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Democrats Jockey for Cabinet Posts in Potential Biden 2nd Term

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Among Democrats in Washington, the most buzzed about competition taking place this election year isn’t the one for the White House, although that one is certainly the most expensive. No, the most shameless campaigning—virtually all of it happening just off-stage and with a shouted whisper—is that for prime gigs should President Joe Biden prevail in his re-election bid.

Lawmakers looking for one last bump in the opening of their obit are signaling that they’d be happy to pitch in for their old Senate pal by accepting a high-profile role in Biden’s second term. Current administration stars are jockeying in case a promotion becomes available and members of Congress on good terms with the White House are positioning themselves should the right position open up. And a handful of deep-pocketed allies on the outside are gauging the appetite for certain CEOs to accept enormous pay cuts in exchange for a senior administration role or an overseas posting; donors are being careful to make sure their names are mentioned in fundraising round-ups.

It is, to be blunt, as unseemly as it is expected. And given former President Donald Trump’s persistent-but-narrow advantages over Biden in head-to-head and swing-state polling, it also may be a cos-play fantasy.

First, take a moment to appreciate the remarkable stability of the Biden administration’s upper ranks: his Cabinet sports the lowest turnover rate since George W. Bush—just two turnovers in four years—and the White House’s “A-Team” has been as static as any since 2012. While the constant churn of the Trump era should never be a normal barometer for government—14 Cabinet members gone and 92% turnover for his senior team by this point in Trump’s first term—it does provide a convenient backdrop to see how Biden has restored a semblance of normalcy to at least his powerful but tiny corner of Washington. (Major credit to the Brookings Institution for quantifying Cabinet chaos and quiet.)

But that backlog of change could usher a rush of overhaul if Biden prevails in November. For most of these jobs managing the West Wing or helping run Cabinet agencies, it’s an all-consuming gig that pays a fraction of what many previously did—and, in most cases, will again—command in the private sector. For instance, CIA Director William Burns traded his half-million-dollar salary at the Carnegie Endowment for a gig paying less than half of that. For White House staffers making far less, the lure of corporate life can be tough to hold off unless you arrived in the West Wing without worries about money.

The durability of Biden’s inner circle says as much about his team as about him. Despite his reputation as an avuncular figure, Biden can be something of an insular soul and a demanding boss, especially for new faces. He knows who he trusts and those who reach that level of kinship never really leave. It’s why Susan Rice, a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, took a job as his top domestic policy adviser, and former Labor Secretary Tom Perez now serves as a “utility infielder” in the White House, and former Secretary of State John Kerry returned to government as a floating envoy for climate change. Others, like former Sen. Bill Nelson runs NASA, former Delaware Gov. Jack Markell is Washington’s Man in Rome, and former White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel is Biden’s “Japan Hand.”

But the familiarity is also why so many folks that were there on Inauguration Day have demonstrated an impressive stickiness. Those who at first may have been viewed as merely convenient additions to Team Joe have proven their worth. For instance, Biden has grown fond of and impressed with Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, and it’s not impossible to see the former South Bend, Ind., mayor moving up in a second-term Cabinet, perhaps to a gig at the U.N. or working with veterans. Similarly, Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo’s star is as bright as ever, suggesting the former Rhode Island Governor could have a plum second-term seat, too. And never, ever count out Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, a former Michigan Governor whose charm and barbs are as sharp as anyone with a reserved seat in the Cabinet Room. (Lost on no one is Biden’s instinctive lean toward those who have sought elected office before.)

Other hard-workers may get a serious look, including U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield—who could find herself as only the second career foreign service officer in history to move up to Secretary of State should Antony Blinken pursue other goals—and current budget director Shalanda Young who has commanded respect from both parties’ leadership.

From the outside, the jostling is taking a slightly less aggressive approach. But it’s lost on no one that the Congressional delegation to this week’s D-Day anniversary in Europe includes some heavies who have been less than subtle in their belief that they could be welcome additions to Biden’s governing orbit. And, on the flight across the pond this week, more than a few aides—and some of their bosses—were musing about who could shuffle into new roles if Biden prevails. 

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee and could be a top contender to run the Pentagon. (And few doubt that a change at the Defense Department won’t be one of the first orders of business in a second Biden term.) Reed’s office says the 74-year-old Democrat and former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division will only be watching as several of his fellow veterans mark the 80th anniversary of the taking of Normandy by jumping out of planes over France. 

From the sidelines, Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who has served more than a decade on Foreign Relations, has similarly caught Biden’s eye as a potential Blinken replacement. Sen. Chris Coons sits on both the Foreign Relations and Judiciary panels that Biden formerly led, setting himself up as not just Biden’s closest pal in the Senate but also an intellectual proxy that may be well suited for either State or Judiciary. (His Delaware roots don’t hurt, either.) And Sen. Tammy Duckworth of Illinois, a retired Army lieutenant colonel, is as attractive a nominee as any to help out on portfolios as varied as active military affairs, veterans’ programs, or disability advocacy. Biden’s team often describes her as their all-star recruit if they could get her.

Put in purely crass terms, it’s tough to find anyone who is wearing or has worn a Senate pin who doesn’t harbor some infatuation with getting off Capitol Hill for a gig with far greater autonomy and some measure more influence. For committee chairs, their hearing room is their harbor, their gavels a sword; for everyone else, Congress can be a grind. The mythology around even the most routine sub-Cabinet gigs is easy to romanticize when mark-ups hit their fifth hour of pointless amendments. 

And, from the high-priced seats at invited fundraisers and high-envy receptions, the deep-pocketed monied set is also keeping an eye on the unofficial For Hire tackboards. It’s no secret that dollars land supporters the most coveted locales as diplomats. (They’re known as ambassadonors for a reason.) Scott Miller, an activist who with husband Tim Gill has bankrolled pro-LGBTQ causes for decades, scored the top diplomatic post in Switzerland. Denise Bauer, one of the Democratic Party’s most efficient fundraisers, secured the ambassador gig in Belgium during Barack Obama’s term and now runs the embassy in France. And business heavies like former Hewlett Packard CEO Meg Whitman, who ran for Governor of California as a Republican and counts Mitt Romney among her best pals, has the run of the house at the embassy in Kenya. 

Then there’s Washington and its limitless ambitions. A seemingly endless parade of aides and fundraisers—especially in election years—often ask if reporters had heard their boss was up for a plum gig. Well, once the seed is planted, the goal is half-achieved. Which is precisely why a whole lot of Capitol Hill has read this to the end to see if their boss got a favorable mention.

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