An Introduction to the Men and Women of Biden’s Cabinet.
Written by Cara Robbins
Meet the history-making nominees who comprise one of the most diverse cabinets in American history.
As the new year marked the close of a particularly tumultuous year, it brought with it the opening of 2021 — the year in which Joe Biden has taken the presidency in a time of disease, riots and political instability. The next four years of repairing America’s sense of self will be a challenge and one that will require plenty of people working together in the best interest of the public. In a time like this, knowing who will comprise Biden’s administration is important — though this information tends to be hard to access and its implications even harder to understand. In order to make the next four years of politics easier to access, let’s take a look at the “who” and “what” of Biden’s nominees for the line of presidential succession.
Vice President: Kamala Harris
The main responsibilities of the vice president are to succeed the president upon death or resignation, and to preside over the Senate. Kamala Harris has long been a trailblazer for diversity and inclusion in federal politics, bringing issues of racial discrimination and gender equality to the forefront of her Senate and, now, vice-presidential platform. Her political career began as a deputy district attorney in Oakland, California, where she prosecuted criminal cases such as drug trafficking, sexual abuse and gang violence. She was later elected to the position of attorney general for the state of California, making her not only the first woman, but additionally the first Black person to fill this elected office. Her time in office was marked by her ambition to put pressure on organizations using unfair business practices and to ensure that same-sex marriage was legalized in California. In 2015, she ran for Senate on similar progressive platforms of social justice reform. When she won her election in 2016, she became the first Indian American and only the second Black woman to serve as a senator for the United States. After running for president in the 2020 elections, she was unable to secure the Democratic presidential nomination. Joe Biden chose Harris to run as his VP and serve as the face of his promised diverse administration. In 2020, she became the first woman, the first Black person and the first Indian American to be elected on a presidential ticket.
Secretary of State: Antony Blinken
The secretary of state serves as the president’s main source of advice on foreign affairs, and carries out the president’s foreign policy through the State Department. Antony Blinken is well-versed in working in the executive branch, and in the past he has served as a diplomat in the State Department under Clinton. Under the Obama administration, he held several high-rank positions within the State Department, including deputy secretary of state, deputy assistant to the president and national security advisor to the vice president. Choosing Antony Blinken for the secretary of state position can be seen as Biden drawing from his ties to the Obama administration, while also picking a person that he is comfortable with and has worked extensively with in the past.
Secretary of the Treasury: Janet Yellen
The secretary of treasury helps develop fiscal plans for the country, including tax, international and domestic policy, and managing state debt. Janet Yellen has a long past in the United States economic system, serving as an economic advisor to President Clinton, and most notably becoming the first woman to sit as the head of the Federal Reserve during the Obama administration, handling affairs regarding the national banking system. She also served for two years in this position under the Trump administration, though she was not reappointed. Biden’s decision to choose Yellen reinforces his alignment with the Obama administration and his efforts towards gender equality in the executive branch.
Secretary of Defense: Lloyd Austin
As the name implies, the secretary of defense serves as the main advisor on national defense to the president. Lloyd Austin is a retired 4-star general who served as the first Black commander of the United States Central Command under the Obama administration. His appointment to the position of secretary of defense is yet another effort to tie Biden’s administration to the Obama administration and to ensure strong representation of people of color within the cabinet.
Attorney General: Judge Merrick Garland
The attorney general represents the United States in legal matters. Judge Garland currently serves as a circuit judge of the United States Court of Appeals in the D.C. circuit. Notably, in 2016, President Obama nominated Judge Garland to fill a position on the Supreme Court after the death of Judge Antonin Scalia. The Republican Senate majority refused to allow a hearing to appoint Garland, citing that whoever was elected the next president should have the ability to choose the nominee. This refusal to allow a hearing was extremely controversial. After Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, Scalia's seat went to Neil Gorsuch. Biden’s decision to choose Judge Garland can be interpreted as an attempt to undo or counteract the Trump era.
Secretary of the Interior: Deb Haaland
The secretary of the interior manages the conservation of federal land and natural resources. Haaland formerly served as chairwoman for the Democratic Party of New Mexico. In 2018, she was elected to Congress as a representative of New Mexico’s 1st Congressional district. This made her, alongside Representative Sharice Davids, one of the first Native American women to be elected to the U.S. Congress. If her nomination is approved, Haaland will become the first Native American person to serve as a cabinet secretary. Biden’s decision to nominate Haaland can be seen as part of his promise to create an administration that is diverse in gender and ethnicity. Furthermore, because of Haaland’s extremely progressive voting record (she has supported movements such as Medicare for all, the Green New Deal and abolishing I.C.E.), her nomination could be interpreted as an attempt to combat criticism from people on the left who consider Biden too moderate.
Secretary of Agriculture: Tom Vilsack
The secretary of agriculture provides advice and leadership on nutrition, agriculture, natural resources and the improvement of the economy and quality of life in rural areas. Vilsack previously served as the secretary of agriculture for the entirety of Obama’s administration. Prior to his position on the president’s cabinet, he served as governor of Iowa. He also notably ran for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Biden’s nomination can be seen as another alignment with the Obama administration.
Secretary of Commerce: Gina Raimondo
The secretary of commerce represents U.S. businesses for the president, and helps build balanced economic development and job creation. Early in her career, she co-founded Rhode Island’s first venture capital firm, which helped fund early-stage businesses expected to have high growth rates in exchange for stock. She was notably elected as the governor of Rhode Island, becoming the first woman to hold the position. Biden’s decision to nominate Raimondo can be seen as an effort to include gender diversity in his cabinet.
Secretary of Labor: Martin Walsh
The secretary of labor manages and advises on issues of the rights of workers, retirees and the unemployed. Walsh was elected in 2014 to serve as the mayor of Boston. Biden likely chose Walsh because of their longtime friendship with one another, and because of Walsh’s pro-union stance.
Secretary of Health and Human Services: Xavier Becerra
The secretary of health and human services offers advice and information to the president on matters of human conditions and concerns such as welfare, health and income security. This will be an especially pivotal position in the current pandemic. Becerra is a former representative of the U.S. Congress, where he represented various parts of Los Angeles over the years. Since 2017, he has served as California’s attorney general. Biden’s decision to nominate Becerra came after mounting pressure from public health officials urging the Biden administration to choose someone with a background in medicine, which Becerra notably lacks.
Biden’s decision to nominate Becerra came after mounting pressure from public health officials urging the Biden administration to choose someone with a background in medicine, which Becerra notably lacks.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development: Marcia Fudge
The secretary of housing and urban development offers the president advice regarding the housing needs of Americans, tackles issues such as homelessness, and enforces fair housing laws. Marcia Fudge is a Cleveland native and served as the mayor of Warrensville Heights in her early career. She currently serves as the representative for Ohio’s 11th district in the U.S. Congress, where she represents the population of parts of Cleveland and Akron. Biden’s decision to nominate Fudge is likely to fill on his promise to bring race and gender diversity into his administration.
Secretary of Transportation: Pete Buttigieg
The secretary of transportation manages and advises on matters such as infrastructure of roads and highways, coordinating agreements on international flights, and ensuring that transportation systems are safe and reliable. Pete Buttigieg is a relative newcomer to politics who has previously served as a U.S. Navy intelligence officer and the mayor of South Bend, Indiana. His name reached national recognition when he ran for the Democratic presidential nomination, where his campaign gained considerable traction despite initial low expectations. He is the first openly gay cabinet nominee. Biden’s decision to nominate Buttigieg is likely a symbol of inclusivity of LGBTQ+ people.
Secretary of Energy: Jennifer Granholm
The secretary of energy conducts and promotes research concerning clean energy, maintains the nation’s nuclear security, and reduces the nation’s nuclear footprint. Granholm has previously served as the attorney general of Michigan. In 2003, she became the first woman to serve as Michigan’s governor. In 2008, she also temporarily served as an economic adviser on President Obama’s transition team. During the Obama administration, her name was floated several times to fill the secretary of energy position, and as a possible pick for the Supreme Court. Biden’s decision to nominate Granholm can be interpreted as the fulfillment of possibilities considered by the Obama administration.
Secretary of Education: Miguel Cardona
The secretary of education provides the president advice on national policies and programs concerning education. Cardona will have the power to set the national curriculum taught in schools. He began his career as a fourth-grade teacher at a public school in Connecticut, though he was soon promoted to become the youngest principal in the state. In 2019, he became Connecticut’s commissioner of education. Biden’s decision to nominate Cardona likely comes from a point of diversity representation, as well as choosing an individual who can advise on the needs of underprivileged or overlooked youth in the education system. Because of Cardona’s experience of going to public school as a child who lived in public housing and did not speak English, he has made it a goal during his time as an education leader to level the playing field for students who know English as a second language.
Secretary of Veteran Affairs: Dennis McDonough
The secretary of veteran affairs is concerned with care and memorialization of veterans, handles veterans’ health care and benefits, as well as overseeing veteran memorials and cemeteries. McDonough was a prominent member of President Obama’s administration, serving in positions such as chief of staff of the National Security Council, deputy national security advisor and the White House chief of staff. McDonough notably is not a veteran, and he will be only the second person in American history to fill the position without having any previous experience in the military.
Secretary of Homeland Security: Alejandro Mayorkas
The secretary of homeland security oversees and advises on counterterrorism, border security, cyber security and immigration laws. As a child, Mayorkas arrived in America with his parents as refugees from the Cuban revolution. He later became an assistant U.S. district attorney in California, where he prosecuted financially motivated crimes, typically committed by businesses. Under the Obama administration, he served in several important positions within the Department of Homeland Security, including Director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, and additionally deputy secretary. Biden’s decision to nominate Mayorkas can once again be seen as a step toward diversity and a strong alignment with the Obama era in the White House.