Time to Pass the Torch

By Antonio Caceres, Staff Writer

President Biden, like Barack Obama, enters his presidency at a moment of a historic crisis. In their appointments to their cabinet and executive departments, both men have strived for a technocracy ideal. This refers to a form of government that the most technical experts run. Choosing bureaucrats with the longest tenures may seem like a smart decision, especially in periods of disarray. In reality, it is often detrimental to the elevation of new leadership and fresh energy.


In his recent memoir, A Promised Land, Obama recounts forming his cabinet for his first term. The two significant crises he faced were the 2008 financial crisis and the Middle Eastern conflicts. As a relatively novice politician, Obama decided to lean on experienced officials from previous administrations. To help with the economic fallout, he chose Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, two former Clinton Treasury officials. He retained President Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates, to deal with Islamic terrorism.


These decisions proved to have a variety of unintended consequences. Geithner and Summers were successful in bringing the United States out of a recession. However, Obama himself concedes their approaches were emblematic of the Clinton era: unambitious, protectionist, and centrist. He faced even more challenges with Secretary Gates, whose war hawk tendencies often pushed the former president into surging troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.


Joe Biden is making many of the same mistakes. While progressives did not believe the incoming administration would be filled with left-wing activists, there were expectations that new blood would be introduced. During the presidential campaign, Biden even claimed that he would be a “bridge” to younger leadership. He chose Kamala Harris as his vice president largely for this reason.


His cabinet appointments, however, have not delivered on this promise. The “Big Four” positions (for the State, Treasury, Defense, and Justice Departments) are often more personal choices. The many remaining cabinet and cabinet-level roles are often ways for a president to elevate a new generation. Yet, only two of Biden’s cabinet nominees are under 50, Pete Buttigieg (39) and Miguel Cardona (45).


Youthful energy does not always translate into good governance, but neither does antiquated experience. A majority of Biden’s new cabinet has had decades of political engagement. Although, the time in which they are called upon to lead is much different from the 1990s, the 2000s, or even the 2010s. The rules of politics have changed, as have the needs of the people. An administration filled with Clinton veterans or even Obama alumni is not necessarily suited to this moment.


What America needs are public servants committed to economic justice, racial equality, and climate change. Joe Biden has pledged his presidency to make progress towards resolving these issues, but his nominations have not been as promising. Anthony Blinken at the State Department has been involved with many foreign policy failures that have plagued the United States in recent decades. It is also unclear how a moderate like Merrick Garland, who will lead the Justice Department, can adequately reform criminal justice.


Of course, it is too soon to tell whether these officials are perfectly positioned for this moment or are creatures of moments long past. They deserve the benefit of the doubt. What is certain is that the incoming White House is worse off for not including more rising stars from the Democratic Party. Personnel is policy, as the old saying goes. The men and women a president choose for their team reflects their values. The Biden Administration values experience above all else. In the next four years, the nation will see whether this technocracy style is still a successful governing strategy.