Comment: Biden's Cabinet taps on familiar names from the Obama era to navigate a post-Trump world

The Band of Biden has to both deal with the consequences of Trump's four years and new challenges.

Sulaiman Daud | January 30, 2021, 09:38 AM

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Joe Biden is the President of the United States, despite Donald Trump's best efforts.

But a president is not alone in his duties, and he will nominate a cabinet to support his efforts and carry out his policies.

Greater diversity in Biden's cabinet

Cabinet picks are often a useful insight into a president's priorities, and possible hints as to how he might go about governing the world superpower.

Abraham Lincoln famously nominated his rivals for the Republican party candidacy to his cabinet, known as the "Team of Rivals." Barack Obama took a page out of Lincoln's book by nominating his fierce primary campaign rival Hillary Clinton as his Secretary of State, and a member of the opposing Republican party, Robert Gates, as his Defense Secretary.

Trump's appointees perhaps reflected his business-minded approach, with Exxon chief Rex Tillerson and prominent businessman Wilbur Ross as Cabinet picks.

Meanwhile, Biden appears to have diversity as a consideration, with groundbreakers such as the first woman for Treasury Secretary, the first African-American for Defense Secretary, the first openly gay man for Transport Secretary, and the first Native American woman for Secretary of the Interior.

Here's a look at the announced picks that the president has made for the four U.S. departments usually seen as the most prominent -- State, Treasury, Defense and Justice.

Secretary of State

The State Department functions like our Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The Secretary of State acts as the president's top diplomat and representative to foreign leaders.

It is also the first cabinet-level position after the vice president in the presidential line of succession, which speaks to its seniority and prominence.

Beginning with Thomas Jefferson, who later went on to become president, many notable names have served as Secretary of State, including Henry Kissinger, Colin Powell and Hillary Clinton.

Biden has named Antony "Tony" Blinken as his choice to head the State Department.

A longtime aid to Biden, Blinken has had a cosmopolitan childhood. Moving to France with his mother at a young age after his parents' divorce, he attended school there and can speak fluent French.

After graduating from Harvard and spending some time practising law, Blinken worked for the State Department during the Clinton administration.

During the Obama administration, he served as Deputy National Security Advisor, Deputy Secretary of State, and also as the National Security Advisor to Obama's vice president, who happened to be Joe Biden.

Focus on Asia

Blinken is expected to renew focus on America's relations with its allies, which were strained under Trump's "America first" vision.

He is also expected to strengthen alliances to further the country's interests, such as keeping up American pressure on China. During his Senate confirmation hearing, Blinken said he agreed with outgoing Secretary Mike Pompeo's assessment that China was committing genocide against its minority Muslim population.

He also said that there was "no doubt" that China posed the most significant challenge for the U.S. of any nation, and that there was a bipartisan consensus to stand up to Beijing.

In addition, Blinken said that Biden would commit to ensuring that Taiwan would be able to defend itself, and that he was in favour of greater engagement with Taiwan.

On Iran, Blinken said Biden is in favour of the nuclear deal negotiated by Obama, but assured Senators that Iran would have to meet compliance requirements before any sanctions could be lifted.

Ties to Singapore

Singapore's Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan sent his congratulations upon Blinken's confirmation in a Facebook post.

Vivian said he first met Blinken while he was serving in the Obama administration, and that he was looking forward to working with him.

Secretary of the Treasury

This Secretary is in charge of financial policy, and is often the president's chief economic advisor. The first Secretary of the Department happens to be a guy you may have heard of in a hit musical, Alexander Hamilton.

Biden named Janet Yellen to the position.

Yellen is best known as the former Chair of the Federal Reserve, the central banking system of the U.S. that conducts monetary policy and helps to promote stability in the face of financial crises. She served from 2014 to 2018, and was the first woman to hold the position.

Upon confirmation from the Senate, Yellen also became the first woman to serve as Treasury Secretary.

Looming Covid-19 impact

Yellen's immediate priority would be economic relief from the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which threatens the livelihoods of millions of American workers.

Biden is proposing a US$1.9 trillion Covid-19 relief and stimulus package, and Yellen could help shepherd the bill through Congress.

During her confirmation hearing, Yellen also stated her support for an increase in the national minimum wage, and said she is committed to examining the risks to the financial system brought about by climate change.

Links to Singapore

Back in 2016, when she was still Chair of the Federal Reserve, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong met with Yellen on the sidelines of the nuclear security summit in Washington DC, exchanging views on economic matters and the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership.

PM Lee also met Yellen in 2014, just after she was appointed as Chair of the Fed.

Secretary of Defense

Equivalent to our own Minister of Defence, the Secretary is in charge of the world's most advanced military and the world's biggest employer, the Department of Defense.

To serve as Secretary, the nominee must be a civilian. Military personnel must wait seven years after leaving the service, or else obtain a waiver from Congress.

That issue was raised when Biden nominated Lloyd J. Austin III to the position.

Austin is a former four-star general who served as the commanding officer of U.S. Central Command under Obama.

Central Command oversees operations in the Middle East and parts of South Asia and Africa, which given recent history, have been a busy area of the world for the U.S. military.

Austin retired from military service in 2016, which meant that he needed Congress to grant him a waiver as the seven-year waiting period was not over. Trump's first Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, was also granted a waiver for the same reason.

Strong stance against sexual assault in the armed services

During his confirmation hearing, Austin pledged civilian oversight of the military, promising to hire civilian staffers and a chief of staff who is "not a military person."

While he said that China is a significant challenge, in response to questions from the senators, he also named the Covid-19 pandemic as a major threat facing the military and the nation.

In addition, Austin committed to taking strong action to address the scourge of sexual harassment and assault in the military.

According to the New York Timesthe Pentagon recorded 7,825 reports of sexual assaults involving service members as victims, an increase of three per cent from 2018.

Upon his confirmation, Austin became the first African-American to serve as Secretary of Defense.

Singapore's Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen said he wrote a congratulatory letter to Austin, and invited him to visit Singapore.

Attorney General

The Attorney General is in charge of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). He or she is somewhat equivalent to our Minister for Law, but usually has a higher profile in American affairs.

The Attorney General is the U.S. government's chief lawyer, and is broadly responsible for investigating cases of fraud and other crimes. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) also operates under the jurisdiction of the DOJ.

Biden has nominated Merrick Garland to serve as his Attorney General, shortly after the results of the Georgia Senate races were projected. There was speculation that Biden had waited until he knew that the Senate was under Democratic control before deciding to announce Garland. This is so that his nomination would likely be confirmed.

Garland, a DC Circuit Judge, is perhaps best known as Obama's pick to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court after the death of Justice Antonin Scalia in 2016.

However, in an unusual move, the Republican-controlled Senate declined to hold a hearing for Garland, and the nomination lasted almost a year until it expired when Obama's term ended in 2016.

If confirmed, Garland will have a myriad issues to tackle, including the fallout of the Jan. 6 Capitol attack by pro-Trump protesters, police reform in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, and civil rights.

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Top image from Vivian Balakrishnan's Facebook page and MCI.