Two Perspectives on the Diversity of President Joe Biden’s Cabinet Appointments
The Progression of Diversity in the White House
By Lindsay Chervinsky
President Biden promised repeatedly, in both his campaign and after winning election, to compile a cabinet that looks like America. While many of Biden’s cabinet selections have been groundbreaking, his intention to create a diverse cabinet continues a long tradition of executive branch representation.
What does a “cabinet that looks like America” mean and why might a president want to create one? A cabinet that looks like America includes representatives from all kinds of citizens. In the twenty-first century, that includes three types of diversity categories. First, visible differences including race and gender. Second, traditional markers of inclusion, including religion and sexual orientation. Finally, experiential diversity, such as background, geographic region, and economic representation.
Diversity throughout History
Diversity had a very different meaning in the eighteenth century. Only white men were considered citizens, so the applicant pool for cabinet positions was quite limited. Instead, factors like state citizenship, training, experience, and ideology played an important role. Accordingly, President George Washington compiled a cabinet with these considerations in mind. Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton lived in New York City, was born into poverty in the Caribbean, had military experience, brought financial expertise to the cabinet, and cozied up to the merchant and trade interests in urban centers. On the other hand, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson was born into wealth and privilege in Virginia, inherited a wealthy plantation and dozens of enslaved individuals, had extensive diplomatic experience, and spoke for yeoman farmers and the plantation interests of the South. Secretary of War Henry Knox and Attorney General Edmund Randolph also offered unique backgrounds, training, and representation.
While we wouldn’t look at Washington’s cabinet and consider it a particularly diverse group today, their contemporaries did. They understood that Washington had intentionally selected secretaries from different parts of the new country in an effort to make sure all political factions and economic interests were represented. Many of Washington’s successors have followed his example and embraced diversity in the cabinet.
Of course, what diversity means and who is included as a citizen, and thus gets to be considered for cabinet appointments, has evolved. Until the Civil War, diversity meant geographic balance and various factions of the President’s party. Abraham Lincoln was the first to include bipartisanship as a new marker of cabinet diversity. In order to hold the Union together in the face of impending war, Lincoln selected Radical Republicans, more conservative Republicans, and former Democrats as cabinet secretaries. As long as they were loyal to the Union, he didn’t care about their party affiliation.
Firsts in General and in Position
The increase of legal protection as a citizen also led to additional recognition in the cabinet. For example, Theodore Roosevelt selected Oscar Straus as his Secretary of Commerce and Labor—the first Jewish cabinet secretary. After the passage of the 19th amendment gave women the right to vote, several presidents considered appointing a woman, but Franklin D. Roosevelt was the first to follow through on the promise. He selected Frances Perkins as Secretary of Labor and the first woman cabinet secretary. After the passage of the Civil Rights Acts in the 1960s, President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Robert Weaver as the first Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and the first Black cabinet secretary.
Other “firsts” were shockingly recent. President Bill Clinton appointed Norman Mineta as Secretary of Commerce and the first Asian-American cabinet secretary while President Biden’s Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland is the first Native American cabinet member.
Diversity isn’t just about who is in the cabinet, however, as not all cabinet positions are created equal. In addition to Haaland’s historic appointment, Biden’s cabinet includes a number of additional firsts. He appointed Lloyd Austin III as the first Black Defense Secretary, Janet Yellen as the first female Treasury Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas as the first immigrant and Latino Secretary of Department of Homeland Security, and Avril Haines as the first female Director of National Intelligence. These positions are among the most important in the federal government and diverse representation in these offices indicates real change.
Despite Biden’s extraordinary choices, there is always room for improvement. Most obviously, Biden did not select a Republican secretary in the bipartisan tradition. However, bipartisan selections only work when the president and the secretary have a shared set of values,…