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In Picking Cabinet Members, Biden Turns To Obama Stalwarts


As President-elect Joe Biden crafts his first Cabinet, many of the people he has chosen have something in common. Of the 13 he's named so far, nine served in the Obama administration when Biden was vice president. And on his team of White House advisers, many others have Obama White House experience on their resumes, too. Joining us to talk about this is NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez.

Hi, Franco.


SHAPIRO: A couple new names today confirmed that this is a real trend. Tell us about these latest announcements.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, Biden did surprise people today with two of these picks. They were people who were not in the rumor mill for these jobs. The first is Denis McDonough, the former chief of staff for President Obama. He will be nominated for Veterans Affairs. He was a close adviser to Obama during some of his key foreign policy decisions.

Now, the second is Susan Rice. Biden picked her to lead the Domestic Policy Council at the White House. Rice actually is also closely tied to Obama's foreign policy. She was the national security adviser for Obama and earlier was his ambassador to the United Nations. So it's kind of surprising that she was picked for this domestic role. And Biden formally announced that Tom Vilsack will be his agriculture secretary, named to be his agricultural secretary. He was actually Obama's agricultural secretary for eight years of the administration.

SHAPIRO: Now, this shouldn't be that surprising since Biden was Obama's vice president, but how unusual is it to draw from the same well in a new administration four years later?

ORDOÑEZ: Right. You know, historically speaking, it's not that unusual. I did talk to Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, who has studied administrations back to President Reagan. She's with the University of Virginia's Miller Center. And she says, traditionally, the best source of employees is from previous administrations because, frankly, they know the ropes. And she also says that this bunch here is coming back to a completely different situation than their first go-around.

KATHRYN DUNN TENPAS: What is the status quo? We are certainly not in an era right now where it's status quo. We have a pandemic on our hands. The economy is faltering. We have really high racial tension in our country. I don't think it was like that in 2009.

ORDOÑEZ: You know, but there is something that has changed and that is the demand from progressives.

SHAPIRO: And let's talk about that because the president-elect has said he plans to assemble the most diverse cabinet in U.S. history. He's been under a lot of pressure to make good on that promise. Is he getting pushback on the fact that so many of these people are from the Obama administration?

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah, there has been a lot of pressure. And, you know, I talked to someone who called this Obama 3.0. Their concerned that this new administration is too wedded to the same people. And progressives, they've been disappointed as well. Cori Bush - she's an incoming freshman in Congress from Missouri - she told reporters today that the Cabinet so far is a missed opportunity for fresh faces.


CORI BUSH: We have some amazing people that are doing wonderful work in this - all across this country and to bring some of those things that they've been working on in their organizations, in their communities, in their businesses, to this place because we have to do a lot of work. We weren't in the greatest place when - before Donald Trump took office.

ORDOÑEZ: Yeah. You know, and the Biden team, well, they're very aware of the criticism as well, and they're pushing back. Transition spokesperson Sean Slavett told me that the president elect Biden is picking people who are, quote, "crisis tested and experienced" and who know how to use the tools of government to advance his agenda.

SHAPIRO: Well, how far along is Biden in this process? Many nominations left to go?

ORDOÑEZ: Well, most of the top White House positions are now filled. There are about 10 Cabinet positions left. The biggest portfolio, of course, is attorney general. And then there are the positions associated with climate - I'm talking about interior, the EPA, energy. And we'll see how many more of these remaining positions have ties to Obama.

SHAPIRO: NPR White House correspondent Franco Ordoñez. Thanks.

ORDOÑEZ: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Franco Ordoñez is a White House Correspondent for NPR's Washington Desk. Before he came to NPR in 2019, Ordoñez covered the White House for McClatchy. He has also written about diplomatic affairs, foreign policy and immigration, and has been a correspondent in Cuba, Colombia, Mexico and Haiti.