By Robin Givhan / The Washington Post
President-elect Joe Biden has been precise and deliberate as he sketches the foundational story of his White House. He has cast his narrative with veterans who are familiar to this enormous stage. And instead of being blind to color, he has made it fundamental to his ability to see the world with clarity and nuance.
Biden has turned his live-streamed introductions of those he’s invited to work in his administration into a kind of tone poem performance before a global audience that’s both needy and resentful, desperately optimistic and unabashedly outraged. If there’s anything that Biden has made clear, it’s that he alone will not right the country. It’s a group effort. Considering the perils ahead, it may well be a heroic one.
But don’t worry. It’s not just him. It’s them. It’s us. That’s his message.
And so, instead of standing alongside one person or even two and thrusting them into the spotlight, his cast of aides and Cabinet members has debuted en masse. They aren’t all equal in power or prestige, but they’re all linked. They stand together; albeit six feet apart and masked.
The presentations are rooted in a particular format. The most recent round of introductions came Tuesday afternoon when Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris arrived — late, so terribly late — at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., for the announcement of the incoming administration’s economics team.
Biden walked in on a broken foot. He has hairline fractures in his “lateral and intermediate cuneiform bones,” according to his doctor. He broke his foot while playing with his dog, Major, and will be wearing a walking boot for several weeks. He pointed to the black orthopedic boot as he emerged from his SUV. Then he held up his afflicted foot as he stood on the sidewalk and photographers snapped away. It was an admission of a misstep, of an imperfection. Such a small gesture. Such an enormous statement.
Once inside, Biden and Harris sat at separate tables, which were situated against a blue backdrop, and the nominees were arrayed at tables in front of them. Their attire wasn’t rigidly coordinated, but it was in a similar tone, as though they’d all plumbed the same bureaucrats’ flash sale. They mostly favored dark suits and blue ties, with only a rare exception. Their clothes were serious and even stodgy, but mercifully dignified, which is to say that all the men realized that a tie should end somewhere in the vicinity of one’s belt buckle and not one’s nether regions.
To begin, Biden made a statement on the skills of each of his nominees, chuckling at his own jokes and seeming to relish the moment of public team spirit. There has been no drama, no surprises at these events. Everyone’s biography had already been posted on Biden’s transition website, along with tasteful headshots; political observers had already begun to parse the choices for existential meaning, and naysayers had already begun murmuring their criticism.
But for 30 or 40 minutes onstage, Biden offered up short stories from the American Dream.
There are some who might argue that in announcing his team, it would be just fine to let the images speak for themselves. They tell the story of diversity in gender and race and ethnicity. They reflect the composition of the country. According to the Biden website, of those folks considered senior staff, 17 are women and seven are men. The economics team is made up of four women and two men. The communications team is all women. Those who are advising him on the coronavirus pandemic are a diverse lot, too.
It wouldn’t seem necessary for Biden to stand onstage and verbally draw attention to every dramatic first or every incremental progression on the road to full inclusivity or gender parity. That simply by choosing Janet Yellen to lead the Treasury Department and asking the Nigerian-born and California-raised Wally Adeyemo to serve as her deputy, Biden has said all that’s necessary. But sometimes people see without comprehension. Sometimes, they don’t even see.
Biden acknowledged the South Asian heritage of Neera Tanden, his nominee to head the Office of Management and Budget, and said, “She believes what I believe, that a budget should reflect our values.” As Yellen sat listening to Biden’s introduction, with her platinum bob precisely matching her white jacket and its popped collar, she looked every bit the experienced wise woman. But the impact of her nomination only truly unfurls when Biden says that she is “one of the most important economic thinkers of our time,” and also the first woman to head the Treasury since its first secretary, Alexander Hamilton, took the oath in 1789. And then Biden adds that he needs to get Lin-Manuel Miranda to write a sequel to “Hamilton” and title it “Yellen.” Biden got a good chuckle out of that one.
In allowing each nominee to speak, Biden was symbolically making room for the voices of others, for the voices of experts, in his administration. He is the lead in this story, but his supporting characters have heft. When the national security team was introduced last month, the four men and two women stood onstage together. All of the men wore blue ties. The president-elect distinguished himself with his crisp tri-fold white pocket square. Harris opted for a plum-colored suit instead of one in navy or black. They made a cohesive picture.
Each nominee stepped to the lectern for two or three minutes, offering their gratitude, as well as a thumbnail of how they see the world; whether it be Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated as ambassador to the United Nations, speaking of her use of “gumbo diplomacy,” or Avril Haines, who would oversee national intelligence, explicitly stating that she was being invited not to serve the presidency, “but to serve on behalf of the American people.”
As his opening salvo, Biden is building a team that looks like the people it serves, not the man who leads it.
Robin Givhan is senior critic-at-large writing about politics, race and the arts. A 2006 Pulitzer Prize winner for criticism, Givhan has also worked at Newsweek/Daily Beast, Vogue magazine and the Detroit Free Press.