No one really knows how the game is played
The art of the trade
How the sausage gets made
We just assume that it happens
But no one else is in
The room where it happens.
- Hamilton: The Musical
Twenty years ago this past weekend, the United States Supreme Court decided the presidential election, awarding Florida to George W. Bush. In the days preceding that ruling, Bush strongly consolidated his position as the incoming president by choosing a chief of staff for the White House and letting it be known that his cabinet would include men like Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld. What Bush was doing, in a time of real uncertainty about the final result of the contest with vice-president Al Gore, was creating a compelling impression of inevitability and certainty of command that he would indeed be the next president.
President Trump's outrageous attempt to overturn the 2020 election and have himself declared the winner - even though he decisively lost both the popular vote (by 7 million, more than twice as much as Hillary Clinton's margin over Trump in 2016) and the Electoral College (by the same "landslide" margin Trump won four years ago) - never came as close as Gore's challenge to Bush. Biden further sealed the deal by resorting to the Bush 2000 playbook to select and announce his White House staff and major cabinet positions, and outline several first-100-days-in-office objectives, including aggressive vaccination targets and an economic recovery program.
Trump has not made one cabinet or staff announcement for a second term, or announced even one major item (other than dealing with COVID-19) of a second term agenda. All we await from Trump is who he will either fire or pardon before he leaves office.
Biden's answer to Trump's noise is simply to get on with it.
The result is that Biden's assumption of office on January 20 has the full force of reality. What is underappreciated is that Biden is in a far more advanced position to act as president than his immediate predecessors. Bill Clinton had served as a governor of Arkansas. Barack Obama had been in the Senate for less than four years. Donald Trump had been a businessman.
Joe Biden served for eight years as vice-president, and entered the Senate in 1973. He knows it cold. This experience has fully informed his cabinet selections and projected an assuredness and decisiveness that will allow his government to move forward immediately - much quicker than any other president since George H. W. Bush in 1989.
Biden's White House senior staff is drawn from those who have already served in the building for years. Ron Klain, Mike Donilon, and Steve Ricchetti have served with the last three Democratic presidents, or with Biden as a senator or as vice-president.
His cabinet is replete with deeply experienced veterans, from Anthony Blinken at State to Tom Vilsack at Agriculture.
Biden also promised that his cabinet would look like America. So many photos of Trump in office were of white men standing behind the Resolute desk in the Oval Office. For this cabinet, Biden has chosen the first African-American secretary of defence (Lloyd Austin), the first Hispanic as secretary of homeland security (Alejandro Mayorkas), the first woman director of national intelligence (Avril Haines), the first woman secretary of the treasury (Janet Yellen), an Indian-American woman as head of the Office of Management and Budget (Neera Tanden), and a Cuban descendant as secretary of health and human services (Xavier Becerra). Vice-president-elect Kamala Harris' senior staff is all female.
Whether Biden will appoint a Republican to the cabinet is yet to be seen. Both Clinton and Obama had senior Republicans (William Cohen and Robert Gates) serve as defence secretary. Their selections were a signal of wanting to serve the interests of national unity. Trump never had a Democrat in his cabinet - but even if he wanted one (which he absolutely did not), none of any note would have served under him. At the same time, Biden remains under pressure from the left to find big roles for more progressives on the economy and climate, and more visibility for next-gen leaders such as Pete Buttigieg.
There are two big speed-bumps here. Republicans will want one or two trophy kills on Biden nominees to show they have the power to stop the Biden agenda in Congress. So expect some fireworks. And on the foreign policy front, Tony Blinken will be grilled on whether Biden intends to return blindly to the Iran nuclear deal, which opponents see as a major mistake. This will be treacherous territory.
What Biden has projected so far is all business, no nonsense. A sense of confidence and competence. Trust. Authority. These are the values that Biden believes are essential to show to the American people right now as they are engulfed in a catastrophic pandemic that is out of control, and suffering an economy that is in worse shape than the Great Recession of a decade ago - which Biden helped to repair as vice-president.
The country will soon mark 300,000 dead - 100 times the toll of 9/11, lost in just 11 months. The American people adjudged Biden as more capable than Trump to meet the urgency of this moment. Biden knows what to do. That's exactly why it is this cabinet that will be in the room where it happens.
- Bruce Wolpe is a senior fellow at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. He has worked on the Democratic staff in the US Congress and served on the staff of former prime minister Julia Gillard.