Do not worry about it. The decision to head the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan, was a former Biden advisor who went to Yale before winning a Rhodes Scholarship. And there’s still much speculation about a likely location for Bruce Reed, a seasoned Biden aide who went to Princeton before winning a Rhodes Scholarship. His choice for Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is not a longtime Biden advisor, but someone he has known for years. She went to Brown and Yale.
The first few days of transition highlighted something that has been clear to anyone following Biden’s personal preferences for years: He has a crush on a few well-defined guys.
One of those guys is the Washington professional with impeccable credentials from elite institutions.
Biden will be the first president since Ronald Reagan to not have an Ivy League degree from either a bachelor’s or graduate level. People who have worked with Biden describe how he sometimes displays an acute awareness of colleagues’ academic trust and occasional sensitivity to his own. This suggests a parallel with a predecessor known for who went where.
“My Harvards” was the name Lyndon B. Johnson called his remarkable list of academic excellence, many of which he inherited from John F. Kennedy. This group was embodied by National Security Advisor McGeorge Bundy, who was both a graduate and dean of Harvard. The phrase “The Best and the Brightest,” once invoked with genuine admiration, was later used with sour sarcasm as the book title by David Halberstam after LBJ’s Harvards dragged him into the Vietnam disaster.
“He respects both of them and rejects them,” a colleague of Biden’s White House told Obama about his stance on Washington’s large class of academic elites. “He wants your approval,” said this person, but is easily injured when he perceives condescension.
Biden graduated from the University of Delaware with a shoulder-shrug transcript full of Cs. In 1987, when his first presidential campaign struggled to get in the air, there was a lot of fuss over Biden’s claim that he graduated from Syracuse University Law School “in the top half of my class.” In fact, he was close to the ground.
However, this has been part of a Biden paradox for decades. For years he worked under the reputation of a humble intellect, and it was only in this campaign that he mocked the subject of President Donald Trump. But for decades he has shown a lasting ability to recruit future generations of employees with glittering smart kid credentials – and, just as important, to keep them.
Part of the reason for this, say veterans of Biden’s Senate and Vice-Presidential operations, is because he was always more intimate and determined to have an impact on first-level political issues than his public reputation suggested. He showed respect for ambitious young people and gave them the influence they longed for. Klain worked with Biden in his late twenties as chief attorney for the Senate Judiciary Committee.
But those people also usually gave something to Biden, who came to the Senate even at an unusually young age: a sense of comfort that Washington’s most capable people were fighting for him.
This connection also applies to a second type of Biden favorite. They may have arrived in Washington without upgrading academic qualifications, but they quickly excelled as skilled political actors with an added level of hustle and bustle.
Among those who are now joining the White House with Biden as an advisor is Steve Ricchetti, who began his career as a Washington agent in Miami, Ohio in the early 1980s and was Deputy White House Chief of Staff to Bill Clinton and Chief of Staff to Vice President Biden in the Obama administration. With Biden as senior White House advisor, veteran political agent Mike Donilon, who has been with him for years, also works. So does Donilon’s sister-in-law Cathy Russell, who will now head the White House personnel office. Her husband is Tom Donilon, who started out as a young aide to Jimmy Carter in Washington and then became Obama’s National Security Advisor.
Even if only a fraction of the positions in the Biden administration are filled, it is already evident that his team has some defining signatures. After years of Trump and his allies denouncing an eerie “deep state” buried in the executive branch and many managerial jobs going to people with little loyalty to him, the people who got Biden’s top jobs were , largely submerged government and Washington culture for decades – just like their boss.
With all due attention to the various ideological messages Biden may send with deadlines as he tries to hold together a democratic coalition of jostling factions, what he is putting together is less a team of rivals than a team of careerists. One contender for Secretary of Defense is Michele Flournoy, who has worked in national security circles for decades. She started a public affairs company with Blinken and graduated from Harvard a few years before him.
Perhaps the closest equivalent is George H.W. Bush, who relied on decades of Washington ties to fill his administration. The next four successors – Clinton, George W. Bush, Obama and Trump – all came here from outside Washington or after a very short term and had to incorporate personal loyalists into the Washington firmament. In Biden’s case, these two groups are exactly the same.
It is also remarkable how much perseverance his team has shown. For the most part, they began their careers in Washington as child prodigies with impressive jobs at a young age. Now most are deeply middle-aged and striving for a boss way beyond that as they finally win the highest awards.
Klain, who served as Vice President Al Gore’s chief of staff before holding the same job for Biden, could plausibly have been Chief of Staff of the White House at the age of 39 if Gore had won the 2000 election. Klain happened to be portrayed by actor Kevin Spacey in the movie “Recount,” but he didn’t get the job he wanted until two decades later.
James P. Rubin, who was a senior deputy to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in the 1990s but was Biden’s Foreign Policy Advisor on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee a decade earlier, says that perseverance is an important lesson. Biden commands long-term loyalty in ways that many politicians don’t.
“When you work for him he gives you tremendous strength – he trusts you to run with the ball and he protects you when you fumble,” said Rubin. “He gives you great confidence that he would be there for you if you would fight for him.” It’s a pattern that began in his Senate days: “He wanted the best people, he attracted them, he gave them a long leash, and he was at the center of things.”