A top story in today’s Washington Post, “Biden’s Obama-era Cabinet picks frustrate liberals, civil rights leaders,” summarizes my feelings about the nomination process so far. As journalists Seung Min Kim and Annie Linskey point out, Biden has selected seven women and nine people of color for 14 Cabinet posts, but unfortunately the average age is 63 and about 80% previously worked in the Obama administration.
The Democratic Party needs younger people in top positions. Its leadership has remained the same for decades, and those with name recognition — such as Nancy Pelosi, John Kerry, and Chuck Schumer — tend to be over 70 years old. This is not only politically unwise, as we lack young and experienced leaders, but it’s strategically unwise as well: many of today’s challenges require facility with technology and contemporary culture. Think climate change, civil rights, internet security and regulation, and genetic engineering.
Those nominees from the Obama administration served from 2009–2017, as long as 11 years ago. Many of today’s issues have evolved since then or weren’t well addressed at the time. The pandemic, of course, has upended everything, but even challenges like gun violence, income inequality, and health care costs remain as persistently problematic as they were under President Obama.
Of the recycled nominees named so far, the one that troubles me the most is Tom Vilsack for Secretary of Agriculture. I recall him as being insensitive to protections for both animals and workers, and I’ve been reminded of additional shortcomings. An article in Vox by Dylan Matthews lays out the concerns: Vilsack’s “nomination has sparked immediate controversy and consternation among civil rights, animal, anti-monopoly, and family farm advocates who were disappointed in his prior tenure.” Isn’t there someone better for the job?
Yes, I believe so. But does it matter? We’re finishing four years of a Trump administration filled with incompetence and conflicts of interest. Sonny Perdue, our current Secretary of Agriculture, “faced more than a dozen ethics complaints” when he was governor of Georgia, as reported by Ryan McCrimmon in Politico, and “he was found to have funneled illegal amounts of money from his businesses to his campaign in 2002.” Perdue is facing renewed ethics questions because of “his numerous and labyrinthine interests in agribusiness and land development.”
The list of compromised Cabinet members in the Trump administration doesn’t stop with Perdue. Others cited for ethics violations, according to Bloomberg, include Scott Pruitt, former EPA administrator; Wilber Ross, Commerce Secretary; Ryan Zinke, former Interior Secretary; Betsy DeVos, Education Secretary; Tom Price, former Health and Human Services Secretary; and Ben Carson, Housing and Urban Development Secretary.
Clearly Donald Trump and his team set a low standard for public service. Joe Biden’s is much higher. His nominees are competent, experienced, and professional, and many have been vetted in their previous jobs for conflicts of interest. As a group, however, they’re older than I would like, and they’re not as diverse as I had hoped. But they will steer us back to integrity and respectability, and they will serve the interests of their agencies and not the interests of their personal pocketbooks.
A refreshing and necessary change in Cabinet leadership.