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Transcript: Joe Biden’s Cabinet

A transcript of Episode 20 of The Politics of Everything, “Fantasizing About Joe Biden’s Cabinet” 

Alex Pareene: I’m Alex Pareene. I’m a staff writer at The New Republic.

Laura Marsh: And I’m Laura Marsh, the magazine’s literary editor.

Alex: Today we’re talking about Joe Biden’s Cabinet.

Laura: This is The Politics of Everything.

Alex: We are joined now by The New Republic’s own Jason Linkins and Osita Nwanevu, two friends of the podcast, to discuss the topic that Americans can’t stop talking about right now, in mid-November: Who will serve in Joe Biden’s Cabinet? There has been a lot of speculation. As we are taping this, no one has been confirmed by the president-elect yet, although that could change by the time you are listening. So please keep that in mind, if, for example, we say it’s crazy to imagine that he will appoint Michelle Reid to be Secretary of Education, and it turns out we’re wrong next week.

So people who are the biggest nerds in the world, who don’t have hobbies—and I very much include myself in this—have been doing things like creating fantasy Cabinets, putting them on Twitter for everyone to see and to laugh at. Have either of you seen any of these that you thought were particularly dire or funny?

Osita Nwanevu: There’s a pollster named David Farrar who tweeted that his dream Cabinet included Mitt Romney as secretary of state, Larry Summers at Treasury, Pete Buttigieg at Defense, Michelle Reed at Education, Paul Ryan at Trade, David Petraeus as the director of National Intelligence. And I don’t know what this guy’s ideological disposition is—it seems to me he could be a Never Trump Republican or a centrist Democrat—but I think the gist of what he’s trying to do there is create a team of rivals approach where you have a lot of Republicans, a couple of Democrats, and they’re all just going to work together at a big boardroom table and solve the country’s problems without yielding to ideology and partisanship and blah, blah, blah. And I think that’s the way a lot of people think about the Cabinet. The opposite of that, which is equally ridiculous, is people who say to themselves, “Well, the Cabinet should be everybody who ran in the Democratic primary—just create a roster of people that’s entirely filled by candidates that we all know and love coming back for a season finale from the primaries.”

This is possibly one of the stupidest parts of American politics. This something that even smart people will engage in without having a real understanding of what the Cabinet is, what these agencies actually do—which is why I enter this conversation with a little bit of trepidation, because I feel like I don’t know enough about each and every one of these policy issues to recommend a particularly good person.

Laura: To go back to the David Farrar much dunked upon tweet: I think there’s something interesting there about forecasting the nature of a Joe Biden Cabinet, right? Because Joe Biden is a unique president-elect of recent years in that he hasn’t ruled out bringing Republicans into his Cabinet. He’s played to that ability to reach across the aisle. Whether those overtures will be reciprocated is another question, but it’s really not clear who Joe Biden might choose for some of these positions, because he isn’t someone with a really clear ideological line.

Jason Linkins: My expectation is that Joe Biden will tend to favor people who have logged many years in the trenches in Washington and are best known for being collegial. He’s thinking about gathering the old guard together to run the show.

Alex: The notable thing about the speculation that he’d pick a Republican is that almost by definition, it would be not just any old Republican, but someone who is years out from having served in office, right? Just because it’s hard to imagine current Republicans who would work in a Joe Biden Cabinet. I mean, is he going to pick, like, Josh Hawley? But so therefore you have to question the utility of even doing this, because you’re not reaching out to the current Republican Party, you are reaching out to a past version of it that is now obsolete.

We should also point out that assuming he remains Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell has made it clear that he will try to force Joe Biden to appoint only centrists. So theoretically, any discussion about the Cabinet would have to be people who could get past Mitch McConnell, right?

Osita: I don’t know that we should be expecting Mitch McConnell to do anything but make life as difficult for Joe Biden as he possibly can, no matter what kind of overtures Biden thinks he’s going to make. But look, it’s not like Joe Biden is really itching to nominate a huge number of really progressive people to the Cabinet. We’ll see what actually ends up happening, but McConnell isn’t somebody who’s going to force Biden into nominating a substantially or significantly more centrist Cabinet than we probably had reason to expect. I think that was probably going to be the case anyway. I mean, what he’s actually going to be doing is governing from a position of total consensus. The center, maybe slightly center-left Obama consensus is going to revive itself in this administration and show he’s been pushed in a progressive direction on a couple of fronts, particularly climate, but with all of the picks we’re seeing bandied about—Rahm Emanuel, for Christ’s sakes, is being talked about as somebody who might come into the administration—it shouldn’t be forgotten that Obama, when he came in in 2009, bragged about appointing three Republicans to his Cabinet. I think only two ended up getting appointed, but there was this whole song and dance about how it’s unprecedented that I’m bringing in this many people from the other party to the Cabinet and this signaling it was a new direction that we’re going to be taking our politics. It’s functionally what Joe Biden is going to do here, and it’s going to involve the same kinds of looking for moderate and inoffensive Republicans to fill that vision out.

Alex: I think it’s important to say that one of the people we are talking about, to be specific, and this has been reported by Politico, is Meg Whitman to run the Department of Commerce. Meg Whitman is the former CEO of eBay and Hewlett Packard, notable most of all in politics for losing an election for governor of California, and most recently, the CEO of Quibi, the video streaming service that provided quick bites of entertainment until, in less than a year, it just went out of business and closed, having burned millions and millions of dollars. And the idea here is that this person should be in charge of the Department of Commerce because she has business experience—and also that it’s safe to put an unpopular, failed, Republican ex-CEO at Commerce because the Department of Commerce doesn’t do anything important, right? The idea is you can park them somewhere like Commerce because who even knows what a department of commerce does? Well, they are in charge the census; they run the Patent and Trademark office; they run the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the National Weather Service. These people have actual responsibilities. So, Osita, what do you think about the way that the actual functions of these departments is ignored in so much of these conversations?

Osita: I think they’re ignored in just about all of them, because I don’t think that this is a conversation that people come into thinking, “Well, the person I really want is somebody who’s going to a good manager,” right? They want to see their favorite advocates. They want to see their favorite legislators. They want to see people they recognize from TV. They want to see business leaders that they’ve heard of whether or not they have a record of actually succeeding in business. But fundamentally what these organizations or agencies do is implement policy—they run programs. These are departments that actually do things in the world. And so you can think to yourself, “I like Bernie Sanders,” right? Or another progressive politician. “I agree with their positions.” But all of that is separate from the fundamental task of managing a large agency with thousands of people working under you that is actually implementing public policy and doing a lot of very boring things to make sure that the federal government is running properly and doing the things that it’s supposed to do. And so that’s what makes this conversation a little bit difficult, because I think a lot of the people who would be best at that kind of mundane task, which is the central task, aren’t people you’re going to have heard of.

I for the life of me don’t really know why, if you’re somebody like Joe Biden and you clearly aren’t looking to make sweeping progressive change, I don’t know why somebody like that doesn’t just go and say, “Well, who is undersecretary of this or that under Obama, and let’s just promote them up to the next to the next rung.” Because they know that the agency works. They know the ins and outs. They’ve obviously been capable of managing a large part of it. Let’s just bump that person up. But the reason that doesn’t happen is because political appointments to the Cabinet have two real functions, it seems to me. It’s 1), you want to signal to some constituency within the coalition that you care about them, even if you don’t. And so you can have this token pick demographically or ideologically that signals that the party, this administration, is going to be welcoming to other people.

And the other reason is just straight-up political patronage. These are roles that get given to people who donated a lot or facilitated a lot of donations. Neither of those seem like very good reasons to appoint somebody to the head of a federal executive agency, but that’s just how it works.

Laura: Well, when it comes to that kind of political patronage that you just mentioned, that brings us back to the democratic primary, right? Because there was an understanding, when a lot of the moderates dropped out before Super Tuesday, that they would be rewarded in some way. Kamala Harris has become vice president, but that still leaves us with a lot, Pete Buttigieg particularly is being talked about. So do you think that that’s one of the reasons that we’re seeing so many of these Avengers-style Cabinet ideas? Where it’s like Buttigieg, Klobuchar, I’ve seen Jay Inslee’s name coming back up again….

Jason: There’s an element to this that’s a lot like sports—I think Osita, on Twitter, likened it to fantasy football. As a fan of European soccer, I think of this as the weird chatter that happens when the transfer windows open and big names are being moved for millions of dollars from team to team. It feels to me like a very superficial vibe. And what isn’t being talked about are the practical needs the agency has. I think definitely promote the under-secretary. When I think about the actual needs of the Trump era, what Biden will be left with, he’s going to be left with a decimated federal workforce, a huge brain drain. He’s going to be left with institutions that are the dead hand of what they used to be.

Laura: So these agencies have been through a kind of brain drain. One of the themes that comes up when we’re talking about who might join the Cabinet is taking really talented people who were already in office in other forms of government. So appoint, say, the governor of Washington State to a Cabinet position, or someone who’s already in the House of Representatives, or someone who’s in the Senate, because they’re good. The problem here is that drains talent from those other branches of government, right? If someone is really fantastic in the House of Representatives, I’m not sure that’s an argument, is it, for bringing them into the Cabinet—because then who fills that role?

Osita: That’s absolutely true. And part of it is, again, the skills that are required to be a good legislator in the House of Representatives are not necessarily the skills that are required to manage an agency well. But I think the brain-drain thing applies to other kinds of posts you’d be drawing people from as well. My partner is an education sociologist, and so I asked her who she thought would be good at Department of Education. And we had a very long conversation about this. One of the things she said was, “Some of the people who would be in the best position, given the combination of skills they have, to do this would be superintendents of large school districts who are doing a really good job in particular cities.” But then you don’t want to pull those people out of those roles because it’s hard to find good superintendents for large school districts

Alex: That’s a very interesting point, because I know I’ve heard people say, not in any realistic way, but just “Wouldn’t it be great to have Sarah Nelson, the leader of the flight attendants union, become Secretary of Labor.” I’m sure she would love to wield that power, but then we would be losing one of the most talented labor organizers currently working in labor and organizing in the country, because she would now be the manager of an agency.

Laura: Right. Or another name I’ve seen come up is “Katie Porter is brilliant.” So we should appoint her to the Cabinet. And I wonder if it would be healthier if those people stayed in the House, for instance, and we could focus more on the House of Representatives and the Senate as being just as important as the presidency when we talk about national politics, because that’s where some of the more meaningful stuff is actually going to get done.

Alex: I think basically you should always assume that if you really like any particular lawmaker in America, their replacement will not be anywhere near as good as they are at what they do. We have a very limited number of successful, popular progressive lawmakers and the ones we have with power right now, we should work on keeping them there.

Laura: Well, it’s like when you listen to people talking about how they should get promotions at work, right, something they’re often told is, “Oh, you’re too good in your current job, your bosses don’t want to promote you,” but in politics, that’s literally what we want. If you’re an amazing representative, continue to be that—that’s the best role that you can fulfill. You shouldn’t be trying to get promoted to being Secretary for Energy or something.

Jason: We’ll get into like the sort of like fantasy football version of our Cabinet. But here’s my big fantasy about Joe Biden—this is I think even more pie-in-the sky than the notion of putting Elizabeth Warren at Treasury—but if we’re going to talk about the deep-rooted fantasies about what America could be, to my mind, the direction we could burrow in is not looking for this superhero celebrity politicians to run things, but instead head back down to earth and start picking and choosing among the best of this country has to offer.

Alex: I think that is a good way to segue into asking who the best this country has to offer is. I want to make it clear that we are deeply aware that we are mocking the idea of creating a fantasy Cabinet while at the same time, demanding that our wonderful guests create their fantasy Cabinet. So, Osita, who is first on your list of ideal Biden Cabinet members?

Osita: So the first is somebody who has been talked about for the Department of Labor, Mary Kay Henry, who’s the current head of the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union. She’s a well-regarded, well-respected labor leader, has been in the movement for a long time. So she’d be a pick that would signal a level of seriousness about labor issues to the progressives, she’s the capable manager of a large organization, she knows what she’s talking about. Um, you know, it hits all the sweet spots for me on that position.

Alex: All right, Jason, tell me one of your fantasy Cabinet picks.

Jason: So when I was thinking about the kind of person that I really wish could be in Biden’s ear all the time about the economy, never going to happen in a million years, but the person that I think about right off the bat is Stephanie Kelton, who is currently the professor of economics and public policy at Stony Brook University. And she’s a major proponent of modern monetary theory, which is a different way of thinking about deficit spending, and it’s thinking that Democrats desperately need to become unstuck in the policy realm. Because right now, when someone says, “I want to do this big, bold, progressive thing,” the first question is how are you going to pay for it? And Kelton’s basic premise is just “Stop answering the question, we should be deficit spending.”

Laura: Right, so this would be quite a departure from the kind of throwback Cabinet ideas that have been floated. Osita, do you have another pick?

Osita: So this next pick is Jessica Cardichon. She’s the director of the Learning Policy Institute, the federal policy division at the Department of Education. There’s a Bernie connection: She was at Sanders’s advisor about 10 years ago while in the Senate. She’s somebody who seems to think seriously about equity, civil rights. Again, somebody who nobody’s really heard of, but who knows the landscape and is engaging already with federal policymakers and presumably would be competent given her previous experience within an organization.

Alex: I like that pick a lot. And I like that it would be considered an unsexy pick because it’s not a person that normal politics followers have heard of. It reminds me—there’s been some talk recently that Bernie Sanders is angling to be made ahead of the Department of Labor. I mean, he doesn’t have decades left, but do we want him out of the U.S. Senate really? I do I think that the person he should be pushing for if he wants to be in a position to have influence over labor department policy, he should be pushing for his top advisor to be the head of the labor department, or has most militant labor issues advisor to go to the labor department. And so I like that your pick was indeed an education advisor to Sanders a while ago, which is one of those good indications that a certain candidate’s head is in the right place on issues you care about.

Laura: And Jason, do you have a final pick?

Jason: One of the things I thought about really hard before coming on today was the position of attorney general. I think that there are a lot of different directions you can go in for AG. The attorney general has a very broad remit, but you have to think about signaling what your priority is going to be by whom you pick. I’m a little bit biased toward a Department of Justice that works to fight corporate scofflaws, so I would be perhaps inclined to support the candidacy of someone like Barbara Underwood, current solicitor general of New York. She’s fought against big conglomerates, she’s done a lot to help mitigate corporate impact on climate change. 

Someone who’s perhaps more interested in reversing the Trump administration’s predations on marginalized groups might lean to the direction of someone more like Vanita Gupta, who’s the former acting assistant attorney general for civil rights, the former deputy legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union, has a very good record on prosecuting hate crimes, defending people of color.

Biden can give us an indication of where he thinks the DoJ’s most important work is going to be under his administration based on the kind of person he picks.

Laura: So maybe we could add a bonus round, because when Alex and I were talking about this show, one thing that came up was a kind of strategic appointment—playing on the brain drain effect, but using it to your advantage. So we came up with the concept of a “spite pick,” which would be if there’s someone who currently holds a position in the Democratic party who is just doing a really bad job, and you could plunk them into a Cabinet position where they can’t do much, who would that be? I mean, Alex, I feel like I should bring you in on this one, because you have a kind of inspired idea.

Alex: Well, I think a lot of people have already made the suggestion that Susan Collins should be appointed to the Biden administration, because then her replacement would likely be a Democrat.

I would like to see a real nice landing spot for Diane Feinstein. I really think this is a good opportunity, she’s done so much for the party, and I think Biden should try to find a place for her in his administration.

Laura: Other ideas?

Osita: My mega-fantasy pick is you appoint Collins to the Department of Homeland Security, she’s replaced by a Democrat. You use a brain slug on Joe Manchin—this is all assuming  the Democrats get the Ossoff-Warnock picks, so you have to get it to the point where it actually will flip the Senate—but you move Collins out of the Senate into DHS, then abolish the filibuster, then abolish DHS.

Alex : That’s some classic game theory right there.

Jason: Real straightforward from here.

Alex: Osita, do you have anyone in mind?

Osita: I’m thinking about ambassadorships and how they figure into all of this. It’s not Cabinet stuff, but a lot of shenanigans always happened with the ambassadorships. They always seem to go to people with no real knowledge of the country that they’re going to be interacting with or its history and the policies there. So if that’s what the position is going to continue to be under Biden, you can just throw a lot of democratic leadership in there. There are ambassadors to the Vatican, Monaco, wherever else….

Alex: I have to imagine there are a lot of people listening who perhaps live in large American cities who would not mind if their mayor were made an ambassador to somewhere or other. I would be thrilled if Bill de Blasio were made ambassador. I would like him to be ambassador to the Netherlands so he can see what a country with a functional urban transportation policy looks like for once in his life.

Jason: Alex, you talked about how one of the big problems we have when we conceive of these things is that all of these agencies really do important things, and so there’s no real place to stash somebody. Maybe we should create a Cabinet-level agency that’s just there to stash people. Like, honestly, this is exactly what you would do in a corporate setting. People talk about running government like a business—well, finding a safe, dumb place for someone you can’t really get rid of but can do without, that is what a lot of people in the corporate world do.

Laura: Like a department of “new business” or “special projects.”

Alex: The Department of Special Projects would be perfect. And then I am the secretary at large for the Department of Special Projects.

Laura: Okay, well, I think we’ve got it figured out.

Alex : Yeah, it was a wonderful conversation, and I’m sure President-elect Biden will be listening very closely. So Jason and Osita, thank you so much.

Laura: Thank you, guys.