December 18, 2020

Biden’s Cabinet Nominees: A Commitment to Diverse Leadership

This blog was updated on January 13, 2021.

First President from First State Produces Many Firsts

By Isabella Epstein and Paul Hitlin

During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden promised to form a diverse administration that would “look like America.” His choices for leadership positions would make his Cabinet the most diverse in the country’s history.

President-elect Biden has announced 24 people to fill Cabinet-level positions as determined by The Washington Post. Of those, 17 are identified as women, people of color or LGBTQ. He has also announced 11 nominees to other positions requiring Senate approval, many of whom will be the first women or people of color to hold their posts. These nominations include the historic election of Kamala Harris as the first woman, African American and South Asian American vice president. Pending Senate confirmation, the Biden team will include among its leaders:

  • Wally Adeyamo, the most senior person of color ever to serve at the Department of Treasury.
  • General Lloyd Austin, the first African American secretary of Defense.
  • Xavier Becerra, the first Latino secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay person confirmed to lead a Cabinet department as secretary of Transportation.
  • Marcia Fudge, the first woman secretary of Housing and Urban Development in over 40 years and the second African American woman to lead the department.
  • Deb Haaland, the first Native American to lead a Cabinet department as secretary of the Interior.
  • Kathleen Hicks, the first woman to serve as deputy secretary of defense.
  • Vanita Gupta, the first woman of color to serve as associate attorney general.
  • Alejandro Mayorkas, the first immigrant and Latino secretary of Homeland Security.
  • Michael S. Regan, the first African American man to lead the Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Cecilia Rouse, the first woman and first African American Chair of the Council of Economic Advisers.
  • Katherine Tai, the first Asian American and first woman of color to serve as U.S. Trade Representative.
  • Neera Tanden, the first woman of color and first South Asian American to serve as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
  • Janet Yellen, the first woman to serve as secretary of the Treasury.

Undoubtedly, the racial, gender and sexual identities of the Biden team are only some measures of diversity. Many stakeholders are looking to different or specific individual metrics to assess the diversity of Biden’s cabinet. And, despite the symbolism of his appointments, the federal government has a long path ahead in its pursuit of comprehensive diversity, equity and inclusion at every level. For example, only 22% of those in the Senior Executive Service – the elite corps of career civil servants responsible for leading the federal workforce – identify as people of color, compared with about 40% of the U.S. population.

Recognizing this issue, presidents before Trump increasingly prioritized diversity in their initial Cabinets. A New York Times study compares initial Cabinet appointments:

  • 12 of President Bill Clinton’s initial 22 picks identified as women or people of color, the first Cabinet comprised of majority women and minority officials.
  • 9 of President George W. Bush’s initial 20 picks identified as women or people of color.
  • 14 of President Barack Obama’s initial 22 picks identified as women or people of color.
  • 6 of President Donald Trump’s initial 24 picks identified as women or people of color.

Beyond creating a government that represents the country’s population, diversity enhances the decision-making process. As a Harvard Business Review article suggests, diversity precludes groupthink, encourages debate and improves strategic thinking. Thus, differences in background, opinion and perspective can produce better policy outcomes. As the Partnership for Public Service’s DEI statement explains, “The work of diversity, equity and inclusion is a challenging, continuous journey that demands humility, empathy and growth.”

Considering these factors, President-elect Biden’s Cabinet picks are historic.