Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your wrap-up of the week in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.
Sign up here to get On Politics in your inbox every weekday.
The holidays always feel like such a transitional time: the final egg-nog-soaked parties of the year, before the resolutions and restarts come.
This year, I find myself missing those traditions — and who thought you could miss awkward small talk? — but that sense of future transformation is everywhere. The first inoculations of a new vaccine, the final gasps of the election and a new administration waiting to take power.
In recent weeks, President-elect Joe Biden and his team have been dropping hints about the changes to come, gradually shaping the new government with their cabinet picks. Some of the biggest posts, including the attorney general, remain unfilled. But we’re starting to get our first real sense of the people who will help define U.S. policy for the next few years.
Here’s what we know so far about Mr. Biden’s cabinet and what his picks tell us about his approach to governance, political priorities and leadership style. (Want to know who has been selected? We’re keeping a running tally.)
They’re the old guard. Literally.
Sure, Mr. Biden selected Pete Buttigieg, 38, as secretary of transportation. But don’t let the selection of the wunderkind former mayor deceive you. Mr. Biden’s cabinet is, well, mature.
In 2009, Mr. Biden, then 66, was the oldest member of President Barack Obama’s first cabinet. More than a decade later, five members of his own proposed cabinet are even older. Janet Yellen, his pick for Treasury secretary, would be the most senior official at 74 — and is still four years younger than Mr. Biden.
Only four of the 20 or so top officials he’s picked so far are under 50: Mr. Buttigieg, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and Michael Regan as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.
But age is just a number, right? Yes, unless you’re trying to usher in the next era of the Democratic Party. It’s not just Mr. Biden’s cabinet that’s older, but the entire leadership of his party. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is 80; Chuck Schumer, the Senate minority leader, is 70; and Mr. Biden will be the oldest president in American history when he takes office at 78.
During his campaign, Mr. Biden cast himself as a “transition candidate,” an elder statesman who would help foster new Democratic talent. But his cabinet doesn’t look like much of a bridge between generations.
They look like an Obama reboot.
Typically, when new presidents enter the White House, they infuse our national political drama with a new cast of characters.
Many of Mr. Biden’s picks seem to be entering their second or third season.
Most of them served with Mr. Biden during the Obama administration — some even in the same position, like Tom Vilsack, who was Mr. Obama’s agriculture secretary for eight years. Others got a promotion: Alejandro Mayorkas was deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under the Obama administration and has now been picked for the top job.
With the pandemic still raging, Mr. Biden and his team will inherit a country facing extraordinary economic, foreign policy and public health challenges. Under those circumstances, the president-elect and his allies have argued that he needs to pick experienced Washington technocrats who know how to navigate the bureaucracy.
Of course, the risk of picking the same old people is that you end up with the same old ideas, rather than defining a new governing doctrine.
Mr. Biden vowed to pick the most diverse cabinet in history — and he seems well on his way to fulfilling that pledge. At least 10 of his top-level picks so far are women and 11 are people of color.
If confirmed, his cabinet members would include, to name a few, the first female Treasury secretary (Ms. Yellen), the first openly gay Senate-approved cabinet member (Mr. Buttigieg), the first Latino and first immigrant to head the Department of Homeland Security (Mr. Mayorkas) and the first Native American cabinet member (Deb Haaland as interior secretary).
At the same time, Mr. Biden’s promise has kicked off some fierce fights within his party. When he chose Lloyd Austin for defense secretary — potentially the first Black man to run the Pentagon — some women in national security were upset that Michèle Flournoy was passed over. Hispanic lawmakers have been pressing for at least two Latinas in crucial roles, and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus has pushed for greater representation, too. Civil rights groups, meanwhile, are urging Mr. Biden to pick a Black attorney general with a proven track record on issues like criminal justice and voting rights.
The early battles may be a preview of what Mr. Biden will have to navigate as he tries to unify a fractious, diverse party behind his agenda.
The Presidential Transition
They’re a team of … pals?
Shortly before Mr. Obama became president, he told reporters of his plans to create a “team of rivals” — stealing a phrase from Abraham Lincoln’s famous desire for cabinet members who would challenge one another.
Mr. Biden appears to be taking the opposite approach. Known to prize loyalty, he’s made personal relationships central to his governing style. His chief of staff, Ron Klain, first worked for him more than three decades ago as a congressional aide. Antony Blinken, his choice for secretary of state, has been at his side for nearly 20 years.
Mr. Obama picked Hillary Clinton, his biggest Democratic primary rival, for secretary of state; Mr. Biden skipped over Elizabeth Warren, one of his most formidable opponents, for Treasury secretary.
Instead, he selected Ms. Yellen — the woman Mr. Obama nominated to lead the Federal Reserve in 2013.
Joe Biden is still Joe Biden.
Progressives seem to have enough clout to stop Mr. Biden from picking some people they strongly oppose — see: Emanuel, Rahm — but not quite enough power to get their allies in top posts. With the exception of Ms. Haaland, the liberal wing of the party hasn’t elevated many of its stars.
In fact, many of Mr. Biden’s picks seem intended to avoid antagonizing Republicans, a strategic choice given that they could still control the Senate in January. Some Democrats are skeptical of that approach, arguing that Mitch McConnell, the Republican majority leader, will torpedo all of Mr. Biden’s initiatives no matter who’s on his team.
What we can conclude from all of this political maneuvering may not particularly be surprising: Mr. Biden remains a centrist, establishment politician. And he is crafting a centrist, establishment administration.
Happy New Year!
Thanks for sticking with us through this annus horribilis. Gio and I are taking a little break, and we’ll see you in 2021. Here’s hoping for a new year packed with vaccines, good health and far fewer breaking news alerts.
What’s next before Inauguration Day?
(The important word is drama. At this point, any efforts to change the outcome of the 2020 election are pure political theater.)
The action now moves to Congress, which will formally count the electoral votes in a joint session held in the House chamber on Jan. 6, with Vice President Mike Pence presiding. There is no debate permitted during the counting of the electoral votes. But there is a process by which members can lodge their opposition to a state’s ballots.
Already, at least two House members — incoming Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Representative Mo Brooks of Alabama — plan to raise formal objections. Their effort is expected to be little more than a symbolic stand. Any objection must pass both chambers with a simple majority, a highly unlikely outcome given Democratic control of the House.
In a recognition of political reality, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky began a campaign this week to keep Republicans from joining the doomed effort, hoping to avoid the spectacle of starting the new Congress with a messy partisan battle.
Perhaps his biggest obstacle? Soon-to-be-former President Trump may have other ideas.
Want to know more? Here’s our explainer on what happens next.
By the numbers: 7.8 million
… That’s the number of Americans who have fallen into poverty since June, according to new data released this week by researchers at the University of Chicago and the University of Notre Dame.
It is the biggest increase in a single year since the government began tracking poverty numbers six decades ago.
As we say at The New York Times, remember the neediest this holiday season.
Thanks for reading. On Politics is your guide to the political news cycle, delivering clarity from the chaos.
On Politics is also available as a newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.
Is there anything you think we’re missing? Anything you want to see more of? We’d love to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.