Biden's Cabinet choices a diverse and experienced lot

Mr Biden's Cabinet looks set to be historically diverse if confirmed. PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON - Over the past eight weeks, United States President-elect Joe Biden steadily unveiled the men and women he had chosen to fill out his Cabinet and the senior echelons of his administration.

But few of them, if any, will be installed by the time Mr Biden is sworn in as President on Wednesday (Jan 20).

Cabinet secretaries and certain senior officials must be approved by the Senate, which has been slow to announce confirmation hearings amid the political turmoil caused by President Donald Trump's denial of his electoral defeat.

Control of the Senate was also decided fairly late, on Jan 6, following two run-off races in Georgia.

This delay in confirming his administration places Mr Biden behind his two predecessors: Mr Trump had two Cabinet members confirmed by the time he took office, while former president Barack Obama had six.

Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defence nominee Lloyd Austin, Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen, Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines will be grilled by the Senate on Tuesday, in the first set of confirmation hearings scheduled so far.

Another hearing has been pencilled in for Thursday for Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg.

The impeachment trial of Mr Trump may also delay Cabinet confirmations, although Mr Biden has expressed hopes that the Senate could split its time between advancing his agenda and trying Mr Trump.

"I hope that the Senate leadership will find a way to deal with their constitutional responsibilities on impeachment while also working on the other urgent business of this nation," he said in a statement last Wednesday, issued after the House of Representatives voted to impeach Mr Trump.

"From confirmations to key posts such as Secretaries for Homeland Security, State, Defence, Treasury, and Director of National Intelligence, to getting our vaccine programme on track, and to getting our economy going again. Too many of our fellow Americans have suffered for too long over the past year to delay this urgent work," he added.

Mr Biden's Cabinet looks set to be historically diverse if confirmed, fulfilling his promise to have his administration "look like the country".

They include a number of groundbreaking firsts: Mr Austin would be the first black defence secretary and Ms Yellen the first woman treasury secretary. Former official Alejandro Mayorkas would be the first Hispanic homeland security secretary, and lawmaker Deb Haaland, Mr Biden's pick for secretary of the interior, would be the first Native American Cabinet secretary.

Mr Biden will also have appointed more women to his Cabinet than his six predecessors, according to an analysis last week by the Brookings Institution think tank.

Most of them fit the same general profile: experienced careerists familiar to the public or to experts from their time in the Obama administration, with glittering resumes that span decades and presidencies. Several are long-time Biden aides, or worked closely with him when he was Mr Obama's vice-president.

For instance Mr Blinken, the top diplomat-to-be, was a long-time foreign policy aide from 1994 and rose to become deputy national security adviser in 2013, before being appointed as deputy secretary of state in 2015.

(Clockwise from top left) Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken, Treasury Secretary nominee Janet Yellen, Secretary of Defence nominee Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of the Interior nominee Deb Haaland and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines. PHOTOS: REUTERS, AFP

Likewise, Ms Yellen, the incoming Treasury Secretary, was the former chairman of the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018. She first joined the Federal Reserve's board of governors in 1994, and after a three-year stint as chair of Council of Economic Advisers, eventually returned and rose to the number one position.

There will also be old faces in new roles. Judge Merrick Garland, whose nomination by Mr Obama to the Supreme Court was thwarted by Republicans, was nominated by Mr Biden to be the Attorney General, while former national security adviser Susan Rice will be Director of the Domestic Policy Council.

And in a nod to the importance of combating climate change, Mr Biden also appointed former secretary of state John Kerry to the newly created Cabinet-level position of climate czar, which includes a seat on the National Security Council.

But some nominees have drawn criticism from progressives for their corporate ties or recent work in lobbying firms.

Retired general Lloyd Austin, who oversaw the withdrawal of American troops from Iraq, would require a waiver from Congress to become defence secretary, as he has been out of uniform for fewer than seven years.

But some Democrats have expressed unease at granting a waiver, while other progressives are wary of his time on the board of military contractor Raytheon Technologies, which he joined in 2016.

For Asia, several appointees who appear geared towards strategic competition with China will have drawn Beijing's attention. But they share the deep belief of their boss in multilateralism and the importance of working with allies in standing up to China, and have written commentaries.

Of particular note are incoming National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, an Obama-era foreign policy aide who has spoken out against Beijing's trade war with Canberra and arrest of Hong Kong activists, as well as former diplomat Kurt Campbell. He was one of the architects behind Mr Obama's "pivot to Asia" strategy, and has been appointed Mr Biden's Indo-Pacific region coordinator.

Ms Katherine Tai, Mr Biden's pick for US Trade Representative (USTR), is a veteran trade lawyer with China expertise, having been chief counsel for China trade enforcement at the Office of USTR from 2011 to 2014.

With Democrats in control of the Senate, albeit by the slimmest majority, Mr Biden will have an easier time putting his team into place.

Said Mr Damon Wilson, executive vice-president of the Atlantic Council think tank: "Biden should be able to build his foreign-policy team more quickly - enabling him to begin executing his foreign-policy agenda more quickly."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.