WASHINGTON – President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been working with the ex-aide he wishes to become secretary of state since serving on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in the 1990s. His candidate for agriculture minister approved his first presidential bid more than 30 years ago. And he knows his election as Pentagon chief from the time of the retired general in Iraq, where Biden’s son Beau, a military lawyer, was also on the general’s staff.
With all the talk that Mr Biden uses a complicated formula of race, gender, and experience to build his administration – and he is – perhaps the most important criterion for landing a cabinet post or a top job in the White House seems to be one longstanding relationship with the elected president himself.
His chief of staff, Ron Klain, goes back with him to the time of Anita Hill and Clarence Thomas, when Mr. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Mr. Klain was on his staff. John Kerry, his climate envoy, is an old Senate pal. Even elected Vice President Kamala Harris, who is not a longtime confidante and led an aggressive campaign against Mr Biden, had a close relationship with Beau Biden before his death – a personal ID that was like gold to the man about to move in is Oval Office.
When General Lloyd J. Austin III accepted Mr. Biden’s nomination as the first black man to head the Department of Defense on Wednesday, General Lloyd J. Austin III referred to Beau as a “great American” and recalled the time he had spent with him in Iraq, and on their conversations after he returned home before he died of a brain tumor in 2015.
“As you, too, can attest, Madam Vice President, Beau was a very special person, a true patriot, and a good friend to everyone who knew him,” said General Austin.
It’s a sharp contrast to President Trump, who put together a dysfunctional collection of cabinet members he barely knew. After their first honeymoon, they spent their time constantly in danger of being fired. With nearly half of Mr. Biden’s cabinet and many key jobs announced in the White House, his administration looks more like a close family.
But there are risks in Mr. Biden’s approach, which diverges greatly from Abraham Lincoln’s famous desire for a “team of rivals” in his cabinet to challenge one another – and the president. And while each president brings in a group of long-time advisers, few have seen the longevity of Mr. Biden’s nearly five decades in Washington and so much appreciated the relationships he has built along the way.
Relying on advisers and cabinet officials rooted in old Washington – and Mr. Biden’s own worldview – adds an insular touch to its still-forming form Presidency at a time when many Americans are expecting new ideas to face a world very different from what the president-elect and friends came to know when they were younger.
Even some Democratic Party allies say they fear that Mr Biden’s trust in the same people threatens to undermine his ability to find solutions to the country’s problems that go beyond the usual problems of the Washington establishment.
The elected representative Mondaire Jones, 33, from New York, who will act as the new representative of the House Democratic leadership, praised Mr Biden’s decisions as “highly competent,” but added that “competence alone is not enough to rebuild better. ”
“One risk of Joe Biden only nominating or otherwise appointing people with whom he is closely related is that he will miss the moment,” he said.
Faiz Shakir, who served as campaign manager for Senator Bernie Sanders and negotiated with the Biden team as part of a unit task force that summer, said the biggest bias he saw from the Biden transition team was “authentication” – both in terms of Washington experience, often with the president-elect, and education.
He said he feared the team “relied so heavily on technocratic literacy based on references that it missed the opportunity to introduce fresh blood and new thinking that is more closely related to working class struggles.”
And the New York Democrat Adriano Espaillat urged Mr. Biden to promote “a little more competitiveness in a team” that so far has mostly seemed like-minded. Tackling the major problems facing America after the pandemic “will require lively debate,” Espaillat said. “It doesn’t have to be a room full of people you like.”
But Mr. Biden did not shy away from describing what is important to him when building his team.
“I saw him in action,” said Biden of Antony J. Blinken, his new state secretary and long-time advisor.
“I’ve worked with her for over a decade,” said Biden of his new director, national intelligence, Avril D. Haines.
“One of my closest friends,” Mr. Biden greeted Mr. Kerry as he announced the former Foreign Secretary’s new climate role.
The transition of the president
And in an article published in The Atlantic On Tuesday, the president-elect stated one of the main reasons he chose General Austin.
“I’ve spent countless hours with him, in the field and in the Situation Room of the White House,” wrote Biden. “I took his advice, saw his command, and admired his calm and character.”
Those who know Mr. Biden say he believes in his own ability as a judge of character and has relied on some of the same advisors for decades. His longtime Senate Chief of Staff and short Senate successor, Ted Kaufman, is helping direct the transition. His top advisors in the White House include his advisor Steve Ricchetti and senior advisor Mike Donilon long-time loyalists.
Other aides are taking on the role they played in Mr. Biden’s vice-presidential office – only now in the White House. Jake Sullivan, the national security advisor, served on behalf of Mr. Biden and Jared Bernstein, who was the economic advisor, is now a member of the Council of Economic Advisers.
“He has this wonderful team – not of rivals, but of talented people who he has either worked with or observed over the years,” said Joseph Riley, the former mayor of Charleston, SC, and a man Mr. Biden once knew Called “America’s Mayor”. ”
“He’s amassed a collection of talented people that he has watched, listened to, and leaned against over the years, and he’s a quick study,” said Riley.
Not every agent is a Biden confidante. This week, Mr Biden rolled out his health team and badly botched the name of his new secretary for health and human services – Xavier Becerra – before correcting himself.
In affirmative battles in the deeply divided Senate, it can be beneficial to reach out to people close to you in order to run for government with years of experience. Many of his recommendations – such as Tom Vilsack, who served as Secretary of Agriculture under President Barack Obama for eight years and was nominated again for the same job – are known to Republicans.
“I think he’s done a great job eight years and he won’t do a great job more than four years,” Senator Charles E. Grassley, Republican of Iowa and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, told reporters when he asked about it became Mr. Biden’s decision to appoint Mr. Vilsack.
A bigger test for Mr Biden, however, will be his decision on who should be the attorney general and head the Justice Department at a time when racial tensions have ravaged the country.
On Tuesday, a group of activists met with Mr Biden to urge him to nominate a black person who will focus on civil rights and social justice issues. But with an African American now ready to run the Department of Defense – to make sure the Department of State, Treasury, Justice, and Defense are not all run by whites – some prominent Democrats believe the president-elect will turn out to be Senator Doug Jones could turn from Alabama, which is white.
Mr Jones would most likely prove easy to validate in a divided Senate, as he has close ties with senators in both parties, including Alabama’s Senator Richard C. Shelby, a Republican.
But Mr. Jones has something else in his favor: a long history with Mr. Biden.
As a young law student in Birmingham, Ala., Mr. Jones was impressed by a visit from a Delaware senator and introduced himself to Mr. Biden. They grew closer when Mr. Jones moved to Washington to serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee. And in 1987, Mr. Jones co-chaired Alabama in Mr. Biden’s first presidential campaign.
Jonathan Martin and Emily Cochrane Contribution to reporting.