OP-ED: The Missed Political Opportunities in Biden’s Cabinet

How playing it safe will cost the Democrats in future elections


“Empty hearing room” by Jay Tamboli

Daniel Gulotta, Contributor

As a Democrat, I feel like I could write volumes on my perceived failures of the party to adapt to the times we live in. Time and time again, Democrats play things “safe” and allow the Republican party to walk all over them both in the media and in Congress. While they are more willing to take perceived political risks, which often pay off (e.g. holding Merrick Garland’s nomination), the Democrats have stay glued to the old political playbook, written in the eras before the rises of the Newt Gingrich’s and Frank Lutz’s of the world. For the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the Democrats’ missteps in the cabinet nomination process.  

In my mind, cabinet nominees should fall into one of two categories: policy technocrats or blatant political opportunists. The former are your boring, over-qualified policy wonks who live to work behind the scenes and not in front of the camera. The big five cabinet roles– defense, state, treasury, commerce, and justice– should be given to the technocrats more often than not. These are the most critical positions in our government, and appointments should be bestowed accordingly. The nomination of Merrick Garland for Attorney General and confirmation of Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen exemplify this type of pick. But when it comes to less critical roles like the Department of Transportation or the Department of Education, the ruling party would be wise to appoint their rising stars to positions regardless of actual qualifications. These are positions in which management of the bureaucracy is more critical than specialized knowledge of the Department, and the stakes of the roles are far below that of the big five. Appointments that satisfy neither of these criteria serve little to the short-term or long-term interests of the Democratic Party.  

This is something Republicans have already recognized. President Trump’s less critical cabinet and administration roles went to politicians who were on the verge of being future leaders of the party. There was former Press Secretary Sarah Sanders, who is the front runner for the 2022 Arkansas gubernatorial race; Ben Carson, a neurosurgeon wholly unqualified for the Department of Housing and Urban Development who kept his national profile up for another possible presidential run; and former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, who gained foreign policy expertise as the United States Ambassador to the United Nations to set up her probable 2024/2028 presidential bid. Even the failed nomination of the clearly unqualified White House doctor, Ronny Jackson, for veterans affairs, was parlayed into a 2020 congressional election win. The point is that Republicans understand the power and prominence that a cabinet position has to future political opportunities and rightly promoted its rising stars to positions whether or not they were even conventionally qualified. They reasoned that either the bureaucracy could run on its own, that they simply needed a management figure at the top rather than a figure with the proper specialized knowledge, or simply, that they did not even want the department to run efficiently, as was the case for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and its former head Mick Mulvaney. Yet while Republicans excel in playing politics in this new aggressive way, Democrats are playing by the old rules of nominating party loyalists.  

Cabinet positions are not lifetime achievement awards.  They should not be given out to people who have no legitimate political future simply because they are friends or have “paid their dues.” 

The perfect example of this type of unfortunate nomination is Jennifer Granholm, the former governor of Michigan, who was recently appointed to be the Secretary of Energy. I have nothing against Jennifer Granholm– she was a perfectly fine governor, has addressed a lack of female representation in the cabinet, and has played an active role in political media since her last election. She even was set to lead Secretary Hillary Clinton’s transition team in 2016 should she have won, likely setting her up for a role in that administration. Yet, I would be incredibly shocked if she ever ran for office again. She is term-limited from being elected Governor of Michigan and is blocked from the Senate by two incumbents. As a presidential candidate, she is not well-known enough to overcome her lack of progressive values, making her a difficult sell for both the establishment and the progressive base. Very simply, this is likely her last major political role before she joins a consulting firm or cable news network once again.  So why are we giving her this position?  The Democratic Party would have been smarter to give it to someone they actually want to run statewide or nationwide at some point rather than giving away a prominent position as a reward for loyalty and fundraising.

The Democrats did make some strong, overtly political appointments such as Pete Buttigieg for transportation secretary and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra for health and human services secretary. These people were appointed with qualifications blatantly thrown out the window. I like Mayor Pete as much as the next Democrat, but simply being the mayor of South Bend is obviously not enough of a resume to lead that department. He was pretty explicitly promoted to keep his name in the national media for a future run. And you know what– the Democrats were smart to do that. And they should have done it even more.

Where is Sally Yates in this cabinet?  Not even for deputy attorney general? I don’t understand why such a well-known national figure was not given a role that could have better set her up for a future political career. What about Keisha Lance Bottoms?  She was a top contender for the vice president spot but remained the mayor of Atlanta. She is also likely blocked from statewide office by the two Senate wins in the state and Stacey Abrams, who has been setting up an apparatus for a future gubernatorial run in 2022 since her loss in 2018. This would’ve been a great opportunity to pad Bottoms’ resume for a more prestigious office down the line.

I could go on. Beto O’Rourke, whose lackluster 2020 presidential run obscures the fact that he is probably the party’s best chance to win statewide in Texas in 2022 or 2024.  Kevin De León, whose 2018 primary of the aging Dianne Feinstein cost him his leadership position in the state Senate and whose status as Los Angeles city councilor is wholly unbecoming of a rising Latino, Democratic star. Jason Kander, whose bouts with mental health issues stymied a chance to reinvigorate his political career in 2017, but who has the youth and energy to try a statewide run again down the line. And then there’s Nikki Fried, the only Democrat to win statewide in Florida in a major position since 2012. Last time I checked, Florida can be a pretty important state. These were missed chances to keep these men and women in the national spotlight, as the Biden Administration figures.

The Democrats’ refusal to play the game as it needs to be played is preventing them from reaching their true potential as a party. I get why they would want to fill the major roles with the technocrats, but there is so much more wiggle room to appoint your future leaders when you have control of the Senate. So let’s stop ignoring the opportunities that low-level cabinet positions offer and give our young guys and gals a shot.