As President-elect Joe Biden forms his Cabinet, he will make it a top priority to assemble an economic team that can confront the surging unemployment and business slowdown touched off by the coronavirus pandemic.
Biden will look for a Treasury secretary and other key officials to negotiate with Congress on more stimulus, roll back some of President Donald Trump’s tax cuts and mend relations with U.S. trading partners. A few contenders have emerged to fill the top economic policy jobs, including Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard for Treasury and economist Heather Boushey as director of the National Economic Council.
Building his economic team will be a key part of a broader effort by Biden to fill out the nearly two dozen Cabinet-level positions in his administration. Other crucial jobs include naming the secretaries of Defense, State and Homeland Security, together responsible for carrying out administration policy and overseeing a federal bureaucracy with more than 2 million civilian employees.
In forming his Cabinet, Biden is likely to rely on an inner circle of longtime veterans from the Obama administration, mindful of the possibility Republican-controlled Senate that would almost certainly scuttle nominees for top posts who belong to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.
Still, liberal groups will be policing Biden’s choices closely, fearful that he won’t reach into their ranks for top positions but will instead choose moderate Democrats in his own mold. Biden may try to tamp down that sentiment by putting liberals in jobs that don’t require Senate confirmation.
Biden has vowed to preside over a diverse Cabinet that “looks like the country.” He could make history by naming the first women to lead the Defense and Treasury departments. Nevertheless, his key White House advisers are likely to be white men.
Here are some of the names being mentioned for the top jobs in a Biden administration:
Brainard, a member of the Fed board since 2014, is the clear favorite to become Treasury secretary. She has resisted loosening bank regulations at the Fed board, dissenting on several measures. On monetary policy, she has been a team player, going along with the majority in every vote.
Her experience serving on the Fed board has given her a relationship with Fed Chair Jerome Powell, who plays an important role in orchestrating with Treasury on the response to a faltering economy in the pandemic.
Brainard was undersecretary of the Treasury for international affairs during the Obama administration. The Harvard-educated economist said in a speech last month that the biggest downside risk to her outlook would be “the failure of additional fiscal support to materialize,” which she said risks longer-term scarring to the economy’s growth potential. The Harvard-educated economist has highlighted some more progressive policies recently, such as the Community Reinvestment Act. In January, she gave a speech highlighting reform efforts necessary to encourage more lending in low- and moderate-income markets.
The Biden team is also said to be looking at Jeff Zients, who was director of the National Economic Council under President Barack Obama. He was widely praised for his work to salvage the website associated with the Affordable Care Act, healthcare.gov, after a disastrous initial rollout, and was then dubbed “Mr. Fix-it” in the administration.
Also on the list are Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was secretary of Health and Human Services under Obama, as well as Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Fed governor and Treasury official.
Ex-Fed official Roger Ferguson and Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic, both Black men, are also possibilities. Bostic, however, is also being considered as a replacement for Powell, whose term is up in 2022. Ferguson was widely praised for his role coordinating the Fed’s response to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when then central bank injected billions of dollars into the economy.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, one of Biden’s progressive rivals for the Democratic nomination, is said to want the job, but she would be a tough sell for confirmation if Republicans control the Senate and is deeply distrusted on Wall Street and in the business community.
Council of Economic Advisers
Jared Bernstein, who was Biden’s chief economic adviser when he was vice president, has seen his name in contention.
A labor economist, Bernstein helped draft a rule almost doubling the salary threshold for overtime pay. Now a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, he is considered left of center and could be a bridge to the progressive wing of the party. He also was an informal adviser to the campaign.
Boushey is also a possibility. She is the president and chief executive officer of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, a think tank launched in 2013 that focuses on inequality. She has focused on promoting policies such as paid sick days and child care.
National Economic Council
Boushey is also being considered for NEC director. She served as chief economist for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential transition team and was widely expected to have a prominent economic policy role had Clinton been elected.
Biden has two top candidates for secretary of state: longtime aide Antony Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser, and Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser who was on Biden’s short list for vice president. But Rice would likely not be confirmed by a Republican-controlled Senate.
Blinken is a veteran Washington foreign policy hand. He worked as the Democratic staff director on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He was deputy secretary of state from 2015-2017, when he helped implement the Obama administration’s policy pivot to Asia. He also worked in the Obama White House as special assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser.
The odds-on favorite is Michele Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense who was seen as Clinton’s pick for the job if she’d won in 2016. Flournoy was the highest-ranking woman in Pentagon history when she was the top adviser to then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates in 2009, and would be the first woman to run the Pentagon.
Another potential candidate is Jeh Johnson, who led the Department of Homeland Security under Obama and would be the first Black Defense secretary. Another name being mentioned is Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois. She served in the Army Illinois National Guard in Iraq, where she lost both of her legs in combat.
Sally Yates, a career federal prosecutor who was named deputy attorney general by Obama is among those being chatted about. She served as acting attorney general for 10 days at the beginning of the Trump administration until Trump fired her for insubordination after she refused to defend the ban on travelers from several Muslim-majority countries.
Others under consideration are Sen. Doug Jones of Alabama, who lost his reelection bid, and Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York who was fired by Trump.
The top candidate is Lisa Monaco, who served as Obama’s homeland security adviser. He reportedly gave her the nickname “Dr. Doom” because of her dark assessments of the terrorism threat. She worked for the Biden campaign running what it called a “network” of teams vetting potential vice-presidential candidates. She also served on the committee advising Biden on a response to the coronavirus.
The leading contender to head either the CIA or be Director of National Intelligence is Avril Haines. She served as deputy national security adviser in the Obama administration. She was also deputy director of the CIA under Obama, the first woman to hold the position. In a top intelligence role, she would take the lead on rebuilding the intelligence community, which has been at odds with Trump.
Biden has proposed creating a special position to oversee the response to the pandemic. Members of the coronavirus task force Biden assembled during the campaign could be considered, including Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general under Obama, and David Kessler, who led the Food and Drug Administration in the Obama administration.
Biden has also said he wants Anthony Fauci, the head of the National Institute of Infectious Diseases who has become a contrary voice to Trump about managing the pandemic, to have a role in his administration.
Biden is considering establishing a new climate czar to coordinate efforts to fight global warming. Top candidates include former Secretary of State John Kerry, who helped broker the landmark Paris accord. During his more than a quarter-century representing Massachusetts in the Senate, Kerry led an unsuccessful push for a carbon cap-and-trade program. Another potential pick is Jay Inslee, the newly reelected governor of Washington and self-styled “climate candidate” for the Democratic presidential nomination who has argued for a “full mobilization of the United States” to fight global warming. Inslee, who spent two terms in the U.S. House, also left an imprint on Biden’s climate plans, including the president-elect’s marquee plan to make U.S. electricity carbon-free by 2035. John Podesta, former President Bill Clinton’s chief of staff, has also been mentioned.
Environmental Protection Agency
The EPA administrator post will be crucial to advancing Biden’s aggressive plans for fighting climate change. The top candidates are California air regulator Mary Nichols and Mississippi’s Heather McTeer Toney, a regional EPA administrator for several Southern states under Obama. For more than 50 years, Nichols has been at the vanguard of American environmentalism, pushing clean air and climate policies in California that are a model for the nation and the 13 states that specifically adhere to them. But the so-called “queen of green” could face opposition in a Republican-controlled Senate because of her high-profile status as an environmental leader and chief foe of Trump’s climate policy rollbacks. Toney was the first Black, female, and, having been elected at age 27, the youngest person ever to serve as mayor of Greenville, Mississippi. Now, she’s the national field director for the Mom’s Clean Air Force, a grassroots group dedicated to fighting air pollution. Also under consideration are former Delaware regulator and National Wildlife Federation Chief Executive Officer Collin O’Mara; former Connecticut regulator Dan Esty; former Washington State Governor Christine Gregoire; and Inslee.
Health and Human Services
The leading contenders are two women who Biden also considered for vice president: Rep. Karen Bass of California, head of the Congressional Black Caucus, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
Bass, who was a physician assistant before coming to Congress, has made health care a focus of her career. Her support for “Medicare for All” legislation, which Biden has rejected, could make her a tough sell for confirmation to lead the agency that administers the health care system.
Before becoming governor, Grisham was New Mexico’s secretary of health and helped build up the state’s public health system. She was the first Democratic Hispanic elected governor of a U.S. state and the first female Democratic governor of New Mexico. She has led her state’s response to the coronavirus pandemic since the outbreak worsened in the spring.
Housing and Urban Development
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, who was also on the short list as a vice presidential candidate, is under consideration. As a Black woman and the mayor of a majority Black city, she was praised for her response to the civil unrest last summer.
Phillip Washington, the head of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority is under consideration, as is Sarah Feinberg, the interim president of the New York City Transit Authority and former administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration.
Pete Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran against Biden in the primary is a distinct possibility. He was on Biden’s transition team and was a prominent surrogate for the nominee on the campaign trail. Buttigieg served as in the Navy Reserves in Afghanistan. He would be the first openly gay head of the agency.
Duckworth was head of the Illinois Department of Veterans Affairs. She was the first female double amputee elected to the Senate and first senator to give birth while in office. A Thai American, she would be another Asian American woman at the top of the Biden administration, along with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India. Duckworth, who was a lieutenant colonel in the Illinois Army National Guard, has ancestors who have served in every major U.S. conflict since the Revolutionary War.
Buttigieg has also been one of the names circulating for U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Serving in this post, which has been a Cabinet-level job in some administrations, would serve several purposes for Buttigieg. It would allow him to practice the seven languages he says he speaks Norwegian, Spanish, Italian, Maltese, Arabic, Dari and French and would burnish his foreign policy credentials should the 38-year-old decide to run for the presidency again.
National security adviser
Blinken, who is also being considered for the State Department, has worked with Biden since he was in the Senate. He said recently that the next administration’s foreign policy would aim to reverse the U.S.'s withdrawal from global affairs under Trump. “We’d actually show up again, day-in, day-out,” he told Axios in October.
Rice is also a possibility for this job, which doesn’t require Senate confirmation. But she may not want it, since she had the same job in the Obama administration.
Another strong candidate for a senior foreign policy position is Jake Sullivan, who served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president and was an adviser to Clinton when she was secretary of state.
Colin Kahl, who also served as Biden’s national security adviser when he was vice president, has also been considered.
Former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota is most frequently mentioned. She has led a Democratic rural outreach group, the One Country Project, and has been active as a surrogate for Biden in rural areas.
Other candidates include Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, who leads the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee; California Agriculture Secretary Karen Ross, a former chief of staff to Obama Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; and Krysta Harden, a former Obama deputy agriculture secretary who now works with Vilsack as chief operating officer at the Dairy Export Council, are also often mentioned.
Long shots: Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine; Kathleen Merrigan, Obama’s first deputy agriculture secretary; Delaware Agriculture Secretary Michael Scuse; Gov. Steve Bullock of Montana; or House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson of Minnesota.
Retiring Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico is the top contender to be secretary of Interior. His father, Stewart Udall, was Interior secretary from 1961 to 1969 and is credited with a major expansion in federal land protection, including the creation of dozens of wildlife refuges, national parks and recreation areas. Udall, who says conservation is in his DNA, has laid out plans to enlist federal lands in the fight against climate change and has driven efforts to block drilling near the sandstone mesas and ruins of northwest New Mexico’s Greater Chaco region. Rep. Deb Haaland, another Democrat from New Mexico, and Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona who leads the House Natural Resources Committee, also have won praise from environmental groups and been recommended to head the Interior Department.
The close and bitter end to his fight with Trump will increase pressure on Biden to pick a Republican for his Cabinet in a nod at bipartisanship, as Obama did with his first Defense secretary. Possible contenders include two Republicans who spoke at the Democratic convention: former Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Meg Whitman, a tech executive who ran for California governor. He is also said to be considering the late Sen. John McCain’s wife, Cindy McCain, for a role, along with Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts, former Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona and former Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania.
Chief of staff
The leading candidate is Ron Klain, who was Biden’s vice presidential chief of staff and led the Obama administration’s economic recovery and Ebola crisis response. Those experiences would be particularly relevant, given that Biden would be tackling coronavirus and the resulting economic downturn upon taking office.
Steve Ricchetti is also a former Biden vice presidential chief of staff, and was chairman of Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Also being mentioned is Zients, a co-chair of Biden’s transition team and a former director of the National Economic Council under Obama.
Close associates such as Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff in the Senate who led the transition team, and Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware, could also play big roles in the inner circle.
Long shot: Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, an early Biden endorser and campaign co-chair, who would be the first Black White House chief of staff.