On Thursday, December 10, President-elect Biden announced his first domestic appointments and nominees. Biographies for each individual are below.
Secretary Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture
Vilsack was the 30th U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Obama Administration, serving from his unanimous confirmation in 2009 through the end of Obama’s second term. He is currently the President and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council.
Vilsack’s tenure as Secretary of Agriculture was largely uneventful, when compared to the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of State, and others. Vilsack’s appointment to Agriculture Secretary was lauded by many industry and advocacy groups ranging from the Environmental Defense Fund to the Corn Refiners Association. Vilsack emphasized the Department’s role in nutrition and food insecurity programs, working with Michelle Obama on a significant overhaul of school lunch programs to include more fruits and vegetables. Vilsack was involved in the removal of Shirley Sherrod from the head of USDA’s rural development arm after a high-profile incident involving a deceptively edited video.
Prior to joining the Administration, Vilsack served as Governor of Iowa from 1999 to 2007, followed by a brief run for President. As Governor of Iowa, Vilsack was known for expanding voting rights for felons who had served their sentences and for aiming to reduce the use of methamphetamine. Vilsack started in politics as the Mayor of Mount Pleasant, Iowa before being elected to Iowa’s State Senate.
Vilsack is a former member of the National Governors Association Executive Committee and was previously Chair of the Democratic Governors Association. He was Chair of the Governors Biotechnology Partnership, the Governors Ethanol Coalition, and the Midwest Governors Conference, and has also been chair and vice chair of the National Governors Association’s Committee on Natural Resources. He had an unsuccessful presidential campaign in 2008 and was rumored to be one of Hillary Clinton’s top picks for a running mate in 2016. Vilsack earned his bachelor’s from Hamilton College and his J.D. from Albany Law School of Union University.
Congresswoman Marcia Fudge, Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
Fudge has been the Congresswoman for Ohio’s 11th district since winning a special election in 2008. Fudge currently chairs the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight, and Department Operations and the House Administration Subcommittee on Elections. She is also a member of the House Committee on Education and Labor. Fudge previously served as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC).
Fudge previously served as the Mayor of Warrensville Heights, a suburb of Cleveland. Fudge’s career began in the Cuyahoga County Prosecutors Office. She was Chief of Staff to former Representative Stephanie Jones (D-OH) during Jones’s first term, eventually winning Jones’s seat after her passing. Fudge has also served on the Cleveland Public Library’s board of trustees. Fudge is a Past National President of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. and a member of its Greater Cleveland Alumnae Chapter. She earned her bachelor’s from The Ohio State University and her J.D. from the Cleveland State University Cleveland-Marshall School of Law.
Denis McDonough, Secretary of Veterans Affairs
McDonough served as Chief of Staff to President Obama from February 2013 to January 2017. Before serving in this role, he was the Principal Deputy National Security Advisor from September 2010 to February 2013. He was also chair of the National Security Council’s Deputies Committee.
Before joining the Obama Administration, McDonough was a Professional Staff Member on the International Relations Committee in the U.S. House of Representatives and worked for Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-SD) and Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO).
McDonough has taught classes at the Keough School of Global Affairs at the University of Notre Dame since leaving the White House. He recently served as a Senior Advisor at the Markle Foundation as well as Senior Advisor for Technology and Global Policy for Macro Advisory Partners. McDonough earned his bachelor’s from St. John’s University and his M.S. from the Georgetown University School of Foreign Service.
Katherine Tai, United States Trade Representative
Tai was the Chief Trade Counsel for the House Ways and Means Committee. As lead advisor to the Chairman and Democratic Members of the Committee on Ways and Means on matters of international trade, Tai worked closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office directing negotiations with the Trump Administration on changes to the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA).
Tai previously worked in the U.S. Trade Representative’s Office of the General Counsel, most recently as Chief Counsel for China Trade Enforcement, responsible for development and litigation of U.S. disputes against China at the World Trade Organization. Before joining the U.S. Trade Representative’s office, Tai was an associate at Baker & Mackenzie and at Miller and Chevalier Chartered. She is fluent in Mandarin. Tai earned her bachelor’s at Yale University and her J.D. at Harvard Law School.
Ambassador Susan Rice, Director of the Domestic Policy Council
Rice served as U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations from 2009 to 2013 and National Security Advisor to President Obama from 2013 to 2017. As National Security Advisor, Rice led the National Security Council Staff and chaired the Cabinet-level National Security Principals Committee. Rice was a visible figure for the Administration in the aftermath of the 2012 attack on the U.S. diplomatic facility in Benghazi.
Rice was previously the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs under President Bill Clinton from 1997 to 2001. From 1993 to 1997, Rice served as a Special Assistant to President Bill Clinton, Senior Director for African Affairs at the National Security Council, and Director for International Organizations and Peacekeeping on the National Security staff.
Rice co-chaired DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s Re-open DC Advisory Commission during the coronavirus pandemic. She currently is a Distinguished Visiting Research Fellow at American University and a Non-Resident Senior Fellow at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Rice was a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution from 2002 to 2008 and began her career as a management consultant with McKinsey and Company in Toronto, Canada. Rice has served on various boards including the Bureau of National Affairs, National Democratic Institute, and the U.S. Fund for UNICEF. Rice received her master’s and Ph.D. in International Relations from New College, Oxford University where she was a Rhodes Scholar. She received her bachelor’s in History from Stanford University.
Vilsack’s nomination is viewed as a conservative (safe) choice for the position. Vilsack’s long-standing relationship with the President-elect and his familiarity running the Department are likely to make him an effective policymaker from the early days of the Administration, addressing pressing needs like food insecurity in the economic downturn and the impact of trade policies on farmers. To this point, Republicans have not raised significant objections to his selection.
Vilsack’s selection has not been without controversy. Some had advocated for a more progressive choice who could acknowledge the Department’s history of disadvantaging farmers of color.
Fudge’s nomination to HUD may seem like a surprise given her very public push to lead the USDA. Fudge has been a long-serving member of the Agriculture Committee, making the Agriculture position a more linear connection to her policy expertise. However, Representative Fudge has been a longtime champion of affordable housing, urban revitalization, infrastructure investment, and other reforms to bolster communities of color.
As with Vilsack, McDonough provides the Administration with someone with experience working within the federal government, as well as someone with a long-standing relationship with the President-elect. McDonough is not known for his expertise on issues before the Veterans Affairs administration and is not a veteran himself. However, his previous experience atop the federal bureaucracy may prove valuable in his ability to institute reforms.
Rice’s appointment does not require Senate approval. Rice boasts a lengthy resume in international and security matters. In assuming the head of the Domestic Policy Council, Rice will be outside her traditional areas of policy expertise – though, as with McDonough, she has significant experience working within the federal government, and should be a capable navigator of the bureaucracy. Republicans likely would have challenged any nomination to a Senate confirmed position given her relationship to the Benghazi incident and subsequent investigations.