What History Tells Us about President-Elect Biden’s Cabinet

His appointments are set to break barriers and establish new precedents when it comes to diversity. A look back at past cabinets shows how norms and customs have been slow to change.

Frrances Perkins
On Jan. 20, Joe Biden will take the oath of office and become the 46th President of the United States. While his administration is poised to break records for the number of women and people of color in senior positions, many of Biden’s selections are guided by historical precedent.

In 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor and the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. Since then most presidents have included at least one female cabinet secretary, and in most recent administrations presidents have inched toward gender parity. If Biden’s candidates are confirmed, his Cabinet will have more women than any other administration, including several “firsts.” Perhaps most surprisingly, Janet Yellen will be the first female treasury secretary, despite the department’s long history and creation in 1789. Avril Haines’ nomination as the first female director of national intelligence also carries important symbolic importance, as the intelligence agencies are historically male-dominated spaces. 

While the precedent for women secretaries was established in the 1930s, the first person of color wasn’t nominated until 1966 when President Lyndon B. Johnson installed Robert Weaver as the secretary of the newly-created Department of Housing and Urban Development. Weaver’s nomination broke a long-held glass ceiling, but also started a powerful precedent. His leadership focused HUD on addressing the systemic racism and structural segregation endemic to government services because he represented the communities that required federal aid. Weaver’s academic scholarship analyzed segregation and housing inequalities, but he had also dedicated himself to these issues during his government service and he was a longtime civil rights advocate and leader of the Black community. 

Two of Biden’s recent picks follow this example. General Lloyd Austin III was the first person of color to lead
an active duty unit in combat, the first person of color to lead U.S. Central Command (CENTCOMM), and is poised to be the first Black secretary of defense. He achieved his four-star ranking despite white supremacy in the military and an overwhelmingly white officer corps. His personal experiences will be central to reforming these trends in the military and encouraging diverse promotions.

Similarly, Biden has appointed Neera Tanden as his director of the Office of Management and Budget — the agency responsible for overseeing critical aid programs, including food stamps. Growing up, Tanden’s family relied on housing vouchers to pay rent and she was enrolled in the 10₵ lunch program at school in order to eat. She has spoken about how it felt to be the only child in line to use that special lunch ticket and that personal experience will be reflected in her management of OMB — just like Weaver’s administration of HUD. 

Weaver’s tenure also started a long-term trend of presidents naming secretaries of color to manage HUD. While this department initially served as a place of opportunity, more recently it has pigeon-holed minority secretaries or served as a safe space for presidents to place a secretary of color without ruffling any feathers. Biden is continuing this trend with his selection of Congresswoman Marcia Fudge as the new secretary. Biden reportedly considered Fudge for either the secretary of the Department of Agriculture or the secretary of HUD. While Fudge did accept the position, she said to reporters, “You know, it's always ‘we want to put the Black person in Labor or HUD’."

The power and prestige of the State Department is also a longstanding cabinet norm, starting in 1789 with George Washington’s appointment of Thomas Jefferson as the first secretary of state. Many presidents have selected powerful, well-respected statesmen who they didn’t know well as their secretaries of state, and then cultivated close relationships once in office. William Seward, secretary of state for Abraham Lincoln, and Hamilton Fish, secretary of state for Ulysses S. Grant
, weren’t particularly close to the president before taking office, but they developed effective, respectful working relationships. 

Other presidents have picked nominees for this powerful office with whom they already have a close rapport — especially when presidents already show a predilection for foreign affairs themselves. Thomas Jefferson (the first ever secretary of state) chose his best friend and longtime confidant, James Madison, as his secretary of state. As the commander of Allied forces in Europe during World War II and the former NATO commander, Dwight D. Eisenhower’s diplomatic credentials were unparalleled. He was so close with Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that they spoke up to 10 times per day, and Dulles regularly visited the White House at the end of the work day to enjoy a cocktail with the president. And of course, George H.W. Bush, the former ambassador to China and director of the CIA, selected his very best friend, James Baker III, as his secretary of state. 

Biden’s attention to foreign policy is well-documented. He served as the ranking member and the chairmen of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations and adopted a robust foreign policy portfolio as vice president. Following the precedent established by his predecessors, it’s no surprise he elected to continue this tradition by naming a close ally and longtime advisor, Tony Blinken, as the next secretary of state.

Finally, most presidents have used cabinet positions to reward supporters and promote up-and-coming leaders in their party. Past presidents have often doled out cabinet nominations to longtime political supporters, important figures in their campaign or political rivals that acknowledged defeat gracefully and endorsed the president. For example, Andrew Jackson chose
his longtime friend and Tennessee politician John Eaton as his secretary of war. Abraham Lincoln filled his Cabinet with political rivals, including Salmon P. Chase as secretary of the treasury. And Woodrow Wilson nominated perennial Democratic candidate William Jennings Bryan as secretary of state after Bryan endorsed Wilson’s campaign. 

Biden’s choice of Pete Buttigieg to lead the Department of Transportation reflects these political calculations. Buttigieg campaigned in the Democratic Primary against Biden as an alternative moderate choice, but dropped out and endorsed Biden before the Super Tuesday primaries. After Biden won the Democratic nomination, Buttigieg served as a powerful surrogate, frequently appearing on Fox News to attack President Donald Trump and advocate for Biden’s campaign. That loyalty was rewarded with a cabinet position, which also symbolizes Biden’s tacit support for Buttigieg’s political future.

All new presidencies and cabinets are historic in their own right, and Biden’s administration seems poised to break barriers and establish new precedents. And yet, so much of the presidency and its relationship to the cabinet is governed by norm and custom. Biden’s Cabinet choices reflect the ongoing power of those norms and the long history of the institution. 

Dr. Lindsay M. Chervinsky is an expert in the cabinet, presidential history, and U.S. government institutions. She can be found on Twitter at @lmchervinsky.