One Year Into His Term, President Biden’s Cabinet Performs Above Average
By Dr. Lindsay Chervinsky – Presidential Historian and Author of The Cabinet
Last year, President Biden put together a cabinet with unprecedented diversity. When making his choices, he relied on historical precedent and the example first established by George Washington. One year into his administration, how does Biden’s cabinet compare to those of his predecessors? There are four factors to evaluate cabinet success: turnover, scandal, unforced errors, and interpersonal dynamics.
Presidents generally try to avoid unnecessary turnover in their cabinets for obvious reasons: vetting and nominating a new secretary takes staff time away from other priorities, new cabinet secretaries take time to wrap their arms around their portfolio, and the transition naturally slows down the president’s agenda for that department. The loss of institutional knowledge can cause real harm and the media attention on personnel changes distracts from the president’s goals, especially if the president fires a secretary, as this type of turnover raises questions about the president’s personnel selections in the first place.
None of President Biden’s secretaries have left office in the first year, which is consistent with the Obama, Clinton, and both Bush presidencies. During President Trump’s first year of office, Secretary of Human and Health Services Tom Price resigned over corrupt traveling practices and Secretary of Homeland Security John Kelly left the DHS to serve as Trump’s chief of staff. Trump selected Kelly for this position after firing his first chief of staff, Reince Priebus, six months into the term. By avoiding similar turnover, President Biden is following the model set by other presidents and seeking to provide stability in the administration.
Few Scandals in Biden’s Cabinet
Like turnover, presidents try to avoid cabinet scandals at all costs. They reflect poorly on presidential leadership, distract from important issues, and undermine the administration’s credibility. President George Washington was so determined that his presidency avoid any whiff of scandal that he cut all ties with Secretary of State Edmund Randolph, his friend of nearly 30 years, after he was accused of selling state secrets to the French. He did not even wait for an investigation or corroborating evidence.
While Republican media outlets have tried to make much of Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg’s paternity leave or Vice President Kamala Harris’s private purchases at a cooking store in Paris, those “scandals” do not rise to the level of previous administrations.
Two of President Clinton’s candidates for attorney general were withdrawn after reports leaked that the women had employed undocumented immigrants in their homes and failed to pay the appropriate taxes for their labor. In President George W. Bush’s second term, the Department of Justice was mired in scandal over wire-tapping programs and the politically-motivated firing of U.S. attorneys. And most recently, just a few weeks after Trump’s inauguration, his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, resigned after he was caught lying to the FBI about his connections to foreign nations.
All presidents face unexpected challenges, whether they be terrorist attacks or Hurricane Katrina for George W. Bush or pandemics like the Ebola crisis and the financial crisis during Obama’s presidency. What presidents can control is how they respond to both day-to-day responsibilities and crises. Even if this bar is extremely low, cabinets should strive to never make the president’s management of an issue worse.
This area of evaluation is where Biden’s cabinet shows the most room for improvement. In August 2021, U.S. forces left Afghanistan and the country quickly fell under Taliban control. While the country will not know the exact cause of the chaotic and deadly departure for some time because the intelligence is still classified, the disorganized retreat reflected poorly on the administration. The public does not know what intelligence or guidance was offered to the President or whether the intelligence community was caught off-guard by the quick collapse of the Afghani government. But the lack of planning for the worst-case scenario was readily apparent and led to criticism of Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, CIA Director William Burns, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
Second, the U.S. announced a new security partnership with the United Kingdom and Australia on September 15, 2021. The announcement surprised France and the outcry was swift. While the deal itself was an important diplomatic success, the rollout was unnecessarily botched. The following month, President Biden met with French President Emmanuel Macron, apologized for how the deal was handled, and said that he thought France had been notified. This confession threw the State Department, and by extension, Secretary of State Tony Blinken under the bus.
Related to the scandal criteria, the status of interpersonal dynamics within the cabinet is an important marker of success. Reports of disagreement or rivalries within the cabinet can undermine an administration and its agenda. In President Biden’s first year in office, there have been few news stories about discord among cabinet members or between cabinet secretaries and the President. The only exceptions are the reports suggesting upheaval in the Vice President’s office and friction between the President and Vice President’s staff.
As history shows, however, those rumors crop up in nearly every administration. President Obama’s staff reportedly mocked then-Vice President Biden’s gaffes and dismissed him as eccentric and aging. Vice President George H.W. Bush received criticism for appearing too subservient and weak compared to President Reagan. And relations between Vice President Cheney and President George W. Bush were so bad at the end of their administration that they were barely speaking.
All factors considered, President Biden’s cabinet has comported itself reasonably well during his first year in office. They have side-stepped many of the obvious blunders, largely kept out of the news for the wrong reasons, and mostly avoided undermining the President’s agenda.
Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is a presidential historian and Scholar in Residence at the Institute for Thomas Paine Studies at Iona College. Previously, she was a historian at the White House Historical Association and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. She is the author of the award-winning The Cabinet: George Washington and the Creation of an American Institution, which was published by the Belknap Imprint of Harvard University Press (April 2020). Her writing has been published on CNN.com, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Ms, The Daily Beast, The Hill, TIME, and more.