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Despite historic diversity, Biden faces pressure with cabinet picks

  • For the general who retired in 2016 to take the Pentagon reins, Congress would need to grant him a waiver because of a law that bars any veteran from becoming secretary of defense unless they have been out of the military for seven years.
Published December 11, 2020

WASHINGTON: Aware that he owes his presidential victory to Black voters, Joe Biden pledged to name the "most diverse" cabinet in US history. Behind the scenes African Americans have been seeking to ensure he honors such commitments by appointing minorities to key positions.

"When this campaign was at its lowest ebb, the African-American community stood up again for me. You've always had my back, and I'll have yours," Biden assured in his victory speech on November 7, promising his administration would "look like America."

Recalling that catch phrase, the Reverend Al Sharpton, a prominent US civil rights leader, said Tuesday as Biden was in the thick of decision-making for multiple cabinet posts: "We want to make sure promises made is promises kept."

Sharpton and other representatives of African-American organizations had emerged from a nearly two-hour meeting with Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris.

Biden reaffirmed his "historic commitment to racial justice," said Marc Morial, chief executive of the National Urban League, during an online press conference.

"And we underscored that our job as historic civil rights leaders is to, one, help him, and number two, to hold him accountable for the commitments that were made," he said.

Biden, the former vice president under Barack Obama accepted that challenge during the discussions, Morial added. And the nominees, who like Biden will take their places in the White House on January 20, are largely reflecting that promise.

That was crystalized perhaps most sharply on Tuesday when Biden tapped retired US Army general Lloyd Austin, 67, to become the next secretary of defense.

If confirmed by the Senate, Austin will become the Pentagon's first Black leader.

Several cabinet members-in-waiting are already trailblazing picks. Janet Yellen would be the first woman to run the US Treasury; Xavier Becerra would be the only Hispanic health secretary to date; Alejandro Mayorkas the first Hispanic homeland security chief; and Cecilia Rouse will become the first African American to chair the Council of Economic Advisors.

Biden also appointed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Black seasoned diplomat, as ambassador to the United Nations.

And barrier-breaker Harris, of course, will become the first Black woman and first person of Indian heritage to serve as vice president.


"It is looking like it will be the most diverse cabinet that any president had already," Jordan Tama, a professor at American University, told AFP.

The minority nominees are in critical posts, he said, adding that defense is "probably the most important" cabinet position given the Pentagon's budget and reach.

The contrast with Donald Trump's administration is "quite striking," according to Tama. He said the outgoing president's cabinet "really was not representative of America," not just in racial diversity but in professional background, with business leaders over-represented during the brash billionaire's term.

As if on cue Thursday, Biden revealed two more pioneering picks: Susan Rice, one of the highest-profile Black women in American politics, was appointed director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, while progressive congresswoman Marcia Fudge was nominated to be housing secretary.

All eyes now are turning to one of the final major cabinet posts to be filled: US attorney general. The job came up at Tuesday's meeting with Biden.

Sharpton said he told the president-elect directly that he would prefer a Black attorney general. If not, "the least we could have is someone that has a proven civil rights background."

Doubts about Austin

Biden's picks for his inner circle "have largely been uncontroversial" to date, noted Kyle Kondik of the University of Virginia.

There are exceptions, however. Neera Tanden, the first woman of Indian ancestry appointed to direct the White House budget office, is getting stiff blowback from Republicans as well as some progressives.

And then there's Austin.

For the general who retired in 2016 to take the Pentagon reins, Congress would need to grant him a waiver because of a law that bars any veteran from becoming secretary of defense unless they have been out of the military for seven years.

Only two such waivers have been granted, in 1950 and 2016. A handful of Democrats have already announced they would not support a waiver for Austin, just as they had not backed Jim Mattis when he sought and received one four years ago.

Sharpton expressed outrage Tuesday at the thought of a no-waiver scenario. "We will not accept getting to the black guy, and all of a sudden we're going to change what we've already done twice," the reverend said.


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