‘So you’re seeing a team develop that I have great confidence in,’ said former president Barack Obama this week when asked about Joe Biden’s incoming administration. Obama sounds a bit of a World King these days, but you can’t blame him for feeling chipper. He has his third book of memoirs out (he only writes about himself, it seems), he’s making millions through publishing and Netflix deals, his great nemesis Donald Trump appears finally to have been vanquished — and his gang is taking charge of Washington again.
Biden revealed a number of his cabinet ‘picks’ this week, and it’s a case of jobs for the old Obama boys and girls. Antony Blinken, deputy secretary of state under Obama, is to be the next secretary of state. John Kerry, the secretary of state under Obama, will be ‘climate envoy’. Janet L. Yellen, a chair of the Federal Reserve under Obama, will be secretary of the Treasury. Alejandro Mayorkas, deputy secretary of the Department of Homeland Security under Obama, will be secretary of homeland security. Avril Haines, deputy director of the CIA under Obama, will be director of national intelligence. Perhaps the freshest face is Jake Sullivan, the next national security adviser, who turns 44 this week. Yet even he was director of policy planning under Obama, as well as national security advisor to the then vice-president, Joe Biden.
In fact, the incoming Biden administration is arguably more Obamaish than the original Obama administration. In 2008, when Barack won the White House, he was a Washington neophyte who had to contend with the considerable power of the Clintons. His campaign chiefs could only stand aside and gripe as Hillary Clinton, the woman Obama had beaten to become the Democratic nominee, became secretary of state and pushed her allies into the best positions. This time, it’s the Biden campaign people grumbling as Team Obama swoops back in. ‘The Obama staffers are now cutting out the people who got Biden elected,’ an anonymous Biden staffer told Politico this week.
It’s a centrist coup too. The so-called ‘radical left’ of the Democratic party, which grew in influence over the Trump years, finds itself cast aside. Yellen is, by current Democratic standards, an economic conservative. And the anti-war crowd is having to make way for a bunch of liberal internationalist hawks who support the continuation of war in Afghanistan as well as greater involvement in Libya and Syria. Blinken and Sullivan are already making humanitarian noises about Ethiopia, which suggests a military intervention coming soon. The NeverTrump faction of the Republican party, the dreaded neocons, are cock-a-hoop. Not all Democrats are quite so thrilled.
For now, the Joebama machine can just about brush over any party discontent. The refrain is that after Trump anything is better. Wouldn’t you rather be bored by a dull government than terrified by a chaotic one? That message essentially won Biden the election. But voters might not find the Biden administration so reassuringly tedious if new wars break out and more American troops have to go and die.
What is certain is that under Team Biden-Obama, the executive messaging will be more joined up than Trump’s Twitter commands. The new administration will all sing from the same comms sheet, at any rate. We can already see that from the video that @JoeBiden tweeted on Monday to announce his foreign policy and national security team. It featured the new cabinet appointees taking turns to spout grandiose yet meaningless statements while the algorithmically generated string-and-piano music stirred in the background. ‘Historic challenges demand historic new approaches,’ said John Kerry, Mr Climate, over an image of a forest fire. ‘We understand that the United States must lead not just with the example of our power, but the power of our example,’ added Avril Haines, robotically, as the Statue of Liberty appeared. ‘America is back at the table,’ concluded Blinken.
Biden followed up on Tuesday with a speech in which he trotted out almost all of the same phrases. ‘I’ve long said,’ he said, ‘that America leads not only by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.’
Insiders all know what these platitudes mean: Washington’s political class has reoccupied its rightful place on top. The swamp is back, baby. The Washington Post rather gave the game away this week when it published a gushing report under the headline: ‘Washington’s aristocracy hopes a Biden presidency will make schmoozing great again.’ The online editors promptly changed ‘aristocracy’ to ‘establishment’, but the slip was revealing. Democratic blue-bloods are in the ascendancy. Kerry and Blinken are about as elite as Americans get. Kerry, who ran as the Democratic candidate for president in 2004, is a billionaire through his marriage into the Heinz fortune. Blinken is a preppy type who grew up on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and in Paris. He spent his time away from politics being a global affairs analyst for CNN, as well as making a fortune in private equity and defense lobbying. After 2016, he and some other former ‘nat sec’ officials set up WestExec, a lobby shop which advised shadowy foreign groups on tech and defense. With considerable foresight, Blinken even registered an ‘exceptional contingency’ clause on the lease of the office property. This meant the contract could be terminated without penalty in the event that the Democratic candidate won the presidency in 2020. Hey presto! Trump, the real-estate tycoon, must be secretly impressed.
Blinken is a Europhile. He has typically political-class views about Brexit — i.e. he thinks it is a disaster. He has described Britain’s exit from the European Union as comparable to ‘the dog that caught the car and then the car goes into reverse and runs over the dog’.
Lots of British Conservatives have been busy convincing themselves that the Biden administration will be easier to work with than Team Trump and that anyway it is in America’s greater strategic interest to treat the United Kingdom well. Maybe so. But it seems delusional to think that the re-empowered Obama boys and girls will not believe that Brexit Britain belongs where the World King once said it would be: at the back of the queue in future negotiations.