WASHINGTON — Ron Klain’s impending departure as White House chief of staff is the first step in a broader shakeup among President Joe Biden’s advisers as he prepares for 2024 re-election.
Jeff Zients, who led the Biden administration’s response to Covid-19, is set to replace Klain, with other White House aides expected to leave in the coming months and move on to the campaign trail, the sources said.
But one part of the Biden administration has been unusually stable, and looks set to remain so for the foreseeable future: the cabinet secretaries who run the sprawling federal government. None of the 15 department heads in the presidential line of succession resigned in the first half of Biden’s term, nor were they notified that they plan to leave soon, White House officials said.
The lack of turnover among Biden appointees, whose jobs include stopping crime, keeping food safe and guarding against attack, is a rarity. Since Ronald Reagan’s presidency in the 1980s, only Barack Obama no one from the Cabinet resigned midway through his first term, said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a senior fellow at the Miller Center, a think tank on the presidency at the University of Virginia.
By contrast, Donald Trump went through cabinet secretaries as president, and senior staff members, at a breakneck pace; nearly half of his cabinet had surrendered by the time he entered his third year in office. As of early 2019, Trump had gone through seven of 15 cabinet secretaries and was on his third chief of staff.
“No Cabinet member has been disgraced, written a tell-all book or badmouthed the president,” said Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., close to Biden’s White House. «There are no leaks, no gossip, nothing.»
The new Republican-controlled House may try to get at least one out of his job. Some Republican members of the House of Representatives hope to impeach Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in retaliation for what they see as lax immigration enforcement on the US-Mexico border. A White House official said Mayorkas would fight any such attempt and he does not want to resign.
The durability of Biden’s cabinet is somewhat surprising. Before the November midterm elections, some administration officials believed that cabinet departures hinged on whether Democrats retained control of the Senate. The idea was that Cabinet officials would feel freer to leave because Biden would have an easier time getting the Senate to confirm a successor than if Republican leader Mitch McConnell led the chamber.
In fact, the Democrats retained the Senate, but the cabinet exodus did not occur. In an interview after the midterm elections, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said she did not plan to leave before she finished her term, despite the more favorable climate for her confirmation.
“We have a lot of work to do,” he said in November. (There was ongoing speculation that Yellen would leave and be replaced by Secretary of Commerce Gina Raimondo, who in turn would be replaced by Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia. When Yellen’s dominoes didn’t fall, the others stayed in place. . )
Why cabinet members stay in their posts rather than take higher-paying jobs in the private sector or embark on independent political careers may have something to do with how they are treated. Biden has gone out of his way to show them that they are valued, aides argue.
Before speaking to a union group, he will call Labor Secretary Marty Walsh to make sure he is comfortable with the text, Anita Dunn, a senior White House adviser, said. When a businessman raises a concern with him, he picks up the phone and calls Raimondo.
Few members of Biden’s cabinet are outsiders. Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm played the role of Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during Biden’s debate build-up in the 2008 campaign. Biden closely scrutinized Raimondo as a potential vice-presidential pick in 2020.
“This is a president who really uses his Cabinet and values his Cabinet,” Dunn said. “Cabinet members often feel disconnected from the White House. In this case, the president has really relied on his cabinet for advice.»
“They are a group of people with whom he has a deep relationship and whom he listens to and seeks for wisdom that is broader than his cabinet agencies,” he added.
For decades, presidents have consistently concentrated power in the White House, at the expense of the Cabinet, historians say. Some Cabinet secretaries have felt marginalized when presidents filled the West Wing with trusted advisers and usurped the prerogatives of Cabinet members who thought they were hired to run things.
The most obvious examples are in the field of foreign policy. Presidents have consistently packed the White House National Security Council with staffers who, in some cases, have isolated the Secretary of State. President Richard Nixon entrusted his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, with his most sensitive and consistent foreign policy goals, disparaging Secretary of State William Rogers.
Trump had no relationship with his first secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, who once privately referred to him as a «jerk» and was eventually fired over a tweet.
But Biden is more of an institutionalist, having helped vet and confirm cabinet secretaries throughout his 36 years as a senator. He also has an affinity for some members of his Cabinet forged through a long career in politics.
«Biden’s inner circle is so tight it’s almost family,» said Chris Whipple, who recently published a book on the Biden presidency. “It’s not so much a team of rivals but a lot of team players. Those are just the people he chose. They’ve been pretty cohesive and I don’t see a lot of movement.»
Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have worked together for two decades, dating back to the early 2000s, when Biden chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Blinken was the Democratic staff director.
When asked about Blinken’s primacy on foreign policy issues, Dunn said Biden’s «relationship with Tony runs so deep and goes back so far that it’s a given.» she laughed.
Another incentive for the Cabinet to stay is that the next two years may be more fun. After tough negotiations, Biden spent the first two years passing trillion-dollar climate change and infrastructure bills that it is the cabinet’s job to implement. That means ribbon cuttings and visits to grateful states, all of which are helpful in cementing legacies in office.
“It’s like any job,” said Tenpas of the Miller Center. «When there’s success, you want to keep doing it.»