America’s new decision makers: Who’s who in the Biden cabinet
Experience the common denominator among new officials set to drive US policy
Anthony Blinken during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state at the Capitol, January 19th. Photograph: EPA/Graeme Jennings/Pool
As Joe Biden begins to implement his policy agenda as the 46th president of the United States, the final make-up of his cabinet is beginning to take shape. Here are some of the top administration officials who will be driving US policy over the next four years.
Antony Blinken: Secretary of state
Blinken (58) was long viewed as a favourite for the job of secretary of state. A veteran of the state department, which he joined in 1993, he was deputy secretary during the Obama administration. A Europhile, he spent part of his childhood in Paris and several of his family members were diplomats.
Addressing staff at the department on his first day in the job this week, Blinken pledged to restore “morale and trust” at the organisation after years of cutbacks by the Trump administration. Nonetheless, there have been grumblings that the Biden administration is promoting political appointees over career state department officials as it fills the top posts.
In his first press conference this week, Blinken spoke of the US’s deep concern at the fate of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny and pledged to review the Trump administration’s decision to label the Houthi group in Yemen a terrorist organisation. He also said sanctions would remain on Iran for the foreseeable future, noting that any return to the Iran nuclear deal of 2015 was “some time” away.
Janet Yellen: Treasury secretary
Yellen made history – not for the first time – this week when she became the first woman to be sworn in as head of the 231-year-old treasury department. She was previously the first woman to lead the Federal Reserve, which she chaired from 2014 to 2018.
The 74-year-old Brooklyn native had an accomplished career as a Harvard economist before joining the Federal Reserve board of governors in the 1970s.
Her first task will be overseeing Biden’s planned $1.9 trillion (€1.56tn) coronavirus relief package. During her confirmation hearing she set out the case for an ambitious stimulus package, noting the historically low interest rates and urging Congress to “act big”.
She also argued that tackling racial and gender inequality, as well as narrowing the wealth gap, was crucial to the health of the US economy. Ahead of her confirmation, all living former treasury secretaries signed a letter calling for all members of Congress to endorse Yellen for the position.
Lloyd Austin: Defence secretary
Austin (67) was sworn in this week as the first African-American to lead the Pentagon – a key role in any US administration.
The retired four-star general was already well known in defence circles. He served as the leader of US central command, overseeing US operations in Iraq and Afghanistan between 2013 and 2016 before moving into the private sector.
His nomination was complicated by a rule that the defence department should be led by a civilian. Like former defence secretary James Mattis, Austin was granted a waiver from both houses of Congress – required because it was less than seven years since his retirement from the military.
Austin inherits a busy agenda, including a decision on further troop withdrawals in Afghanistan, and responding to Donald Trump’s last-minute decision to take US troops out of Somalia. The war in Yemen is also a priority for many in Congress. The Pentagon may also be involved in the national rollout of coronavirus vaccines in the coming weeks.
Avril Haines: Director of national intelligence
Haines (51) may well have the most interesting backstory of any of Biden’s nominees. While her background is in the CIA, her primary degree is in physics, and she spent time in college working as a car mechanic, after learning judo in Japan for a year. She then worked on the restoration of an aircraft with the dream of flying it to Europe, but was forced to make an emergency landing off Newfoundland. There was some upside to that, however – she subsequently married her co-pilot and flight instructor.
After moving to Baltimore they opened a book shop, where they held erotic literature readings and other events. After taking a degree in law, she began her career in Washington, working in Congress and then at the CIA where she was appointed deputy director by Barack Obama, and worked closely with former director John Brennan.
She will be the first woman to lead the US’s intelligence services, and will have responsibility for 16 agencies.
Gina Raimondo: Commerce secretary
As governor of Rhode Island, Raimondo has been seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party. Unlike her predecessor as commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross, a financier tapped by Trump to lead the department, her background is mainly in government and public service. The 49-year-old has significant experience in finance, however, having served as the state treasurer for Rhode Island before her election as governor in 2015. She also founded a joint venture firm that helped finance a number of start-ups.
She came under tough questioning at her Senate confirmation hearing from Republicans, who questioned her stance on China. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House of Representatives foreign relations committee, called on the Senate this week to put her nomination on hold, accusing her of equivocating on whether Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei would be kept on a list of companies deemed a national security threat. The Senate will vote on her confirmation next week.
Jake Sullivan: National security adviser
A close ally of Anthony Blinken, Sullivan (43) has been appointed national security adviser, a role that does not require Senate confirmation.
Sullivan served as national security adviser to Biden when he was vice-president, and worked for Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state and during her 2016 presidential bid. Educated at Yale, and at Oxford where he was a Rhodes Scholar, he was centrally involved in negotiations on the Iran nuclear deal in 2015, as well as policy on Syria and Libya.
A “proud Irish-American”, Sullivan has an interest in Northern Ireland and accompanied Clinton on a trip to Belfast in 2009. He was a signatory to a 2019 letter to then UK prime minister Theresa May signalling concern about Brexit’s impact on the North.