Andrew Jackson assembled a Kitchen Cabinet to run the government. Franklin D. Roosevelt turned to his fabled Brain Trust and JFK famously recruited the Best and the Brightest. Now comes Joe Biden, whose high-level nominees suggest something that should be called the Fedora Cabinet.
Given their astonishing lack of relevant experience, it appears that Biden put the names of all the people he liked in a hat and then randomly drew them out. How else to explain his selection of Neera Tanden, who is not an economist, to run the Office of Management and Budget?
Or Pete Buttigieg, whose biggest job was mayor of the small city of South Bend, Ind., to be secretary of transportation? Or California Attorney General Xavier Beccera to run the Department of Health and Human Services?
Jennifer Granholm did serve two terms as Michigan’s governor, but it’s hard to see how that qualifies her to oversee America’s vast nuclear arsenal as the secretary of energy.
Maybe the biggest head-scratcher is his selection of Susan Rice, whose entire career has been devoted to foreign affairs, to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council. Perhaps her run as President Obama’s national security adviser was so disastrous that Biden figured she must be better at something else.
To test the Fedora theory, rearrange those names anyway you like. Put Mayor Pete at Energy, Granholm at HHS and Becerra at Transportation – does that make a whit of difference? If Biden had switched things up and tapped Rice to run the OMB and installed Tanden at the Domestic Policy Council would anybody have said, “Wait, he got that backwards”?
Biden’s picks suggest a new chapter in the rise of identity politics. In the olden days, one’s training and accomplishments were the measuring stick for employment. Future leaders toiled long and hard in their chosen fields in the hope that one day they might run the show.
Today, it’s not what you know but who you are that counts. The need to have a government that looks like America – or at least that tiny sliver that attended Ivy League schools – matters most.
This anybody-for-anything approach is not without precedent. It recalls the earlier days of the patronage system where loyalty was more important than knowledge. FDR didn’t tap his campaign manager James Farley as postmaster general because Farley knew anything about the U.S. mail. He wanted a trusted adviser close at hand. Biden is also making most every position seem like the ambassadorship to France – a reward for loyalty and support (thanks for the greenbacks, enjoy Paree!) rather than an acknowledgment of ability.
His selections do have one thing in common: Where Abraham Lincoln created a Team of Rivals, Biden is creating a Team of Partisans. If Tanden, Granholm, Becerra and Rice have distinguished themselves through the years, it is as sharp-elbowed combatants; Buttigieg, blessedly, has been more restrained.
Tanden reportedly deleted more than 1,000 tweets that attacked government officials and pushed anti-Trump conspiracy theories in advance of her Senate confirmation hearing. Becerra has spent much of his time as California’s AG suing the Trump administration, bringing more than 100 lawsuits against the federal government. Since leaving office in 2011, Granholm has become a fixture on cable TV where she has castigated Republicans and advanced the debunked claim that Trump was in cahoots with Vladimir Putin.
Rice has a long record of partisan service – from taking to the airwaves in 2012 to falsely claim that the deadly attacks on the U.S. compound in Benghazi was inspired by a video to her unflagging efforts pushing phony theories about Russian influence in America.
Biden says he wants to unify the nation, but his Fedora Cabinet suggests that brass knuckles and party loyalty are the prime qualifications to serve in his administration. The only mystery is why he didn’t name his wife to run Health and Human Services. At least she’s a doctor.