Biden Opts for 'Experience' of Obama Era Staff in New Gov't Picks

Susan Rice, who served as Obama’s national security adviser and UN ambassador, will become director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, while Obama's ex-chief of staff Denis McDonough is nominated as veterans affairs secretary

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: U.S. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris (L) looks on as former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice delivers remarks after being introduced at U.S. President-elect Joe Biden�s choice to lead his Domestic Policy Council at the Queen Theater on December 11, 2020
Former Obama National Security Advisor Susan Rice speaking after being introduced as U.S. President-elect Joe Biden's choice to his Domestic Policy Council, December 11, 2020, in DelawareCredit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA - AFP

President-elect Joe Biden on Friday introduced a series of key picks for his new government that drew heavily from the Obama administration, saluting their “deep experience” while insisting he could rely on them for “bold new thinking.”

Appearing with Biden were his choice for director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser and UN ambassador; and Denis McDonough, Obama’s White House chief of staff, now nominated as veterans affairs secretary.

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His choice for agriculture secretary, Tom Vilsack, served in the same post for Obama for eight years.

Biden’s selection for housing chief, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge, had been championed by some leading African American members of Congress and civil rights activists for agriculture secretary, in an effort to overhaul how the government combats hunger nationwide. Biden seemed to acknowledge that, saying she could “do many jobs beyond the one I’m asking her to do.”

He was unapologetic in repeatedly noting how long he’d known many of the selections.

“Some are familiar faces. Some are new in their roles. All are facing new circumstances and challenges. That’s a good thing,” Biden said during an event at a theater in downtown Wilmington, Delaware. “They bring deep experience and bold new thinking. Above all, they know how government should and can work for all Americans.”

Relying too heavily on Obama administration veterans has already begun to draw some grumbling from members of Biden’s own party, however. Obama was first elected on promises to move beyond partisan politics, but saw some major policy goals crash into an uncooperative Congress, especially after Republican gains in the 2010 midterms.

Some progressives feel the Obama team should have been bolder in its efforts to remake government and worry that Biden will fall into the same trap.

Mark Riddle, a Democratic strategist who founded a pro-Biden Super PAC during the 2020 presidential campaign, said there is no danger in relying too heavily on “all star” former Obama administration leaders. But he advised Biden’s team to prioritize controlling the coronavirus pandemic enough to spur economic growth, rather than having arguments over social policies that might allow congressional Republicans to more easily block sweeping policy initiatives.

“The success or failure of the administration out of the box is going to be, Do they focus on jobs?,” Riddle said. “If we come out of the box on jobs, jobs, jobs, I feel great. If we are about a bunch of other, say, progressive ideals, we could be right back where we were.”

Biden called Vilsack “the best secretary of agriculture I believe this country’s ever had,” and Vilsack, former governor of the farming state of Iowa, talked about bringing assistance to rural areas. But he also pledged Friday to ensure that every child nationwide has “access to safe, affordable, nutritious food.”

Fudge said that under her direction the Department of Housing and Urban Development will ensure people know “that their government cares about them.”

McDonough has been tasked with running a large agency that has presented organizational challenges for both parties over the years. Biden noted how he had traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan and had a deep understanding of veterans’ issues and the sacrifices of those who serve in the military and their families.

“I have given Denis a clear mission: fight like hell — fight like hell — for veterans and their families,” the president-elect said.

Rice, who was once thought to be a finalist to become Biden’s running mate before he settled on Kamala Harris, is set to have wide ranging sway over the incoming administration’s approach to immigration, health care and racial inequality. She worked closely with Biden when he was Obama’s vice president and won’t require Senate confirmation — which could have faced stiff Republican opposition.

“She’s going to elevate and turbocharge a revitalized domestic policy council,” Biden vowed.

Katherine Tai, who is chief trade counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee, is Biden’s pick for U.S. trade representative. Tai, like those in line to head agencies, requires Senate approval.

Rice and Fudge are African American and Tai is Asian American, reflecting Biden’s promise to choose a diverse Cabinet that reflects the makeup of the country.

Biden said his choices “have different backgrounds and lived experiences.”

“And,” he said “they all reflect the very best of our nation.”

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