WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden is moving quickly to fill out his administration and could name top leaders for his Cabinet as early as next week.
Biden told reporters on Thursday that he's already decided on who will lead the Treasury Department. That pick, along with his nominee for secretary of state, may be announced before Thanksgiving, according to people close to the transition who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.
The Cabinet announcements could be released in tranches, with groups of nominees focused on a specific top area, like the economy, national security or public health, being announced at once.
Such a move is intended to deliver the message that Biden is intent on preparing for the presidency even as President Donald Trump refuses to concede and attempts to subvert the election results in key states. Trump's roadblocks have undermined core democratic principles such as the peaceful transfer of power and are especially problematic because Biden will take office in January amid the worst public health crisis in more than a century.
“It’s a huge impact. And each day it gets worse, meaning a week ago, it wasn’t that big of a deal. This week, it’s starting to get to be a bigger deal. Next week, it’ll be bigger,” said David Marchick, director of the Center for Presidential Transition at the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service. “Every new day that’s lost has a larger impact than the day before.”
Still, Biden’s transition work is progressing, with the president-elect holding frequent virtual meetings from his home in Wilmington, Delaware, and a music venue downtown. At this point, Biden is deeply involved in choosing his Cabinet, a process described by one person as similar to fitting puzzle pieces together.
In putting together the 15-person team, Biden is facing demands from multiple, competing interests, as well as the political realities of navigating a closely divided Senate.
He’ll have to find the right mix of nominees to appease progressives demanding evidence he’s committed to major reforms; fulfill his promise to build the most diverse government in modern history; and pass through a more difficult than expected nomination process with a slim margin of control for either party, depending on the outcome of two Georgia Senate runoffs in January.
Those considerations appear to be already informing Biden’s calculus for secretary of state.
Two finalists to be America’s top diplomat include Antony Blinken, a former deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, and Chris Coons, who holds Biden’s former Senate seat from Delaware and sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Blinken and Coons are close to Biden, and both have privately and, in some cases, publicly, expressed interest in the job. But with the balance of power in the Senate depending on two runoffs in Georgia, Blinken may have the upper hand, according to people close to the transition. The thinking, these people said, is that even if Coons is tapped for the post and replaced with a Democrat by Delaware’s Democratic governor, the loss of his influence in the Senate may outweigh his value as secretary of state.
That Senate calculation also weighs heavily on perhaps Biden’s presumptive first choice, former ambassador to the United Nations and national security adviser Susan Rice. Rice, who is also close to Biden, would almost certainly face difficulty in a confirmation process with a Republican-controlled Senate because of her past comments about the deadly 2012 attack on U.S. diplomatic compounds in Benghazi, Libya.
As Biden moves forward, his team won't have access to their counterparts at the various federal agencies or tap funds and office space for the transition until the General Services Administration ascertains that Biden is the winner.
Marchick noted that the delay in that process could ultimately undermine the number of administration staff Biden is able to get in place on time. Candidates must go through an ethics clearance process, file dozens of pages of forms, and some positions require security clearances.
The lack of ascertainment is also putting somewhat of a cash crunch on the Biden team. According to two donors familiar with the transition’s efforts, they’ve raised about $8 million for the transition already, hitting their original goal, but without the roughly $6 million in federal funds afforded to Biden's transition team, they’ve been forced to continue fundraising.
In an email to donors this week obtained by the AP, Chris Korge, the Democratic National Committee’s national finance chair, warned that the Biden transition didn’t have enough money to “totally fund” their efforts and told donors that “the American people will be the big losers if we don’t immediately step up and do something about it.”
Speaking on a call with reporters Friday, Yohannes Abraham, an adviser to Biden’s transition, warned that the delay is affecting the transition's planning.
“This isn’t a game,” he said. “There’s no replacing the real-time information that can only come from the post-ascertainment environment that we should be in right now.”
Associated Press writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.