WILMINGTON, Del. – President-elect Joe Biden is looking to build out his nascent White House staff with more traditional Washington insiders, a notable departure from four years in which President Donald Trump filled his team with outsiders and government antagonists.
Ron Klain is an early favorite to become Biden's chief of staff, according to multiple people familiar with planning who spoke on condition of anonymity to speak freely about private discussions. He has decades of Washington experience that includes being Biden's chief of staff when he was vice president in addition to serving as the Ebola response coordinator in 2014 and having a central role in the Obama administration's financial crisis response.
Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a longtime Biden ally and friend, is seen as a potential choice for secretary of state. Rep. Karen Bass of California, whom Biden considered for vice president, is seen as a potential housing and urban development secretary. Both served in Congress for the past decade.
Biden is expected to move quickly to name a chief of staff, but other top Cabinet positions will likely take longer.
The names under consideration represent Biden's effort to move Washington past the tumult of President Donald Trump's administration and fill out his government with more seasoned professionals. The task is taking on even greater urgency than in past transitions because Biden will take office in January amid a raging pandemic that will likely consume the early days of his presidency and require a full government response.
Biden made clear on Monday that he would focus on the pandemic by forming a coronavirus advisory board. Former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, who was named a co-chair of that panel, is seen as a contender for the top job at the Department of Health and Human Services. New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who ran her state's health department, is also being eyed for the position.
Even for roles where Biden has the opportunity to make history and appoint the first woman or African American Cabinet secretary, like at defense and treasury, Biden is said to be considering options with decades of experience in their chosen fields.
Roger Ferguson, who served as vice chair of the Federal Reserve under Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, is a potential treasury secretary, while Michele Flournoy, a former under secretary of defense, is seen as a top pick to lead the Pentagon.
Some Democrats are hopeful that the more traditional picks will help rebuild morale among the thousands of civil servants who felt thwarted at doing their jobs under Trump.
“You’re not only talking about people who have an expertise in government functions, you’re talking about people who have a great deal of respect for government functions," said Ed Espinoza, former western states political director for the Democratic National Committee. “That’s a key distinction between the Trump administration and a Biden administration.”
It's a striking shift from Trump, who built out his Cabinet with a raft of unorthodox picks, many of whom were openly skeptical of the federal government's role in the jobs they were tasked with.
Betsy DeVos, an advocate for steering federal money to private charter schools, led the Education Department. Scott Pruitt, the former Oklahoma attorney general who’s a skeptic of the science showing humans contribute to climate change, ran the Environmental Protection Agency.
And Republican Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina, who initially served as White House budget director, supported shutting down the government to rein in federal spending and was critical of some of the proposals Trump aimed to invest in, like a massive infrastructure policy.
Still, Biden faces a number of major unknowns as he prepares for the presidency.
First, the scope of Biden’s first-term agenda will hinge on which party controls the Senate, which remains in question with two special Senate elections in Georgia scheduled for the first week in January. Democrats have acknowledged they will likely need to pare back some of Biden’s campaign trail promises even if they do hold the majority in a closely divided Senate, and a slim majority could also affect the kinds of nominees Biden can hope to get approved for top Cabinet slots.
The most imminent unknown for Biden, however, remains to what extent Trump and his administration will work with the former vice president as his team begins its efforts to transition the government.
The General Services Administration is tasked with formally recognizing Biden as president-elect, beginning the transition process. But the agency’s Trump-appointed administrator, Emily Murphy, has not started the process and has given no guidance on when she will do so.
That lack of clarity is fueling questions about whether Trump, who has not publicly recognized Biden’s victory and has falsely claimed the election was stolen, will impede Democrats as they try to establish a government.
There is little precedent in the modern era of a president erecting such hurdles for his successor. The stakes are especially high this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, which will require a comprehensive government response.
“America’s national security and economic interests depend on the federal government signaling clearly and swiftly that the United States government will respect the will of the American people and engage in a smooth and peaceful transfer of power,” Jen Psaki, a Biden transition aide, tweeted Sunday.
South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn, an ally of Biden's on Capitol Hill, said that if Trump continues to drag his feet, then he hopes that “my conservative friends in Congress will have an intervention.”
“This country is bigger than one person, and to allow the people of this country to suffer -- we are near 245,000 deaths, and we’re still messing around and won’t get the relief that people need,” he said.
Indeed, some Republicans on Capitol Hill called for a smooth transition Monday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican and occasional Trump antagonist, congratulated Biden on his victory and said in a statement that “presidential transitions are important" and that Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris should “be given every opportunity to ensure that they are ready to govern on January 20th.”
Jaffe reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., and Patrick Whittle in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report.