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Joe Biden’s cabinet: What you need to know about the President’s key advisers and their top priorities

Nicole Goodkind
·16 min read

The first rule of management is delegation. President Joe Biden, who is overseeing the country through an unprecedented pandemic that has killed more than 430,000 Americans and severely altered the economy, will need to rely heavily on his cabinet over the next four years to ensure a safe and swift recovery from COVID-19. 

This group of 15 will guide and advise the President, oversee huge workforces and budgets, work with Congress to push for policy changes, and, in many cases, use their federal authority to make changes of their own. These are the people who often fly under the radar but have just as much, if not more, of an impact on national policy than any elected official. 

Only three members have been officially confirmed by Congress thus far—Antony Blinken, Janet Yellen, and Lloyd Austin—but the rest of the confirmation votes will roll in within the next few weeks.

Here’s what you need to know about Biden’s cabinet, and what they’ll be prioritizing over the next year.

Antony Blinken, Secretary of State 

Blinken has been a close adviser to President Joe Biden for two decades, as his aide on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as his national security adviser when he was Vice President. Together, the pair have worked to repair tensions in the Middle East with a particular focus on Egypt, Iraq, Syria, and Libya.

Now, as the President’s chief foreign affairs adviser, Blinken will prioritize reestablishing relationships with allies and groups around the globe that the Trump administration either broke or left dangling. That means rejoining the World Health Organization and the Paris climate accord and reentering the Iran nuclear deal. It also means working with other countries to compete with China and to pressure China around trade negotiations, something that Biden has spoken about on many occasions.

Blinken has also made clear that he will take a hard stance against Russian interference in American politics and across the globe. 

Blinken is well respected on both sides of the aisle, particularly for his negotiations around the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, when he served as President Obama’s deputy secretary of state. During the Trump administration, he worked at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace where he focused on centering foreign policy around the American middle-class, another ongoing theme of the Biden administration.

Janet Yellen, Secretary of Treasury 

As the first female Treasury Secretary, Yellen will serve as Biden’s top fiscal adviser at one of the most significant economic junctures in U.S. history. The first 100 days of the Biden administration will largely be spent on attempting to pass a comprehensive COVID-19 relief and stimulus package that will aid ailing local and state economies, individual Americans, and struggling businesses.

Yellen, who served as chair of the Federal Reserve under Presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump and as chair of the Council of Economic Advisers under President Bill Clinton, is well known and well respected by congressional leaders on both sides of the aisle. Her expertise and the trust leaders place in her will be crucial to getting any relief deal passed.

Yellen has indicated that she’ll use her time at the Treasury to focus on creating economic opportunity for minority and female Americans, and that income and wealth inequality will be at the crux of most of her policy recommendations.

Large-scale infrastructure plans, policy to address climate change by creating green jobs, and working to create a more fair trade relationship with China are also on her jam-packed docket.

Lloyd Austin, Secretary of Defense 

Retired four-star Gen. Lloyd Austin was confirmed by Congress as the first Black secretary of defense earlier this month in a 93-to-2 vote. Austin served in the Army for more than 40 years and has made a career out of firsts. He was the first Black American general to command a theater of war in Iraq and the first to serve as vice chief of staff for the U.S. Army. He became close to Biden while he was head of U.S. forces in Iraq and knew his late son, Beau.

He enters his role as the U.S. faces a number of precarious issues globally and at home. Just before leaving office, President Trump withdrew 3,000 troops from Iraq and Afghanistan; Austin has indicated that he may review those orders and reassess. 

And while the vast majority of Austin’s experience is focused on Iraq and Afghanistan, he will have to manage ongoing threats from China and Iran as well. “I think China is our most significant challenge going forward,” he told Congress during his hearing. Iran, he said, was a “destabilizing force.”

He’ll also need to focus on his troops at home. A recent NPR study found that 20% of Trump supporters who were charged in the raiding of the Capitol were either veterans or currently serving in the military. Addressing extremists within the military ranks is something Austin said he takes seriously.

“We woke up one day and discovered that we had extremist elements in our ranks, and they did bad things,” Austin said during his confirmation hearing. “The signs for that activity were there all along. We just didn’t know what to look for or what to pay attention to.” He said the military had learned from the Capitol riots and would soon take further action.

Merrick Garland, Attorney General 

Judge Merrick Garland is perhaps best known to the American public as President Barack Obama’s 2016 nominee for the Supreme Court, a pick that was famously nixed by Senate Republicans. Those Republicans will now be asked to once again meet with Garland and confirm his position as the top lawyer and law enforcement officer for the federal government.

But the federal appeals court judge comes with decades of experience, particularly at the Justice Department where he supervised the prosecution of the Oklahoma City bomber in 1995, and it appears that his confirmation will go smoothly this time around.

If confirmed, Garland would have a lot of potentially politically sticky problems to deal with, such as an ongoing investigation of President Biden’s son Hunter, related to “tax affairs.” He would also face pressure from congressional Democrats to open investigations into President Donald Trump and his family members.

Garland would take the lead on any investigation into the Capitol Hill riots, its instigators, and the ongoing prosecution of those involved. 

Garland, who likes to paint himself as a relative centrist, has indicated that restoring the perception of the Department of Justice as a nonpolitical entity, a concept that Trump eschewed, is of the utmost importance to him.

Deb Haaland, Secretary of Interior 

If confirmed to her position, Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.) will become the first Native American ever to serve in a cabinet position. The enrolled member of the Laguna Pueblo would also lead the department most critical to tribal governments.

The Department of the Interior includes the bureaus of Indian Affairs and Indian Education, ensures wildlife protection, and oversees public lands, which account for about one-fifth of the country.

Under President Trump, Secretary David Bernhardt worked closely with large energy companies to auction land for oil and energy speculation. He also worked to loosen protections for national monuments and endangered species. Things will—and already have—changed under Biden and Haaland.

Immediately after taking office, Biden ordered a pause on oil and gas sales on public lands and a 60-day suspension of new drilling permits for U.S. lands and waters. Haaland was a cosponsor of the Green New Deal in Congress as well as the 30 by 30 resolution, which would set a goal for the U.S. to conserve at least 30% of its ocean and land by 2030. Biden has indicated that he supports the plan.

Haaland’s confirmation hearing has been delayed until next month, but she has experienced some blowback from Republicans who say that they worry about the economic impact of a cutback on U.S. oil production.

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture

Vilsack ran the USDA under President Obama for eight years before joining the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a trade group. 

While Vilsack may at first appear to be a safe choice for Biden, he’s quickly becoming one of his most controversial cabinet picks. Progressives worry that his work with the Dairy Export Council will color his policy and that he will favor large, corporate farm interests. His pro-corporate policies, they argue, will drive farmers away from the Democratic Party.

The USDA also handles the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (also known as food stamps) and school meals, which about one in four Americans take advantage of. As the COVID-19 pandemic causes more Americans to become food insecure, Vilsack will likely focus on how to best expand these programs and allocate resources.

Gina Raimondo, Secretary of Commerce

At the helm of the Commerce Department, Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo would be in charge of the Census, an important tool for resource allocation and the shaping of political districts. The 2020 Census, administered this year, became largely politicized by the Trump administration over the inclusion of a question about citizenship.

“I believe that we need to take the politics out of the Census, and we need to rely on the experts,” Raimondo said to lawmakers during her confirmation hearing this month. “The experts and statisticians in the Census Bureau are top notch, so I, once confirmed, intend to rely on them.”

As commerce secretary, Raimondo would also oversee the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which includes the National Weather Service. As governor, she actively promoted the use of offshore wind farms, which she will likely continue to do in her role overseeing the NOAA.

Marty Walsh, Secretary of Labor 

If confirmed, Boston Mayor and former union leader Marty Walsh will run the Department of Labor, an agency vital to the implementation of the President’s pro-labor policy agenda.

Walsh will take on the role in the midst of a pandemic economy that has produced record-high unemployment and a workforce that is increasingly dropping out of the labor market altogether. And a split Congress makes it difficult for Biden to implement some of his more progressive or union-friendly labor policy.

Still, Walsh will have the power to increase oversight and safety in the workplace and to aid workers by making it easier for them to train and unionize.

Biden and Walsh have had a long-standing working relationship. They were seen together after the Boston Marathon bombings, and Biden even spoke at Walsh’s 2017 mayoral inauguration.

Xavier Becerra, Secretary of Health and Human Services

If confirmed, Becerra, California’s attorney general and Biden’s pick to head the HHS, will be propelled into one of the most important roles in the country. 

The HHS plays an essential part in coordinating the response to crises like COVID-19; it oversees the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Food and Drug Administration, and the National Institutes of Health. As America crosses the 25 million threshold of reported COVID-19 cases, Becerra would essentially be in charge of the approval and coordination of vaccines as well as any health recommendations and regulations issued by the CDC.

It’s a huge job, and Becerra will work hand in hand with agencies like the Department of Defense to procure tests as well as personal protective equipment for those who need it.

Becerra, who would be the first Latino to lead the agency, was a congressman for two decades as well as a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee overseeing Medicare before he became the California attorney general. There he established a relationship with Biden and helped write the Affordable Care Act. 

Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development

If confirmed, Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge will face one of the most severe housing crises in our nation’s history, with millions facing imminent eviction and homelessness on the rise as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. About one in five renters and one in 10 homeowners are currently behind on housing payments.

“My first priority as secretary would be to alleviate that crisis and get people the support they need to come back from the edge,” Fudge said this week during her confirmation hearing. She emphasized that the $25 billion Congress approved for emergency rental assistance was not enough, and said she would advocate an additional $25 billion and an increase in housing vouchers.

“Extraordinary times require extraordinary actions. And we are in extraordinary times,” said Fudge. “Whatever it takes, we cannot afford to allow people in the midst of a pandemic to be put in the streets.”

Fudge, who said she learned much about housing and development practices during her time as mayor of Warrensville Heights, Ohio, said she would also use her role to create a direct federal financial assistance program for minority homeowners who need help with their down payments.

Pete Buttigieg, Secretary of Transportation 

Thanks to his presidential run, if confirmed, Buttigieg will be one of the most well-known members of Biden’s cabinet. He’ll also be the first openly gay person ever confirmed to a cabinet seat.

Buttigieg plans to use his role to advocate a wide range of policy changes, involving everything from infrastructure to climate change to recovery from COVID-19. But the former South Bend, Ind., mayor will most likely be focused on smaller details of the job, things like improving rural air quality and trucking regulations.

Transportation has typically been low profile, and the secretary usually works on keeping roads, skies, and other transit systems efficient and safe, but Buttigieg, who has appeared on television regularly since being nominated, could parlay the job into something else: He could become a figurehead for climate change policy. 

He’s also planning on using his role to try to undo some of the legacy of racist urban planning initiatives. “At their worst, misguided policies and missed opportunities in transportation can reinforce racial and economic inequality by dividing or isolating neighborhoods and undermining the government’s basic role of empowering Americans to thrive,” said Buttigieg at his confirmation hearing.

Jennifer Granholm, Secretary of Energy 

As Biden advocates sweeping climate change policy in an evenly divided Senate, former Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm may be his secret weapon.

If confirmed to her role as secretary of energy, she will have a number of resources she can use to cut, and encourage others to cut, greenhouse gas emissions without the aid of Congress.

Granholm will have access to 17 national laboratories to research and develop new, clean technologies, and she’ll have $40 billion in low-interest loans to give out to companies practicing green technology. She would have the authority to change energy efficiency standards for a range of home appliances like light bulbs, air conditioners, and refrigerators. 

But, if confirmed, Granholm will inherit a department with a diminished staff and a long backlog of work from the Trump administration. 

Still, she told the Senate that she was certain she could increase reliance on clean energy and create new jobs at the same time. “The products that reduce carbon emissions are going to create a $23 trillion global market by 2030. That is a massive opportunity,” Granholm told the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “We can put our workers in good-paying jobs, manufacturing and installing those solutions in America.”

Miguel Cardona, Secretary of Education 

Cardona is one of the least-known entities chosen by Biden to fill out his cabinet. He has been a teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, and finally the head of Connecticut’s education agency. But his career-long commitment to public education signals a strong departure from President Trump’s education pick, Betsy DeVos, who prioritized school choice and charter schools and who had little experience within the public education system.

If confirmed, Cardona will face two huge tasks: The first will be navigating the safe reopening of schools in a pandemic-ravaged country, and the second will be working to reduce student loan debt, something that the Biden administration has indicated it might be interested in pursuing.

Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs

Though not a veteran himself, McDonough is expected to sail through his confirmation hearings.

“I’m not telling you that I’m a vet,” McDonough said at his confirmation hearing this week, “but I’m telling you that I’ve come to understand the massive sacrifices they’ve made and the skill with which they’ve done it.”

McDonough previously served as President Obama’s chief of staff and in a senior role on the National Security Council. His experience, he said, has given him the skill set to oversee veteran health care and benefits. “I can unstick problems inside agencies and across agencies, especially at an agency as large as VA,” he said.

The VA oversees health care services for 9 million veterans as well as a number of national cemeteries. McDonough said his No. 1 priority if confirmed would be to ensure that vets receive their COVID-19 vaccinations as soon as possible.

Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Homeland Security 

Mayorkas, who has been quite critical of Homeland Security in the past, is a controversial choice to run the agency—so controversial that Senate Republicans unsuccessfully tried to filibuster the advancement of his nomination. 

Still, Mayorkas is no stranger to the agency. During the Obama administration, he served as director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services and then as deputy secretary at DHS. It’s his focus on loosening immigration policy that Republicans oppose. The Cuban-born lawyer was one of the primary creators of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

Instead of focusing on deportations and family separation, Mayorkas has said that he will shift the agency’s attention to cybersecurity and emergency response. He does not, however, support defunding Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which some progressives have called for.

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