Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the book, “Burning Down the House: Newt Gingrich, the Fall of a Speaker, and the Rise of the New Republican Party.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion at CNN.
With each cabinet pick, President-elect Joe Biden has conveyed the same message – government experience will matter in this administration. Thus far, Biden has put forward an impressive team of advisers with resumes that offer a stark contrast to what we have seen in the past four years.
Among them is Janet Yellen, a renowned University of California economics professor and former chairwoman of the Federal Reserve, who has been nominated to become Treasury secretary. She will be the first woman to serve in that post. Biden has also nominated other experienced officials like Antony Blinken and Jake Sullivan – both of whom worked on the most pressing foreign policy issues under the Obama administration – as secretary of state and national security adviser, respectively.
For director of national intelligence, Biden has picked Avril Haines, who was the deputy national security adviser under President Obama. And, to serve as a special envoy for climate change, the President-elect selected former secretary of state and US Senator John Kerry, who played a key role in negotiating the 2015 Paris Agreement. Biden chose Alejandro Mayorkas, who served as the former deputy secretary of homeland security under the Obama administration, to be the first Latino and the first immigrant to lead the DHS. And Ron Klain, who boasts decades of experience in government, will join the Biden administration as chief of staff.
“The team meets this moment…it’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it,” Biden said Tuesday, referring to his national security and foreign policy picks.
The fact that Biden, who spent more than three decades in the Senate before serving as vice president, won the election with the backing of more than 80 million voters, shows that the American people were ready to see someone with a deep background in government back in the Oval Office. In a nation where doctors must be licensed to treat patients and mechanics must be trained to fix our cars, a large majority of the electorate decided that there was something to be said for the benefits of expertise in politics as well.
For many decades, the political outsider has reigned supreme. Long gone are the days when voters craved candidates who had earned their chops in the House or Senate. After Presidents John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson brought the nation deep into the quagmire of Vietnam during the 1960s, and Richard Nixon ended his presidential career in disgrace in 1974, the outsider seemed politically sexy.
Critics mocked Jimmy Carter for having little name recognition – “Jimmy Who?” – but the former Georgia governor had the last laugh. He put together a skillful campaign in 1976, defeating experienced Democrats in the primaries before he beat incumbent President Gerald Ford in the general election.
Four years later, Carter himself was made a one-term President when Ronald Reagan, a former actor and governor of California, charged into Washington boasting of how little connection he claimed to the nation’s capital. He didn’t like the federal government and the government had not shaped him. Reagan was succeeded after two terms by his Vice President George H.W. Bush, who was the modern exception to the rule. Bush had a long career in public service, having served in the House, the Republican National Committee, the CIA and the United Nations before his time in the White House.
Bush was succeeded by Bill Clinton, a largely unknown governor from Arkansas, who, despite a legendary policy intelligence, did not have an extensive background in Washington. Then came George W. Bush, the governor of Texas and son of the former President who positioned himself as an outsider. And in 2008, then Sen. Barack Obama defeated Sen. John McCain after having just served four years in the upper chamber.
The outsider has long appealed to voters with the possibility of remaking Washington. In an era when polls show great distrust of government institutions, the anti-Washington politician brings the promise of shaking things up and bringing in new voices and fresh ideas that might finally resolve the problems languishing inside the corridors of power. Reagan famously quipped in his inaugural address, “Government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem.”
But the weakness of the anti-establishment candidate became crystal clear over the past four years. Nobody was as much of an outsider to politics as Donald Trump, a reality television star and real estate mogul.
In addition to abandoning almost every norm of governance and ignoring basic procedures, Trump brought into the White House former reality TV stars, conservative news figures and business leaders. His administration included only a handful of people who could be considered government veterans (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo being one of them, and even he had comparatively paltry experience, having only entered Washington in 2010 as a Tea Party outsider). Many of them departed the White House abruptly and went on to publish tell-all books about the chaos of the Trump administration.
Trump’s lack of government experience became glaringly apparent when the Covid-19 pandemic struck, and the country is still confronting the devastation wrought by the lack of a coordinated national response. In recent weeks, Trump’s disregard for the democratic process, from his baseless claims of voter fraud to his attempts to overturn the election, has revealed the dangers of having a President who doesn’t understand or respect the weight of the office.
As a result, Trump made the 2020 election a contest that weighed competence and background. Biden comes to the office with decades of experience. He is someone who proudly identifies with the institutions of government and who champions – sometimes to the frustration of progressives – the potential for improving the status quo. He values the importance of negotiation and believes in working through, rather than around, the processes of government.
Over the past week, Biden’s cabinet nominations have reiterated that message. By turning to experienced government officials, Biden is trying to reassure the American people – along with our allies – that the country is in safe hands during this moment of crisis. While plenty of critics have been quick to express their concerns about various cabinet picks, one thing is clear – it is a team of advisers with immense experience. While the current President has lambasted expertise, Biden will define his administration by this value.
To be sure, even the best and the brightest can often lead the nation in the wrong direction. This is part of why the country so often took a chance on political outsiders after Johnson and Nixon.
But it’s likely we are entering a moment of self-correction. Just as he has exposed so many other problems in our political system, President Trump – through his many failings on the job – has revealed the importance of experience and expertise when it comes to the highest office in the land.