As President-elect Joe Biden picks his top officials, a brief look at ghosts of Cabinets past

Confirmation hearings of Joe Biden's Cabinet picks are likely set to make for interesting viewing, what with the President-elect already facing pressure both from within and without

FP Staff December 07, 2020 09:43:32 IST
As President-elect Joe Biden picks his top officials, a brief look at ghosts of Cabinets past

File image of Joe Biden. AP

Confirmation hearings of Joe Biden's Cabinet picks are likely set to make for interesting viewing, what with the president-elect already facing pressure both from within and without.

A month and a half before he takes office, Biden is already taking fire from progressive activists who fear he’ll fall short on his vow to build an administration that looks like the country it governs.

Biden also has the added burden of an uphill battle in getting some of his key picks through the Republican-controlled Senate.

Like Barack Obama, Biden is urging bipartisanship, but he could quickly find himself in a situation similar to Obama, who took office in 2009 talking of moving past political scuffling but underestimated strong pushback in Congress.

Of the nine major picks Biden has made so far, only two — secretary of state choice Antony Blinken and chief of staff Ron Klain — are White men. That’s a historic low that so far outpaces the historically diverse Cabinet that Obama assembled in 2009.

With that in mind, let's examine the makeup of the key Cabinet posts of the past five presidencies:

President Donald Trump: 2017 - present

Secretary of State: Rex Tillerson

Donald Trump's pick of former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson as the nation's top diplomat in 2017 raised eyebrows among Republicans and caused consternation in Democrats.

Tillerson’s close relationship to Vladimir Putin — he received the Moscow Order of Friendship — dating back back to his days as Exxon Mobil’s CEO and his stand on sanctioning Russia caused controversy but did not derail his confirmation.

Tillerson was unceremoniously fired via tweet by Trump.

Secretary of Defence: James Mattis

James Mattis is a Marine Corps general who retired in 2013 after serving as the commander of the US Central Command.

Mattis, nicknamed 'Mad Dog', has a reputation as a battle-hardened, tough-talking Marine who was entrusted with some of the most challenging commands in the US military.

Born in Pullman, Washington, Mattis enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1969, later earning a history degree from Central Washington University.

He was commissioned as an officer in 1972. As a lieutenant colonel, Mattis led an assault battalion into Kuwait during the first US war with Iraq in 1991. As head of the Central Command from 2010 until his retirement in 2013, he was in charge of both the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Secretary of Treasury: Steven Mnuchin

A former top Goldman Sachs executive, Steven Mnuchin graduated from Yale in 1985.

He worked for for Goldman Sachs for 17 years, building his fortune and then leaving in 2002.

He worked briefly for Soros Fund Management, a hedge fund led by George Soros, before starting his own investment firm, Dune Capital Management.

In 2009, he assembled a group to buy the failed IndyMac, renamed it OneWest and turned it around, selling it for a profit in 2014. Mnuchin also became a major investor in Hollywood, helping finance a number of movies, including the 2009 blockbuster Avatar.

National Security Advisor: Michael Flynn

Michael Flynn is a retired general who vigorously campaigned at Trump’s side and then served as his first national security advisor.

A former Defence Intelligence Agency chief, Flynn was a considerably more vocal Trump surrogate during the campaign, known for leading rally crowds in “Lock her up” chants regarding Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

His tenure was short and controversial: Resigning after reports that had misled Vice-President Mike Pence and other officials about his contacts with Russia.

He was later convicted of lying to the FBI and pardoned by Trump.

Attorney-General: Jeff Sessions

Jefferson Beauregard Sessions was a former Alabama Senator and state attorney-general before being picked by Trump as US attorney-general. Coretta Scott King, widow of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., in her 1986 criticism of Sessions, wrote that as an acting federal prosecutor in Alabama, Sessions used his power to “chill the free exercise of the vote by black citizens.”

Sessions, an extremely conservative Republican, is anti-abortion, anti-immigration, skeptical of climate change and hostile to same-sex marriage. He has championed “law and order”, argued for stern marijuana prohibition and the unregulated use of civil forfeiture by law enforcement.

Sessions, one of Trump's earliest and most ardent supporters, went from becoming the first sitting Senator to publicly back the president during the 2016 primaries to being pushed out after enduring more than a year of blistering and personal attacks from President Donald Trump.

***

President Barack Obama 2013-2017

Secretary of State: John Kerry

John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president in 2004, is a long-time legislator and foreign policy expert widely respected by both Democrats and Republicans. President Barack Obama picked Kerry as a replacement for then secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.

The son of a diplomat, Kerry has served as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is a decorated Vietnam veteran who was critical of the war effort when he returned home to the United States. He represented Massachusetts in the Senate from January 1985 to 1 February, 2013.

Secretary of Defence: Chuck Hagel

Chuck Hagel is a maverick former Republican Senator from Nebraska.

A decorated former Vietnam vet and investment banker, Hagel is widely viewed as a political heretic who carved out a reputation as an independent thinker and blunt speaker.

He disagreed with former president George W. Bush over the Iraq war, stayed on the sidelines in the 2008 president race between Obama and the Republican nominee John McCain, and endorsed fellow Vietnam veteran and former Democratic Senator Bob Kerrey in the Nebraska Senate race.

Secretary of Treasury: Jack Lew

Jack Lew emerged as the consensus choice in the second Obama administration with his wide range of experiences in both the public and private sector.

Lew, an Orthodox Jew who eschews work on Saturdays, is the picture of a policy bookworm with his glasses and neatly parted shock of hair.

He honed his skills in the trenches of fiscal policy, helping forge major deals encompassing Social Security and budgets for the likes of former Speaker Tip O'Neill and president Bill Clinton.

He had two stints at the helm of the all-important Office of Management and Budget, once under Obama and also under former president Bill Clinton.

National Security Advisor: Susan Rice

From January 2009 until assuming the role of National Security Advisor in July 2013, Rice served as the US' Permanent Representative to the United Nations and a member of then president Obama's Cabinet. She has had as a long pedigree in foreign policy, but has never held elected office.

Rice was on track to become Obama’s second term secretary of state, but became ensnared in the political controversy over the administration’s handling of the 2012 attack on Americans in Benghazi, Libya, following which she bowed out.

Obama instead named Rice as his national security advisor, a powerful position that gave her regular, high-level access to both the president and vice-president.

In the mid-1990s, Rice was nominated to serve as assistant secretary of state for African Affairs in then president Bill Clinton’s administration. Rice, at 32, was one of the youngest people to reach that level of the state department.

Attorney-General: Eric Holder

Eric H Holder, Jr, was born on 21 January, 1951, in the Bronx, New York. He attended public schools, graduating from Stuyvesant High School, where he earned a Regents Scholarship. He attended Columbia College as an American History major, graduating in 1973.

Holder, who served as a judge in the Superior Court of the District of Columbia and as US attorney, made history by becoming the US'  first black attorney-general.

Serving in that position from 2009 to 2015, Holder's tenure prioritised civil rights protections, with the justice department under his watch endorsing federal benefits for same-sex couples and suing states that it felt were impeding access to the ballot box.

***

President Barack Obama: 2009-2013

Secretary of State: Hillary Clinton

Barack Obama's rival for the presidency in an often heated Democratic primary, Hillary Rodham Clinton became Obama's first secretary of state (a prospect many considered unlikely and others unthinkable).

Hillary, the former first lady of the United States, carved out her own identity on the US political scene, becoming  a powerhouse in Democratic politics by being elected as a Senator from New York in 2000 (the first first lady to have done so), and serving on five Senate committees, including the powerful budget and armed services committees.

In 2016, Hillary went on to create history by becoming the first woman nominated by a major party for the US presidency.

Secretary of Defence: Robert Gates

Robert Gates, a holdover from the George W Bush administration, is a moderate with deep ties to previous Republican administrations (having served eight presidents from two parties) and the Bush family.

In 2008, Obama, in what some saw as a bid to reassure Republicans and reach across the aisle, publicly announced that he would keep Gates in his Cabinet (making him the only defence secretary in history to be granted that honour.)

Prior to becoming defence secretary, Gates was the president of Texas A&M University, the nation's seventh largest university.

Gates, who joined the CIA in 1996, served as president George HW Bush's spymaster from from 1991 to 1993.

Secretary of Treasury: Timothy Geithner

Timothy Geithner, former president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank, was confirmed as Obama's treasury secretary despite personal lapses that turned more than a third of the Senate against him.

Geithner's failure to pay all his taxes on income received from the International Monetary Fund in 2001, and in three subsequent years, caused concern among lawmakers.

Geithner, taking over from Henry Paulson in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, was a key player in the government’s response to collapsing financial institutions and the housing and credit markets.

Geithner, during the administration of Bill Clinton, served as undersecretary of the treasury for international affairs.

National Security Advisor: James L Jones

Retired Marine General James L Jones served in Vietnam, the Persian Gulf War, and in the Balkans before wrapping up as NATO’s supreme commander in a career that spanned 40 years.

Jones was a military aide to defense secretary William Cohen during the Clinton administration and worked for secretary of state Condoleezza Rice as a special envoy for security in West Asia.

Jones served as commander of NATO and US forces in Europe before his retirement at the end of 2006. His role included oversight of operations in Afghanistan, the alliance’s first military engagement outside of Europe.

Attorney-General: Eric Holder

***

President George W Bush: 2005-2009

Secretary of State: Condoleezza Rice

Condoleezza Rice was a trusted aide of George W Bush and a main architect of his Iraq policies and the war on terror. In 2005, she became first black woman to hold the job of the US' top diplomat. She also previously served as the National Security Advisor to president George W Bush.

A professor of political science, Rice has been on the Stanford faculty since 1981 and has won two of the highest teaching honors: the 1984 Walter J. Gores Award for Excellence in Teaching and the 1993 School of Humanities and Sciences Dean's Award for Distinguished Teaching.

Secretary of Defence: Robert Gates

Secretary of Treasury: John W Snow

No, not that one. Nor that one.

John W Snow served in the George W Bush administration from 2003 t0 2006.

Snow, the head of railroad giant CSX Corp for 14 years, was picked by Bush to succeed Paul H O’Neill, whose bluntness came to irk the White House and some congressional Republicans and Democrats.

Unlike his predecessor, Snow didn't veer from the Bush economic line.

National Security Advisor: Stephen Hadley

From 2005 to 2009, Stephen Hadley served as assistant to the president for National Security Affairs.

Hadley was the principal White House foreign policy advisor to then president George W Bush, directed the National Security Council staff, and ran the interagency national security policy development and execution process.

Hadley had special responsibilities in several specific areas including relations with Russia, the Israeli disengagement from Gaza, developing a strategic relationship with India and ballistic missile defence.

Attorney-General: Alberto Gonzalez

Alberto Gonzales made history by becoming the first Hispanic attorney-general. Born in San Antonio, Texas and raised in Houston, Gonzalez is a graduate of Texas public schools, Rice University, and Harvard Law School.  He served in the United States Air Force between 1973 and 1975, and attended the United States Air Force Academy between 1975 and 1977.

Gonzalez was commissioned as White House Counsel to President George W. Bush in January of 2001. Prior to serving in the White House, he served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Texas.  At the time he was being considered, many Democrats joined Republicans in praising the former state judge who traveled with Bush to Washington after the president’s 2000 victory.

But some Democrats turned against him after he sidestepped questions during his confirmation hearing on what advice he gave Bush and other administration officials on the interrogation methods that could be used on suspected terrorists or witnesses. Pressed on the issue, Gonzales defended language in which he labeled as "quaint" some of the Geneva Conventions’ human rights protections for prisoners of war and said they did not extend to Al Qaeda and other suspected terrorists.

 

***

George W Bush: 2001-2005

Secretary of State: Colin Powell

A retired four-star US army general, Colin Powell was the first African-American secretary of state.

Prior to his tenure as secretary of state from 2001 to 2005, Powell served as a key aid to the secretary of defense and as National Security Advisor.

Powell, who served in the army for 35 years, was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993 under then president George HW Bush.

Secretary of Defence: Donald Rumsfeld

A former US Navy pilot, Donald Rumsfeld served as defence secretary under presidents George HW Bush and George W Bush.

He also held several positions previously: White House Chief of Staff, US Ambassador to NATO, US congressman and chief executive officer of two Fortune 500 companies.

He was responsible for directing America's response to the 9/11 terror attacks to include Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan and Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Rumsfeld attended Princeton University on academic and US Navy scholarships and served in the navy (from 1954 to 1957) as an aviator and flight instructor.

Secretary of Treasury: Paul H. O'Neill

Paul O’Neill, the treasury secretary under George W Bush, famously broke with his boss over tax policy and then produced a book critical of the administration.

A former head of aluminum giant Alcoa, O’Neill served as treasury secretary from 2001 to late 2002. He was forced to resign after he objected to a second round of tax cuts because of their impact on deficits.

O’Neill’s blunt speaking style more than once got him in trouble as treasury secretary. He sent the dollar into a tailspin briefly in his early days when his comments about foreign exchange rates surprised markets.

In the spring of 2001, O’Neill jolted markets again when during Wall Street’s worst week in 11 years, he blandly declared “markets go up and markets go down.”

National Security Advisor: Condoleezza Rice

Attorney-General John Ashcroft

Bush, on 22 December, 2000, nominating John Ashcroft to serve as Attorney-General, called him "a man of great integrity, a man of great judgment and a man who knows the law". Ashcroft was attorney general during the 11  September, 2001, attacks, helped push through the Patriot Act, of which he was a vigorous defender.

Ashcroft was elected Governor of Missouri in 1984 and held that post until 1993.  In 1991, the non-partisan National Governors Association elected him Chairman. The next year, he was elected to the Senate.

He's also famous for this.

So, will Biden's presidency soar like an eagle on the wings of his Cabinet or be brought low?

Stay tuned as the president-elect continues to unveil his picks.

With inputs from AP

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