Biden builds a team of longtime allies, with few fresh faces at the top

President-elect Joe Biden added Denis McDonough and Susan E. Rice to his governing team Thursday, bolstering a strategy of turning to Obama-era figures and longtime allies while so far leaving little room at the top for fresh faces from the next generation of Democrats.

Biden’s choice of McDonough, who served as President Barack Obama’s chief of staff, as his secretary of veterans affairs stunned veterans groups, which immediately raised alarms that McDonough had never served in uniform. In selecting Rice, a national security adviser under Obama, as director of the Domestic Policy Council, Biden moved to avoid a bruising confirmation fight because the position does not require congressional approval.

The choices provided a fuller picture of the type of government Biden is building, one that relies heavily on officials who have spent decades in public service — and has several historic firsts among the nominations — but has had less space for rising Democratic stars and representatives of the party’s liberal wing. That is prompting opposition not just from Republicans but also from some of the Democrats and liberals who Biden kept united during the general election campaign.

Varshini Prakash, executive director of the liberal Sunrise Movement, said some diverse candidates were apparently getting bypassed in favor of more-establishment figures, citing for example the uncertainty over whether Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a Native American, will be chosen as interior secretary.

“It is shameful that strong, qualified women of color are allegedly being pushed out of the running for roles they are qualified to fill in order to make room for men with corporate connections,” Prakash said.

The McDonough and Rice picks were only the latest examples of Biden leaning on the familiar. He formally confirmed on Thursday that Tom Vilsack, who was Obama’s longest-serving Cabinet member, would reprise his role as agriculture secretary, prompting criticism from some Black leaders.

The transition also formally announced that Rep. Marcia L. Fudge (D-Ohio) would be nominated as secretary of housing and urban development and Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative. The five latest picks will join Biden for a formal introduction in Wilmington, Del., on Friday afternoon.

[Election results under attack]Taken as a whole, the nominations underscore Biden’s longevity in politics, as he increasingly turns toward those who he’s known and worked with for decades. In some cases the choices are not an obvious fit, signaling that Biden is prioritizing familiarity, diversity and competence over subject matter expertise.

During the campaign, Biden spoke of providing a bridge to a new generation of Democrats. But other than Vice resident-elect Kamala D. Harris, Biden so far has selected no one, for example, from the diverse group of two dozen Democrats who ran against him for the nomination.

His incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, was his former chief of staff. Jake Sullivan, who was Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president, is becoming his national security adviser as president. The former deputy secretary of state, Antony Blinken, will be secretary of state — a position once held by John F. Kerry, who now will be climate envoy.

Another big selling point for Biden is a candidate’s friendship with his late son Beau. The president-elect’s pick to run the Pentagon, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin, attended Mass with Beau when they were deployed together in Iraq. Harris was also good friends with Beau, a relationship that played no small part in her selection.

One of the freshest faces to the highest levels of government is Biden’s nominee for secretary of health and human services. Still, Xavier Becerra, a former 12-term member of Congress, is hardly new. He left Congress in 2017 to become California’s attorney general partly to advance his political career outside of Washington, where top Democratic congressional leadership was entrenched.

Biden’s emerging team gives him a level of comfort and trust, something he prizes. It also reflects a belief among his top advisers that the morale of the federal workforce under Trump has fallen to an all-time low, requiring an all-out push to restore faith in institutions that have been damaged over the past four years.

But in choosing figures who bring reassurance and familiarity, Biden is hardly avoiding controversy.

Rice was a high-level official in Obama’s administration, first serving as United Nations ambassador and later as national security adviser. Her office was next to Biden’s in the northwest corner of the White House, and Biden would often drop in unannounced.

She was considered as a potential Biden running mate, and was also a possible secretary of state, but his advisers were wary of what could be a tough confirmation fight. Republicans have targeted Rice because of comments she made in the aftermath of the 2012 Benghazi attacks that they consider misleading.

By selecting her as domestic policy adviser, Biden is avoiding the need for Senate confirmation — and putting Rice in an unexpected role for someone whose career has been built on foreign policy. A transition official, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the decision reflects Biden’s view of foreign and domestic economic policy as increasingly intertwined.

He also values Rice’s crisis management skills, experience working across federal agencies and negotiating ability, the official said. In formally introducing Rice on Friday, Biden is expected to cite her personal story, including how her grandparents immigrated from Jamaica and how she become a Stanford-educated Rhodes Scholar.

Biden is also displaying a willingness to face a significant degree of criticism to get the team he wants.

Austin, for example, is facing growing controversy over a congressional waiver he will need to become defense secretary after recently serving in the military. Several prominent Democratic senators — including Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) — have already said they will oppose granting the waiver.

Biden chose Vilsack despite sharp opposition from prominent civil rights leaders upset about Vilsack’s 2010 firing of Shirley Sherrod, an African American who was Georgia state director of rural development for the Agriculture Department. Sherrod was fired after a conservative website posted excerpts from one of her speeches that appeared racist; the full text made it clear her remarks had been taken out of context, and she was offered another federal job.

Black farmers have also said Vilsack did not do enough to listen and work with them during his previous eight years in the position. Prakash, of the Sunrise Movement, criticized Biden for bypassing Fudge in that role and instead choosing her for HUD.

“While we believe Rep. Fudge can excel at any leadership position, we share the confusion of many about this move, and are left to believe this choice stems from shallow racial stereotypes about the office,” Prakash said in a statement.

She called Vilsack’s appointment “a slap in the face to Black Americans who delivered the election to Joe Biden” and raised concerns about his work in the private sector after leaving the Obama administration.

The choice of McDonough to lead the Department of Veterans Affairs, which like Rice’s selection was first reported by Politico, came as a shock to many advocates. McDonough would be the 11th confirmed VA secretary since the agency was elevated to a Cabinet-level organization in 1989, but only its second non-veteran leader.

The other non-veteran was David Shulkin, who was appointed by Trump. But Shulkin was a physician and longtime health-care executive, so his experience meshed more clearly with VA’s mission of providing medical care.

McDonough’s name was not on a list circulated to Capitol Hill and veterans groups, which were led to believe the top contender was Patrick Murphy, a Democratic former congressman from Pennsylvania and an Iraq War veteran.

“I don’t get it. I don’t understand the nomination,” said Joe Chenelly, executive director of American Veterans, an advocacy group known as Amvets. “He’s not a veteran. What we really want to understand is Joe Biden’s thinking on this. There were some really good candidates out there. McDonough has no background in health care or experience running a big organization.”

The pick was so unexpected that while Amvets prepared news releases on other candidates, it had not put together any material on McDonough, Chenelly said.

The group had been looking forward to a woman or a veteran of the post-9/11 military to lead VA, Chenelly said. Women are the fastest-growing group of veterans.

“We were thinking this was going to be history,” Chenelly said. “But not this kind of history.”

McDonough was Obama’s chief of staff during his second term, and he previously served as deputy national security adviser and chief of staff to the National Security Council. Biden viewed those roles as important in selecting McDonough to head VA, according to a source familiar with the selection, speaking on the condition of anonymity before the formal announcement.

But McDonough has never overseen anything close to the size of VA, a sprawling agency with nearly 380,000 employees and a budget request of $263 billion in 2021.

“He’ll have to go a long way to prove himself to a very skeptical population who would prefer someone with more direct veteran and VA experience,” said Jeremy Butler, chief executive of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America. “He’s starting in a position of public deficit because of who he is not.”

But McDonough’s supporters noted that in his roles under Obama he visited Walter Reed National Military Medical Center regularly and met with service members in Iraq and Afghanistan. McDonough’s wife, Kari, is president and co-founder of Vets’ Community Connections, a nonprofit group based in San Diego focused on strengthening ties between veterans and the larger communities.

“He is an experienced leader who has helped #DeptVA through [its] toughest days in 2014 and cares deeply about #veterans,” Shulkin tweeted. “He will do a great job.”

During the campaign, Biden often spoke of the importance of taking care of veterans. He ends almost every speech with “May God protect our troops,” and he repeatedly voiced anger after reports that Trump had disparaged fallen soldiers.

Rick Weidman, executive director for policy and government affairs at Vietnam Veterans of America, said it was more important for McDonough to be experienced and influential within policy circles.

“You don’t have to be a veteran to be a great veterans’ advocate,” Weidman said. “He’s very serious and he’ll get things done.”

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