- Indian American politicos can expect a windfall in appointments under a Biden administration. But will anyone make it to the cabinet?
Ever since the proverb came to be, there has been widespread consensus that counting chickens before they hatch is a bad idea. But that’s not the case when it comes to speculating about possible appointees to a new American administration. In fact, it is considered imperative. Unlike parliamentary systems that rely heavily on permanent bureaucracies to govern with or without the political leadership in place, American governments are run mostly by political appointees. Typically, an American president makes about 4,000 appointments, including a 1,000 that need Senate confirmation. A sizable number of them need to be identified even before the election, to be vetted during the brief two-month transition period.
So, it’s not unusual for any credible presidential candidate to begin compiling a list of potential candidates to fill the federal government as soon as the nomination process has concluded. Unless, of course, you are candidate Donald Trump who, apparently not expecting to win, didn’t do the homework and presided over the most chaotic transition period in the modern times, not to mention the dysfunctional recruitment process that continued through months if not years into his administration.
It is equally normal for any number of politicos, activists, professionals and plain eager beavers to position themselves as potential picks for thousands of jobs, from entry-level to the cabinet. For the Indian American community, which boasts of an embarrassment of riches in terms of eligible candidates, the rat race is on to make it into a Joe Biden administration. Even if there is going to be stiff competition from other minority ethnic communities, particularly from the African Americans, Indian American candidates can expect a windfall in appointments under a Biden administration.
Four years ago, dozens of politically well-heeled Indian Americans were hoping to join the ranks of an all but inevitable Hillary Clinton administration. Many of them had deep personal connections with the Clintons, having worked for them in different capacities spanning a couple of decades. While there were several Indian Americans in the Obama administration, they were fewer than eligible, possibly because Obama was himself new to the Democratic establishment whose ranks were filled with Clinton loyalists. There were also relatively few Indian Americans in the Obama orbit and many of them were rookies.
The Biden administration might do better with Indian Americans who are mostly centrist professionals in line with the top dog himself. It is a given that a number of them might be appointed to middle level positions because of their sheer strength in the talent pool of the Democratic Party. The question is will President Biden appoint them to higher rungs. Will he choose, say someone like Neera Tanden, currently President of the Center for American Progress, who has been a confidant of Hillary Clinton and one of the principal drafters of the Affordable Care Act under the Obama administration. She is arguably one of most talented politicos with formidable connections in Washington. There are several others with similar credentials. But will any of them make it to the cabinet level? So far, President Trump has the distinction of appointing the only Indian American to the cabinet — Nikki Haley, who was U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Who has the next best chance of making the cut?
One of the most important positions in a Biden cabinet will be that of the Attorney General. His chief law enforcement officer will have the unprecedented role of having to investigate the preceding administration. It has never been done before in the history of the United States. That’s because the scale of corruption in the Trump administration is not something that the next Attorney General can ignore, not to mention the responsibility to supervise a number of ongoing investigations. Needless to say, it will be a highly politically fraught exercise where the President has to keep his hands clean but expect the Attorney General to do his job however much political pressure there may be from the opposition benches and the media.
So, who will ‘President Biden’ pick to the most consequential position in his cabinet? I can’t think of a better candidate than Neal Katyal, who is currently professor of National Security Law at Georgetown University Law Center. He served briefly as Acting Solicitor General of the United States during the Obama administration. Katyal not only has impeccable legal credentials, having argued a number of high profile cases before the Supreme Court — some very unpopular ones like defending Osama bin Laden’s driver —but also has been an acerbic critic of the Trump administration, appearing regularly on cable news networks, penning a number of op-ed articles in national newspapers and writing a best-selling book, “Impeach: The Case Against Donald Trump.”
Katyal, who has solid connections in the Democratic establishment to be considered for many a prize position, would rather be a Supreme Court justice or a famous sommelier, ambitions that I deduced when I interviewed him many years ago. But both those positions may be a bridge too far — there will be compelling reasons to appoint a Black woman to the bench when the next vacancy arises, and as for the other, competition from the Europeans may be even stiffer.
On the other hand, Katyal would be an impeccable fit for the Attorney General’s position which demands professional integrity that will help him navigate the political minefield both during the confirmation process and in office. Katyal cannot be seen as a biased partisan hack. His apolitical credentials are well established. For instance, Katyal, to liberals’ chagrin, not only endorsed President Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch, but he also formally introduced Judge Gorsuch at the Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings. And one cannot imagine Sen. Lindsey Graham or any other Republican senator taking exception to confirming Katyal whose positive comments about Judge Brett Kavanaugh, the more controversial Trump nominee to the bench, were cited by Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to buttress Kavanaugh’s candidacy for confirmation.
All this may be idle speculation at a time when Biden has not even named his vice presidential running mate. And who knows, Donald J. Trump might even pull a vaccine out of his MAGA hat just in time to win a second term and let my speculative chickens come home to roost.
Sunil Adam is the editor and publisher of americankahani.com.