Joe Biden has already kept his first promise – his approach to the presidency will be a top-to-bottom repudiation of the behavior, policies and obsessions of President Donald Trump.
The President-elect is building his administration on old-fashioned notions that facts matter, that commanders-in-chief must project stability, that Cabinet officials need experience and expertise, that a fractured nation is governable and that the world wants the US to lead.
In restoring a more conventional version of the presidency, Biden is using his mandate to counter the political forces that led to Trump’s rise and which still delivered more than 73 million votes to the President, albeit in a losing cause.
His Washington restoration is not without risk, and is already coming into conflict with Trump’s blend of nihilistic conservatism that is likely to dictate the Republican Party’s strategy even when he has left the Oval Office.
Biden laid out his bet in its most tangible form yet Tuesday as he unveiled his national security and foreign policy team, who fanned out behind him on stage, masked and ready for action, like a SWAT team of dark-suited technocrats riding to the rescue.
“Let’s begin the work to heal and unite America and the world,” Biden said.
His recruits, many of them protégés, represent the antithesis of the philosophy, style and comportment of Trump’s authoritarian, “America First” and anti-science White House that is driven by conspiracy theories and a personality cult.
Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken has toiled for decades in government and on Capitol Hill, while rubbing shoulders with the diplomatic crowd. Jake Sullivan, the next national security adviser, is a Rhodes scholar and Yale Law graduate who is also a domestic policy expert. Biden’s pick to be ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has flown the flag for the United States in foreign embassies for 30 years.
Biden’s domestic, health and economic policy teams, expected to be revealed after Thanksgiving, will likely share the same blend of experience and knowledge after catching the eye of a President-elect who has more years on his Washington clock than any modern predecessor.
In an interview with NBC’s “Nightly News” on Tuesday, Biden said he would consider appointing a Republican to his Cabinet who had voted for Trump.
“The purpose of our administration is once again uniting. We can’t keep this virulent political dialogue going. It has to end,” Biden said.
His overarching point is this: the American people, after watching chaos, nepotism and anti-intellectualism in government amid a pandemic that killed a quarter million of their fellow citizens and as the US turned its back on its friends abroad, now just want people who know what they are doing and don’t make too much noise doing it. Each of his nominees highlighted on Tuesday from Thomas-Greenfield, who is Black, and Homeland Security Secretary nominee Alejandro Mayorkas, who is Hispanic, represent individual departures from Trumpism in personality, background and qualifications.
Multilateralism, diplomacy, quiet competence, scientific rigor, inclusivity, collegiality between top officials, respect for civil servants, the intelligence community and a welcome for immigrants are in.
Bashing allies, populism, nationalism, White House backbiting, despot coddling, ring-kissing Cabinet meetings, political hacks running spy agencies, and downplaying politically inconvenient threats – like killer viruses – are out.
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu believes that Biden’s nominees reflect the man who chose them.
“The President-elect has been demonstrating and modeling what presidential behavior looks like,” Landrieu told CNN’s Brooke Baldwin.
“He is just trying to demonstrate to the people of America what it looks like when you have a president that is balanced, that is stable that is thoughtful and experienced,” he said.
The President-elect is likely to adopt that persona again when he delivers a Thanksgiving address to the American people from his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, on Wednesday.
A completely different America
The sharp turn that America will take on Inauguration Day on January 20 reflects the stark choice that was before voters on November 3 – which has been only made more clear during Trump’s subsequent attempt to steal the election. It also underscores the elasticity of an American political system that has the ingrained capacity to counter the excesses of its leaders and often produces presidents who are the opposite of their predecessors.
Four years ago, Trump won an election after a campaign in which he vowed to destroy the political and economic establishment in Washington. His presidency tore at the institutions of federal power and the consensus of elites on economic, domestic, immigration and foreign policy.
His one-time political guru Steve Bannon once referred to this chaotic crusade to rip up regulations, tax rules, diplomatic traditions, and the decorum of the presidency itself as the “deconstruction of the administrative state.”
In many ways, in placing his faith in seasoned Washington hands like Blinken and Director of National Intelligence nominee Avril Haines, Biden is rebuilding that administrative state. Perhaps only the President-elect himself is a more establishment, experienced and conventional figure than former secretary of state and long-time senator John Kerry, who will serve as presidential climate envoy and is exactly the kind of global citizen that Bannon and his fellow travelers decry.
Biden is not hiding his belief that more government is good. In a statement released on Monday after the Trump administration finally agreed to begin a transition, his team vowed to gain a complete understanding of Trump’s “efforts to hollow government agencies.”
And several of Biden’s national security nominees on Monday made a point of paying tribute to the unseen functionaries of government who keep the country running but were treated like an enemy within during the Trump years.
“My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world. I want to say to you, America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back,” said Thomas-Greenfield. Haines spoke publicly to members of the covert community who were often on Trump’s target list.
“The work you do, oftentimes under the most austere conditions imaginable, is just indispensable,” said Haines. Several nominees offered fealty to the American ideal, Congress, the American public and democracy. While they all praised Biden, there was little of the exaggerated praise and expressions of personal loyalty that Trump requires of his subordinates. Haines told her new boss that she’d tell him bad news that he’d rather not hear, in another implied criticism of the Trump administration.
A different breed of official
The impression of professionalism and competence given by the group was a contrast to the late-term personnel on whom Trump has relied, who in many cases were unqualified for the great roles of state but prospered by prioritizing loyalty to the President.
Not all of Trump’s initial Cabinet picks were in the same mold. Those like Defense Secretary James Mattis and Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats were experienced and experts in their fields. But their attempts to play the role that Biden expects of his appointees were frustrated when they were constantly undermined by Trump who saw his government as in exclusive service to his personal needs. And these officials, who were dubbed “adults” in the press, frequently spent their time reigning in an erratic President’s worst impulses.
Biden’s approach is designed for the circumstances in which he will take office. With Covid-19 raging out of control he will face a nation badly in need of an organized strategy to roll out the vaccine that could restore normal life. Just not being Trump and signing back up to the Paris climate accord will give him instant wins on the world stage.
But in the longer term, the test of his presidency will be whether his vision of calm, deliberative leadership can pacify a nation whose politics resembles an unruly jungle, where his opponents didn’t wait until he won the election to try to delegitimize him and where there is no longer a common version of truth.
After all, President Barack Obama once tried to engage his opponents with facts and logic within the traditions of the US governing system. It didn’t get him far with Republican opponents whose political existence was directed towards thwarting whatever he proposed.
If things go wrong, Biden will face claims that the return of the administrative state triggered disaster, which will fuel Trump if he runs again in 2024 and the candidates who hope he won’t so they get a shot.
Abroad, Biden must prove whether indulging allies, a methodical policy process and the grunt work of dialogue can constrain a world of rising US rivals who have rocked the fraying global system in which he came of age. Experience and foreign policy expertise in successive administrations never solved some of the thorniest issues – like North Korea’s nuclear quest.
One reason Trump won four years ago is that many Americans believed that the globalized instincts of a generation of Washington elites caused their jobs to go abroad and the wars in which their kids were sent to fight.
One potential GOP candidate, Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, wasted no time in putting down a populist marker with this in mind on Tuesday.
“Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” Rubio tweeted. “I support American greatness. And I have no interest in returning to the ‘normal’ that left us dependent on China.”
His tweet, which overlooked the fact that many Trump officials also went to Ivy League schools, encapsulated the duel between Biden’s traditional White House leadership at home and abroad, and the populism harnessed by Trump.