior within Iraq’s army and National Police, and maintain a degree of situational awareness.”
IRE ON THE LEFT
Within the Democratic coalition, Biden’s preference for moderates with extensive experience in prior administrations has led to a certain measure of ire from various constituencies. African and Hispanic American leaders have issued murmurs of disappointment with their communities’ relative underrepresentation in the list of nominees thus far. Representative James Clyburn, the House majority whip and a close Biden ally, lamented on Wednesday that so far Biden’s cabinet picks include only one African-American woman, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, tapped to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. “From all I hear, Black people have been given fair consideration, but there is only one Black woman so far." Clyburn added that "I want to see where the process leads to, what it produces. But so far it’s not good.”
Texas Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, who called last week for at least five Latinos to be appointed to Cabinet-level positions, sounded similar notes: “We're very, very concerned as a community, as a Latino community.” Biden had previously chafed at demands by activists to commit to nominating a set quota of Hispanic cabinet members during the campaign.
In a similar vein, progressives from the party’s Left flank are troubled by the policy implications of a cabinet populated with moderates favorably disposed to an active, interventionist foreign policy. As Nathan Robinson put it, “the bad news for progressives is that there has not yet been a single person announced that the left can be enthusiastic about. The best that can be said of the nominees is that they are generally “not as bad as we might have feared.”
GOP SUPPORT NOT ASSURED
Of course, even these centrist nominees offer the potential to galvanize Republican opposition if Biden fails to win support from key GOP leaders. On this score, early indications are mixed. “I really am a little surprised ... that there hadn’t been at least some consultation,” said Republican Senator John Cornyn of Texas, adding “I mean, some of these problems can be avoided and people, you know, saved from the embarrassment if there would simply be some consultation on who they’re thinking about.”
With Republicans still holding a majority in the Senate, no nomination can survive without their buy-in. As Senator Cramer of North Dakota put it, “Unless you’re putting all your eggs in the ‘We’re going to win them both in Georgia’ basket, [consultation] would be a wise thing to do. If we have the majority ... any one of us can put a hold on somebody. And if we honor that, that’s a pretty big problem for him.”