Meet Biden’s Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More

John Kerry shakes hands with Joe Biden

Joe Biden and John Kerry, who has been chosen to be 'Climate Czar' in the Biden administration (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, File)

By Keya Vakil

November 23, 2020

Biden’s initial cabinet choices indicate that he plans to surround himself with a group of diverse, experienced officials with whom he already has relationships.

With six weeks to go until he’s inaugurated, President-elect Joe Biden has announced several more Cabinet selections in recent days. 

Top appointees so far include:

  • Ronald Klain as chief of staff;
  • Antony Blinken as secretary of state;
  • Gen. Lloyd Austin as defense secretary 
  • Jake Sullivan as Biden’s national security adviser;
  • Alejandro Mayorkas as secretary of homeland security;
  • Avril Haines as director of National Intelligence;
  • Xavier Becerra as health and human services secretary; 
  • Janet Yellen as treasury secretary;
  • Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget;
  • Cecilia Rouse as chairwoman of the Council of Economic Advisers;
  • Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary;
  • Rep. Marcia Fudge as housing and urban development secretary;
  • Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations;
  • John Kerry as special Presidential Envoy for Climate or “Climate Czar”

Those choices indicate that the president-elect plans to surround himself with experienced officials with whom he already has relationships. The former vice president has also made clear that building a diverse cabinet is a priority, saying he wants his administration to “look like America.” 

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Biden is also choosing leaders who can work together to marshall federal resources to tackle the biggest crises facing the nation, including the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change. 

Here’s what we know about each of Biden’s choices so far:

Xavier Becerra – Health and Human Services Secretary

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
California attorney general Xavier Becerra (R) speaks as California Gov. Gavin Newsom (L) looks on during a news conference at the California justice department on September 18, 2019 in Sacramento, California. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

The California Attorney General lacks a traditional medical background, making him something of a surprise choice to lead the Health and Human Services Department (HHS). But Becerra, a former congressman, has been a vocal advocate for expanding healthcare access and removing obstacles for women seeking medical services and reproductive health care. 

If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to run HHS, which oversees the Centers for Disease Control and U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the National Institutes of Health, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. In his role, Becerra would administer regulations of the nation’s healthcare system and also oversee the agency’s distribution of a coronavirus vaccine.

Here are three more things to know about Becerra:

  • Becerra has led Democrats’ defense of the Affordable Care Act in court against a Republican-led lawsuit seeking to repeal the landmark healthcare law and take away healthcare from more than 20 million Americans.
  • Becerra has been one of the Trump administration’s staunchest opponents, suing the administration more than 100 times over its efforts to repeal healthcare, roll back environmental rules, and attacks on undocumented immigrants.
  • As a congressman, Becerra supported Medicare for All, but he has recently indicated he supports Biden’s efforts to expand the ACA and create a public insurance option.

Gen. Lloyd Austin – Defense Secretary

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 16: Gen. Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Central Command, prepares to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee about the ongoing U.S. military operations to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) during a hearing in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill September 16, 2015 in Washington, DC. Austin said that slow progress was still being made against ISIL but there have been setbacks, including the ambush of U.S.-trained fighters in Syria and the buildup of Russian forces in the country. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

A retired four-star General, Austin has more than 40 years of military experience before retiring in 2016. If confirmed, he would be the first Black secretary of defense, a role in which he’d oversee all agencies related to the US military and serve as the lead defense policy maker and adviser to President-elect Biden. 

Here are three more things to know about Austin:

  • Austin was involved in the military campaign to defeat the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria and was involved in the withdrawal of US forces out of Iraq.
  • His nomination could run into issues in the Senate, because he has not been out of the military for the seven years required by law and would require a waiver to become defense secretary—which many Democrats have said they’re reluctant to grant. Lawmakers have also expressed reservations about confirming another former commander to lead the Pentagon, given the long-standing tradition of civilian control of the military.
  • After retiring, Austin joined the board of directors of Raytheon Technologies, a major defense contractor, which could raise issues for some progressives who have raised concerns over appointing a leader with deep ties to the defense industry. 

Marcia Fudge – Housing and Urban Development Secretary

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
WASHINGTON, DC – NOVEMBER 28: Congresswoman Marcia L. Fudge (Ohio) leaves a closed door meeting at Capitol Visitor Center Auditorium Wednesday morning to nominate a speaker and choose other members of their leadership team. She was asked to run against Pelosi as House Speaker but declined. (photo by Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

Congresswoman Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) will be tasked with the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Politico reported Tuesday. If confirmed to the role, Fudge would oversee the federal government’s policies to address America’s housing needs and enforce fair housing laws and would be tasked with responding to the looming eviction crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Here are three more things to know about Fudge:

  • Fudge, who represents the Cleveland area, would be the first woman to lead HUD in more than 40 years. 
  • During her time in the House, Fudge has not shied away from challenging Democratic leaders and even considered mounting a challenge to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership in 2018.
  • According to the Washington Post, Biden reportedly chose Fudge because he considers her a voice for working families and viewed her as a longtime proponent of affordable housing and investing in communities.

Tom Vilsack – Agriculture Secretary

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
WASHINGTON, DC – SEPTEMBER 21: U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack testifies during a hearing before the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee September 21, 2016 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee held a hearing on “The U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Current State of the Farm Economy.” (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

President-elect Biden has chosen former Iowa governor Tom Vilsack to lead the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), according to reports from several media outlets. Vilsack, who served as Agriculture secretary for eight years in the Obama administration, will once again oversee the agency tasked with overseeing the federal government’s policies related to food, agriculture, natural resources, rural development, and nutrition.

Here are three more things to know about Vilsack:

  • He served as a key rural and agriculture policy adviser during Biden’s presidential campaign and has argued that Democrats need to find ways to better appeal to rural voters.
  • During his prior time at the helm of the USDA, Vilsack focused on rural development  and nutrition programs to help millions of low-income Americans. He also oversaw a substantial update to school nutrition standards that was led by then-first lady Michelle Obama.
  • Vilsack’s appointment is likely to frustrate civil rights leaders due to his 2010 ouster of Shirley Sherrod, then USDA’s Georgia director of rural development. Vilsack forced Sherrod out after a manipulatively-edited Breitbart video purported to show her saying she didn’t want to help a white farmer save their land. But once the full video was released, however, it became clear that Sherrod had not only not discriminated against the farmer, but helped save his farm. NAACP President Derrick Johnson called the prospect of Vilsack “extremely problematic for the African-American community” in a recent interview on CNN.

Neera Tanden – Director of the Office of Management and Budget

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
WILMINGTON, DELAWARE – DECEMBER 01: Director of the Office of Management and Budget nominee Neera Tanden speaks during an event to name President-elect Joe Biden’s economic team at the Queen Theater on December 1, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Biden is nominating and appointing key positions to the Treasury Department, Office of Management and Budget, and the Council of Economic Advisers. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Tanden has been slated to lead the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which prepares and administers the federal budget and coordinates policy plans among various federal agencies. Tanden, the CEO and president of the liberal Center for American Progress and a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, would become the first woman of color and first South Asian American to lead the OMB if confirmed.

Here are three more things to know about Tanden:

  • Tanden served in a top role Department of Health and Human Services during the Obama administration and was involved in developing the Affordable Care Act.
  • Tanden was raised by a single mother and relied on food assistance benefits and Section 8 housing as a child.
  • She is one of Biden’s most controversial picks, given her past disputes with Republicans and activists and surrogates for Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Cecilia Rouse – Chair of Council of Economic Advisers

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
WILMINGTON, DE December 1, 2020: Cecilia Rouse President- elect Joe Biden pick to lead the Council of Economic Advisors speaks at the Queen in Wilmington, DE on December 1, 2020. (Photo by Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

The dean of the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs, Rouse will be the first Black woman to lead the Council of Economic Advisers, a body that offers the president economic advice on both domestic and international matters. If confirmed by the US Senate, she will become the first African American woman to lead the Council of Economic Advisers in the 74 years of its existence.

Here are three more things to know about Rouse:

  • Rouse previously served as a member of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Obama-Biden Administration and on the National Economic Council in the Clinton Administration.
  • A labor economist, Rouse has shown a long-time focus on workers and improving their lives, including research that shows how unions boost wages. In recent months, she has pushed for new federal protections—such as paid sick leave—for workers during the pandemic.
  • Rouse has also studied the economics of education, discrimination, and inequality. She is perhaps best known for her research paper which found sexism was prevalent during music auditions and in the hiring process of symphony orchestras.

Ronald Klain — Chief of Staff

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
Ron Klain, former White House Ebola response coordinator, testifies before the Emergency Preparedness, Response and Recovery Subcommittee hearing on “Community Perspectives on Coronavirus Preparedness and Response” on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on March 10, 2020. (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM / AFP) (Photo by NICHOLAS KAMM/AFP via Getty Images)

Biden’s selection of Ronald Klain as his chief of staff surprised few, as the two have a relationship that dates back more than 30 years. Klain previously served as Biden’s chief of staff when he was vice president and also filled the same role under Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration. In his role, Klain will play a major role in keeping the administration running smoothly day to day.

Here are three more things to know about Klain:

  • He was President Obama’s “Ebola Czar” in 2014 and led the federal effort that helped prevent the ebola outbreak from becoming a crisis on American shores.
  • As Biden’s vice-presidential chief of staff, Klain was involved in overseeing the $787 billion American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a stimulus bill that helped prevent a worse recession after the 2008 economic collapse.
  • Klain’s appointment received a positive response from across the Democratic party, with moderates like Sen. Chris Coons of Delaware and progressives like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York praising the choice.

Tony Blinken — Secretary of State

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
In this Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, file photo, Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

Blinken has been Biden’s closest foreign policy advisor for years, and was long considered to be a leading candidate for secretary of state. The 58-year-old previously served as deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama after beginning his career at the State Department in the Clinton White House. 

Blinken will be tasked with overseeing Biden’s foreign policy agenda and rebuilding America’s global alliances after four years of Trump’s America-first policies and praise of authoritarian dictators over longtime allies in NATO.

Here are three more things to know about Blinken:

  • He is a key supporter of alliances and believes that rebuilding America’s relationships could help nations work together to combat China’s growing power and collectively develop better technologies and expand human rights. 
  • He has been described as having a centrist view of the world and reportedly has a “mind meld” with Biden, but has also received support from some progressive foreign policy experts, such as Bernie Sanders’ top advisor Matt Duss. Faiz Shakir, Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign manager, also praised Biden’s selection of Blinken as a “solid choice.”
  • He has supported interventionist policies in the past and believes the US should have done more in Syria. “We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement of people internally in Syria and, of course, externally as refugees,” he told CBS News in May 2019. “And it’s something that I will take with me for the rest of my days.”

Jake Sullivan — National Security Adviser

Sullivan has been a close Biden aide for years. The 43-year-old previously served as national security advisor to then-Vice President Biden, overseeing Biden’s outreach to Latin America and Asia. He previously served as head of policy planning and deputy chief of staff to then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and as a senior policy adviser during Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Here are three more things to know about Sullivan:

  • He and Blinken have criticized Trump’s foreign policy, saying it has isolated the US and created an opening for its enemies to take advantage of.
  • Sullivan played a key role during negotiations for the Iran nuclear deal and is a staunch believer in diplomacy.
  • In recent months, Sullivan has helped lead a project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace that reimagines American foreign policy around the needs of the American middle class.

Janet Yellen — Treasury Secretary

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
Janet Yellen speaking at the International Monetary Fund headquarters on April 16, 2013. (Photo by IMF Staff Photograph/Stephen Jaffe)

Yellen, who was viewed as the most likely choice for the Treasury Secretary, will now be tasked with helping rebuild the American economy and overseeing Biden’s tax and spending proposals. The 74-year-old Yellen previously served as Federal Reserve Chairwoman and led the White House Council of Economic Advisers. If confirmed, she’d become the first person to serve in all three roles.   

  • If confirmed, Yellen would become the first woman to hold the job.
  • Yellen is well-respected by foreign finance ministers and central bank officials, a key factor for Biden, who has prioritized rebuilding relationships with American allies.
  • Yellen supports a carbon tax and believes it to be the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change.

Alejandro Mayorkas — Secretary of Homeland Security

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
In this July 25, 2013, file photo Alejandro Mayorkas testifies on Capitol Hill during a hearing on his nomination as deputy secretary of the Homeland Security Department. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

A Cuban-American immigrant, Mayorkas previously served as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. He previously served as a US attorney, the director of the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and has practiced private law.

Here are three more things to know about Mayorkas:

  • If confirmed by the Senate, he would be the first immigrant and Latino to lead the Department of Homeland Security.
  • Mayorkas played a key role in developing and implementing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program to provide hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants brought to the US as children with the right to legally stay and work in the country.
  • Mayorkas also helped lead Homeland Security’s response to Ebola and Zika, and was involved in developing an emergency relief program following the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti.

Avril Haines — Director of National Intelligence

Haines has worked with Biden for more than a decade, dating back to his time on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Haines was also previously deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).  As director of national intelligence, she will oversee the entire intelligence community, which includes 17 agencies and organizations, and work to integrate foreign, military, and domestic intel to protect the US. 

Here are three more things to know about Haines:

  • She would be the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. In 2013, she became the first woman to serve as deputy director of the CIA.
  • Haines has a complicated record; she has consulted for the controversial data firm Palantir and was involved in President Obama’s drone program, though former Obama administration officials insist she actually worked to curb drone strikes and ensure they were used with restraint. She was also responsible for increasing refugee admissions into the US and worked to transfer detainees out of Guantanamo Bay. 
  • Haines has expressed openness to considering new approaches to foreign policy and listening to progressives on how to end the US presence in the Middle East. “Yes, I’m absolutely open to it. There’s no question. What the Bush administration called the global war on terror and what the Obama Administration called the conflict with al Qaeda and associated forces, cannot simply exist forever on automatic,” she told The Daily Beast. “We have to rethink things.”

Linda Thomas-Greenfield — Ambassador to the United Nations

Meet Biden's Cabinet Picks: A Climate Champion, a Woman Who Faced a Man With a Machine Gun, and More
In this Jan. 9, 2014, file photo Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, right, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

Thomas-Greenfield is a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, having served as a diplomat across the world. As ambassador to the UN, Thomas-Greenfield will represent American interests at the global body, issue foreign policy recommendations to the State Department, and advise the president on international affairs. 

Here are three more things to know about Thomas-Greenfield:

  • From 2013 to 2017, she served as assistant secretary of state for African affairs, where she focused on the development and implementation of US policy toward sub-saharan Africa.
  • In 1994, she was dispatched to Rwanda to assess refugee conditions amid the ongoing genocide. During her time there, she was confronted by a man with a machine gun, but managed to talk her way out of the situation.  
  • Her decades of diplomatic experience have made her a “powerhouse respected around the world,” according to former progressive congressman Tom Periello. “I’ve witnessed her getting human rights activists freed and kleptocrats held accountable,” he wrote in a tweet.

John Kerry — Special Presidential Envoy for Climate or “Climate Czar”

Biden’s announcement that Kerry—a longtime senator, 2004 Democratic presidential nominee, and former Secretary of State—will play a role in his administration may come as a surprise. In recent years, however, Kerry has turned his focus toward combating climate change, and will now do so at the White House.

Here are three other things to know about Kerry:

  • In 2019, Kerry launched World War Zero, a coalition that pushed to address climate change and persuade Americans across the political spectrum of the need for action.
  • Kerry signed the Paris Climate Agreement on behalf of the US in 2015. Biden has pledged to rejoin the agreement on his first day in office.
  • Kerry will also serve on the National Security Council, the “first time that the NSC will include an official dedicated to climate change,” Biden’s transition team said in a statement.


  • Keya Vakil

    Keya Vakil is the deputy political editor at COURIER. He previously worked as a researcher in the film industry and dabbled in the political world.

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