Politico

Joe Biden’s Team of Careerists


The most prominent appointment President-elect Joe Biden has made for his new White House team is Chief of Staff Ron Klain — a long-time Biden adviser who went to Harvard Law School and won a prestigious Supreme Court clerkship.

The most prominent appointment he has made so far to his cabinet is Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken — a long-time Biden adviser who went to Harvard as an undergraduate and then moved through decades of prestigious posts in the Washington foreign policy establishment.

Wait, you may wonder about this apparent Harvard focus, where is the diversity?!

Not to worry. The choice to lead the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan, is a previous Biden adviser who went to Yale, before winning a Rhodes scholarship. And there is still lots of speculation about a likely spot for Bruce Reed, a veteran Biden aide who went to Princeton, before winning a Rhodes scholarship. His choice for Treasury Secretary, Janet Yellen, is not a long-time Biden adviser but is someone he has known for years. She went to Brown and Yale.

The opening days of the transition have highlighted something that has been clear for years to anyone following Biden’s personnel preferences: He tends to have crushes on a couple of well-defined types.

One of those types is the Washington professional with impeccable credentials from elite institutions.

Biden will be the first president since Ronald Reagan not to possess an Ivy League degree at either the undergraduate or graduate level. People who have worked around Biden describe how he sometimes displays an acute awareness of colleagues’ academic bona-fides, and occasional sensitivity about his own. This suggests a parallel with a predecessor who was known for keen awareness of who went where.

“My Harvards,” is what Lyndon B. Johnson called his considerable roster of academic standouts, many of whom he inherited from John F. Kennedy. This group was epitomized by national security adviser McGeorge Bundy, who was both a graduate and dean at Harvard. The phrase, “The Best and the Brightest,” once invoked with genuine admiration, later was used with acid sarcasm as a book title by David Halberstam, after LBJ’s Harvards helped tug him into the Vietnam catastrophe.

“He both respects them and resents them,” one colleague of Biden’s in the Obama White House said of his attitude toward Washington’s large class of academic elites. “He wants their approval,” this person said, but is quick to injury if he perceives condescension.

Biden graduated from the University of Delaware with a shoulder-shrug transcript full of Cs. In 1987, as his first presidential campaign was struggling to get airborne, there was a fuss over Biden’s claim that he graduated from Syracuse University Law School “in the top half of my class.” In fact, he was near the bottom.

But this has for decades been part of a Biden paradox. For years he labored under a reputation for modest intellect, and as recently as this campaign he endured taunts on that theme from President Donald Trump. But, stretching back decades, he has shown an enduring ability to recruit — and, just as importantly, retain — succeeding generations of staff members with glittering smart-kid credentials.

Part of the reason, say veterans of Biden’s Senate and vice presidential operations, is that he was always more conversant in and determined to have impact on first-tier policy issues than his public reputation suggested. He showed respect to ambitious young people and gave them the influence they craved. Klain worked with Biden as chief counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee in his late twenties.

But these people typically also gave Biden, who himself arrived in the Senate at an uncommonly young age, something he craved: A sense of comfort that Washington’s most capable people were fighting for him.

This connection also applies to a second type of Biden favorites. They may have arrived in Washington without head-turning academic credentials, but they quickly excelled as skilled political operators with an extra measure of hustle.

Among those now headed to the White House with Biden as counselor is Steve Ricchetti, who began his career as Washington operative right out of Miami of Ohio in the early 1980s and has been deputy chief of staff in Bill Clinton’s White House and chief of staff to Vice President Biden in the Obama administration. Also going in with Biden as White House senior adviser is veteran political operative Mike Donilon, who has been with him for years. So has Donilon’s sister-in-law, Cathy Russell, who will now run the White House personnel office. Her husband is Tom Donilon, who began in Washington as a young aide to Jimmy Carter and then became Obama’s National Security Adviser.

Even as only a fraction of positions in the Biden administration are filled it is already obvious his team has some defining signatures. After years in which Trump and allies denounced a sinister “Deep State” buried in the executive branch, and many senior jobs went to people with scant credentials other than loyalty to him, the people getting Biden’s top jobs for the most part have been immersed in government and Washington culture for decades — just like their boss.

For all the attention to the various ideological messages Biden may be sending with appointments, as he tries to hold together a Democratic coalition of jostling factions, what he is assembling is not so much a team of rivals as a team of careerists. A contender for Secretary of Defense is Michele Flournoy, who has been in national security circles for decades. She started a public affairs firm with Blinken, and graduated from Harvard a couple years before him.

Perhaps the closest equivalent is George H.W. Bush, who relied on decades-old relationships in Washington to fill his administration. The next four successors —Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama, and Trump — all arrived from outside Washington or after a very short tenure here, and had to integrate personal loyalists into the Washington firmament. In Biden’s case, these two groups are exactly the same.

What’s also notable is how much endurance his team has shown. In most cases they started their Washington careers as prodigies, with impressive jobs at young ages. Now, most are deep into middle age, toiling for a boss who is well past it, as they finally grasp top prizes.

Klain, who served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore before holding the same job for Biden, could plausibly have been a White House chief of staff at age 39 if Gore had won the 2000 election. As it happened, Klain got portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey in the movie “Recount,” but he didn’t get the job he wanted until two decades later.

James P. Rubin, who was a top deputy to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the 1990s but was a foreign policy advisor to Biden on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a decade before that, says there is an important lesson in this endurance. Biden commands long-term loyalty in a way that many politicians do not.

“When you work for him he gives you enormous strength — he trusts you to run with the ball and he protects you when you fumble,” Rubin said. “He gives you great confidence that he would be there for you if you were fighting for him.” It is a pattern that began in his Senate days: “He wanted the best people, he attracted them, he gave them a long leash, and he was at the center of important things.”

Continue

About the author

Lisa

Leave a Comment