The President’s Assembling a Cabinet

Cabinet of President Joe Biden in April 2021
Cabinet of President Joe Biden in April 2021

Two Perspectives on the Diversity of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet Appointments

The Progression of Diversity in the White House

By Lindsay Chervinsky – Presidential Historian and Author of The Cabinet

President Biden promised repeatedly, in both his campaign and after winning election, to compile a cabinet that looks like America. While many of Biden’s cabinet selections have been groundbreaking, his intention to create a diverse cabinet continues a long tradition of executive branch representation.

What does a “cabinet that looks like America” mean and why might a president want to create one? A cabinet that looks like America includes representatives from all kinds of citizens. In the twenty-first century, that includes three types of diversity categories. First, visible differences including race and gender. Second, traditional markers of inclusion, including religion and sexual orientation. Finally, experiential diversity, such as background, geographic region, and economic representation.

Diversity throughout History

Diversity had a very different meaning in the eighteenth century. Only white men were considered citizens, so the applicant pool for cabinet positions was quite limited. Instead, factors like state citizenship, training, experience, and ideology played an important role. Accordingly, President George Washington compiled a cabinet with these considerations in mind. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton lived in New York City, was born into poverty in the Caribbean, had military experience, brought financial expertise to the cabinet, and cozied up to the merchant and trade interests in urban centers. On the other hand, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was born into wealth and privilege in Virginia, inherited a wealthy plantation and dozens of enslaved individuals, had extensive diplomatic experience, and spoke for yeoman farmers and the plantation interests of the South. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph also offered unique backgrounds, training, and representation.

While we wouldn’t look at Washington’s cabinet and consider it a particularly diverse group today, their contemporaries did. They understood that Washington had intentionally selected secretaries from different parts of the new country in an effort to make sure all political factions and economic interests were represented. Many of Washington’s successors have followed his example and embraced diversity in the cabinet.

Of course, what diversity means and who is included as a citizen, and thus gets to be considered for cabinet appointments, has evolved. Until the Civil War, diversity meant geographic balance and various factions of the President’s party. Abraham Lincoln was the first to include bipartisanship as a new marker of cabinet diversity. In order to hold the Union together in the face of impending war, Lincoln selected Radical Republicans, more conservative Republicans, and former Democrats as cabinet secretaries. As long as they were loyal to the Union, he didn’t care about their party affiliation.

Firsts in General and in Position

The increase of legal protection as a citizen also led to additional recognition in the cabinet. For example, Theodore Roosevelt selected Oscar Straus as his Secretary of Commerce and Labor—the first Jewish cabinet secretary. After the passage of the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, several presidents considered appointing a woman, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to follow through on the promise. He selected Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor and the first woman cabinet secretary. After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robert Weaver as the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the first Black cabinet secretary.

Other “firsts” were shockingly recent. President Bill Clinton appointed Norman Mineta as Secretary of Commerce and the first Asian-American cabinet secretary while President Biden’s Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is the first Native American cabinet member.

Diversity isn’t just about who is in the cabinet, however, as not all cabinet positions are created equal. In addition to Haaland’s historic appointment, Biden’s cabinet includes a number of additional firsts. He appointed Lloyd Austin III as the first Black Defense Secretary, Janet Yellen as the first female Treasury Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas as the first immigrant and Latino Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, and Avril Haines as the first female Director of National Intelligence. These positions are among the most important in the federal government and diverse representation in these offices indicates real change.

Despite Biden’s extraordinary choices, there is always room for improvement. Most obviously, Biden did not select a Republican secretary in the bipartisan tradition. However, bipartisan selections only work when the president and the secretary have a shared set of values, even if they don’t agree on all issues. For example, during World War II, FDR worked closely with Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox and Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson. Knox and Stimson had unimpeachable Republican credentials and served in previous Republican administrations. Both vehemently disagreed with FDR on social and economic policy, but they agreed on how to wage war, and thus worked well together. It’s possible that the political climate in 2021 precluded that type of bipartisan relationship.

Additionally, while women are well represented in the cabinet, they don’t enjoy the same parity in the national security positions. The attorney general, secretary of state, national security advisor, CIA director, secretary of defense, and secretary of homeland security are all men. That’s potentially problematic as national security and the military are areas traditionally dominated by men. Gender equality in those fields won’t happen without diversity in leadership.

Diversity in Cabinets: Why Does It Matter?

Why do presidents give so much attention to cultivating diversity in their cabinets? Diversity isn’t just about optics or political correctness. Instead, diverse backgrounds, races, experiences, religions, and more lead to varied and distinctive perspectives. Presidents need to hear from a lot of different people to engineer solutions to the thorniest problems on their plate. Without a variety of opinions, the executive branch is prone to groupthink and struggles to think outside the box. Historically, the best presidents are the ones who regularly ask for help from advisors that don’t always agree with them.

More importantly, the president is the only official elected to represent all Americans. But there are so many walks of life contained in the American experience, it’s impossible for one person to understand all of them. That’s why it’s essential that presidents surround themselves with a diverse group of advisors that can speak for all types of Americans.

One of the most powerful examples of the importance of diversity occurred after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. As a child, Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta had been forcibly interned with his family and 120,000 other Japanese-Americans in response to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. In a cabinet meeting after 9/11, President Bush reportedly said “We don’t want to have happen today, what happened to Norm in 1942,” and he worked hard to combat anti-Muslim harassment across the country.

Biden’s choices reflect the importance of this history. He knows that he can read and learn about Native American history and culture, but he will never fully comprehend what it feels like to live on a reservation, to be a part of a Pueblo community, or to overcome the systemic injustices endured by Native nations at the hands of the United States. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland provides firsthand experience of that existence and therefore is uniquely qualified to manage the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Her diversity, and that of all Biden’s secretaries, makes the cabinet and his presidency stronger.

How Biden’s Diverse Cabinet is Reflective of America as a Whole

By Brad Bannon – Democratic Pollster and Deadline D.C.’s host

Progressives in Moderate’s Clothing?

Joe Biden has been hard at work building a better America in the first one hundred days of his presidency. His first project was to construct his own cabinet. As a piece of architecture, it isn’t a high-profile structure that soars above the skyline. It is a solid platform that should withstand the test of time and the trouble that lies ahead in any new administration.

The paradox of the Biden presidency is the absence of his prominent progressive presidential opponents in an administration that has been demonstrably progressive in the early going. There aren’t a lot of loud progressive voices, but actions speak louder than words and the actions of the new administration are aggressively progressive. Neither of Joe Biden’s prominent and progressive rivals in the contest for the Democratic presidential nomination, Senators Bernie Sanders (I-VT) or Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), made the cut into the cabinet. Sanders expressed an interest in becoming Secretary of Labor while many progressives hoped that Warren would be Biden’s Treasury Secretary. Janet Yellen got the Treasury job instead of the Senator from Massachusetts. Yellen has a progressive approach to policy, but her public profile is not nearly as large as Warren’s.

Two of Biden’s presidential primary opponents who ran as moderates, Vice President Kamala Harris and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, became a very visible part of the new administration. Despite their moderate political credentials, Harris and Buttigieg have become important pieces in the new progressive presidency. The new president’s ambitious policy agenda may be easier to sell with moderate cheerleaders like Harris and Buttigieg than with high profile liberals like Sanders and Warren. Harris is the top surrogate for the president’s push for his progressive program. Buttigieg will play a key in promoting the president’s ambitious and progressive infrastructure package in the Biden ambitious economic recovery program.

A Cabinet of Firsts 

The Biden cabinet is full of “firsts” and it’s very diverse. Biden’s first choice for an administration position was his selection of Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) to be his running mate. When she became Vice President on Inauguration Day, Harris became the first woman to serve as second in command, and the first person of African American and Asian descent to serve in the position. Wednesday evening, Harris made her story with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi when two women sat behind a president for the first time when he addressed a joint session of Congress.

There were two other noteworthy “firsts” on the top shelf of the Biden cabinet. Janet Yellen became the first woman to serve as Secretary of Treasury and Lloyd Austin is the first Black man to preside over the Pentagon. Both the current Secretary of Treasury and Secretary of Defense had already broken new ground before they received their cabinet jobs. Yellen was the first woman to chair of the Federal Reserve Board. General Austin was the first Black man to command an army division in combat and the first of his race to be a theater commander.

Yellen’s appointment as Treasury Secretary underscores the prominence of women in key economic and budgetary positions. Cecilia Rouse is chair of the Council of Economic Advisors and the first Black woman to serve in that capacity. Shalanda Young, Acting Director of the Office of Management and Budget, is the first Black woman to serve in that position.

Pete Buttigieg is the first openly gay person to serve in any president’s cabinet, and Deb Haaland is the first Native American to be a cabinet member. As Secretary of Interior, she is responsible for administering federal programs for Native Americans. In a move to signal his distaste to Donald Trump’s immigration policy, Biden chose Alejandro Mayorkas to head the Department of Homeland Security. He is the first Latino to lead the agency which oversees immigration policy.

There were no Republican appointments to create a bipartisan administration, but the outward-facing diversity of cabinet picks makes it an administration that looks like America.

The first Biden cabinet is even more diverse racially than any previous cabinet. It’s even more diverse than Barack Obama’s administration, and it’s a lot different than Trump’s first round of cabinet members. More than half of the current cabinet is nonwhite (55 percent), compared to 45 percent for Obama and 18 percent for Trump. Sixty-one of the first one hundred executive appointees Biden announced were women, fifty-four were people of color, eleven were LGBTQ+, and twenty were first generation Americans. The Census Bureau in the Department of Commerce has estimated that most Americans will be people of color by 2044, which is less than a generation away. Demography is destiny and Biden’s choices proudly proclaim that America’s destiny is diversity.

Green around the Edges: Diverse Policies

The 46th president has issued a remarkable array of progressive executive orders in the areas of environmental policy, race relations, and gun control. President Biden has backed up his bold presidential orders with ambitious legislative proposals. He convinced Congress to pass the American Rescue Plan Act, which provides almost two trillion dollars in the battle against the carnage caused by COVID-19. On top of that, Biden has proposed the Build Back America Act which would commit about three trillion dollars in the effort to revitalize the economy.

Nothing illustrates the new president’s progressive early agenda than his determination to be a green chief executive. The Build Back Better Plan emphasizes clean energy infrastructure to fight the onslaught of climate change. As part of his environmental agenda, President Biden acted quickly to bring the United States back into the Paris Climate Accords and has issued executive orders to stop the Keystone Pipeline project and to scale back oil drilling on federal land in Alaska.

Top level appointments reflect Biden’s commitment to reverse the ravages of the climate disaster that waits in the wings. The new president installed two powerful and prominent officials, former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy, as senior White House advisers to ensure that there is an environmental advocate in debates on all federal policy.

The key words in the new president’s early actions come from the same word: diverse. Biden has prioritized diversity in his administration so that it reflects the nonwhite population in the United States, and he is diversifying the nation’s economy to make it less dependent on fossil fuels. The 46th president is playing the long game to meet the challenges America faces in the 21st century.

If you enjoyed this article, you can read more bipartisan debates, op-eds, and interviews here.

Lindsay Chervinsky headshot
Lindsay Chervinsky
Presidential historian and author of The Cabinet.

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, the Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, USA Today, Ms, The Daily Beast, The Hill, TIME, and more.

Brad Bannon headshot
Brad Bannon
Democratic pollster and Deadline D.C.’s host

Brad Bannon is CEO of Bannon Communications Research, a polling firm which helps progressive issue groups, labor unions, and Democrats win political and policy campaigns. His campaign clients include Democratic candidates for the U.S. Senate, U.S. House of Representatives, and governor. Brad has also worked at the National Education Association and the AFL-CIO. Brad is a political analyst for news radio stations KNX in Los Angeles and WGN in Chicago.

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