Washington Wednesday – The Biden cabinet’s familiar faces

NICK EICHER, HOST: It’s Wednesday, the 16th of December, 2020.

So glad you’ve joined us for today’s edition of The World and Everything in It. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard. First up: Washington Wednesday.

Throughout the presidential campaign, Republicans suggested a Biden presidency would be little more than a third Obama term. The Biden campaign denied that.

But in an interview after the election, NBC’s Lester Holt pointed out the many former Obama officials Biden was adding to his administration. The president-elect tried to resist the implication by saying this:

BIDEN: This is not a third Obama term because we face a totally different world than we faced in the Obama-Biden administration.

EICHER: In the three weeks since that interview, Biden has continued to stack his administration with former Obama officials. Those include former Obama chief of staff Denis McDonough and former national security adviser Susan Rice.

So what’s likely to change?

REICHARD: Joining us now to talk about that is Kyle Kondik. He’s with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics. Good morning and welcome!

KYLE KONDIK, GUEST: Thanks for having me. 

REICHARD: Biden has largely voiced a desire to return to most of the policies of the Obama administration. And again, he has so far stacked his team with a lot of former Obama officials. So how will a Biden presidency be different from a third Obama term? 

KONDIK: Well, look, a lot of this might actually depend on what happens in the Georgia Senate runoffs in early January because if the Democrats were to win both of those—and I think the races are both very close at this point—Democrats would have effective control of the Senate, just a 50-50 with Kamala Harris breaking ties. And that would give them a little more latitude both in terms of confirming appointees to the cabinet positions and other important jobs in the Biden administration and also might give Democrats a bit more wiggle room on policy matters. 

But, you’ve got to remember, when Obama was elected it was a really big Democratic sweep in 2008, so the Democrats eventually got to 60 Senate seats, although they only had that for a short period of time during the first two years of Obama. They had a big House majority. And they were able to pursue big picture policy initiatives—most notably the Affordable Care Act—before the big backlash in 2010, Republicans won the House back. This time, even if Democrats were to have the Senate, they would still be, I think, constrained because they would need perfect party unity, they couldn’t overcome filibusters, and so I don’t necessarily know exactly what’s going to be going on, but I don’t think they can pursue as expansive of a set of policy proposals as Obama did.

And as for the personnel, the various cabinet appointments, I do think it’s fair to say there are a lot of people who are either from the Obama-Biden administration. Of course Biden was vice president for eight years. But also folks with whom Biden has a long personal connection. 

REICHARD: Can you imagine what Biden would do that would differ from Obama?

KONDIK: Well, look, I think that the parties are pretty different on policy these days and I think it’s pretty natural that the next Democratic administration might try to pursue some of the same things as the previous Democratic administration, particularly Biden was part of that administration. And I’ll also say that if you look back to the presidency of Donald Trump, Trump came in trying to be a different kind of Republican on certain matters, but in a lot of ways the people he appointed to top jobs were people that you could have imagined other Republicans appointing and I think Trump ended up being a little more of a conventional Republican on a lot of issues, maybe more so than he campaigned as. 

And I think that might be the case for Biden, too, in that both parties have these kind of built up apparatuses of ideas and think tanks and people who eventually go into the administration and that sort of helps set the tone of the administration. Look, Biden also was not someone who was, I think, running as someone who really wanted to make a break from Obama. I think Biden was running more as, hey, we’ve got to get Trump out of the White House so we can return to some sense of normalcy here. And, look, he’s also not going to have—even if Democrats have the Senate—he’s not going to have the kind of legislative majorities needed to really push through a lot of really aggressive policies. 

REICHARD: I mentioned Susan Rice a few minutes ago. She was largely the public face of the Obama administration’s Benghazi response. Republicans strongly oppose her, but they can’t do anything about it because Biden picked her for a role that does not require Senate confirmation. 

She will run the White House Domestic Policy Council. I don’t think the average person is too familiar with that role, but she could be very influential in the Biden White House. So in simple terms, what role will she play? 

KONDIK: Well, it’s interesting that she’s going to help set domestic policy priorities and she’s known as a foreign policy expert. Those are the roles that she held in the Obama administration and I think in a different world, and a world in which Democrats had a little more breathing room in the Senate, she might have been more of a natural choice to be Secretary of State. But I think there are some Biden appointments that are going to get crossover support, but I think the Biden camp probably realized that Rice is someone who would be very polarizing if she required a Senate confirmation process, so they opted to give her a different position and a position that I think is a little bit different than the job she held in the Obama administration. 

REICHARD: Another controversial figure is Neera Tanden. She’s his pick for director of the Office of Management and Budget. First of all, what does the director of the Office of Management and Budget do, and why is that position important? 

KONDIK: You know, it’s historically an important job and, again, it helps set the budget priorities for the administration. We’re also at a time in American history—this was not always true but it’s been true for a lot of recent history—that a lot of the proposals for the budget really come from the White House and then Congress sort of determines what they want to do with the proposed budget. 

And so that’s an important jobs and there have been some notable folks who have served in that role in past administrations. For instance, current Republican Senator Rob Portman from Ohio. He’s a former OMB director himself. So, again, there are some prominent people who have served in that role in the past. But Tanden is controversial in that she’s kind of a firebrand on Twitter and she’s been a big critic of a lot of Republican Senators, including the newly re-elected Susan Collins who’s one of the key swing votes in the Senate. But she’s also someone who really has rubbed the left the wrong way—the left as defined by supporters of Bernie Sanders—because Tanden was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton and then also of Joe Biden in contrast to Bernie Sanders. And so there are certain, it seems like with almost every administration, there are certain appointments that end up not working out for whatever reason. Perhaps that might happen with Tanden, although who knows. But, again, I think that there will be a number of Biden’s other selections will get through more easily, I think, than Tanden.

REICHARD: Let’s talk about Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken. What can you tell us about him? 

KONDIK: He’s kind of a Democratic foreign policy lifer. He’s someone who seems like is probably going to have an easier time getting through. We just saw, within the last couple of days, that Lindsey Graham who is one of the leading foreign policy voices on the Republican side, he doesn’t seem to have any problem with Blinken. So I would imagine that he would be able to do just fine getting through for confirmation. 

REICHARD: Lloyd Austin is the nominee for Secretary of Defense. He is a recently retired 4-star general, so he’ll require a waiver from Congress. Is he likely to get that waiver? How do you see his confirmation going? 

KONDIK: This one could go a number of different ways in that, again, I mentioned Lindsey Graham, he seems like someone who would support the waiver for Austin. But there are some Democrats who maybe they like Austin, they think he’s qualified, but after giving Jim Mattis a waiver when he became Trump’s first Secretary of Defense, maybe they don’t want to set that as the precedent. So that is another one to watch that could be a bumpier ride.

REICHARD: Kyle Kondik is with the University of Virginia Center for Politics. Kyle, thanks so much!

KONDIK: Thank you!

(AP Photo/Susan Walsh) Susan Rice, the Biden administration’s choice to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council, speaks during an event at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Friday, Dec. 11, 2020. 

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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