WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden's first Cabinet meeting looked and felt different from those of his predecessor.
Biden's full Cabinet met Thursday in the spacious White House East Room, not the comparatively cramped West Wing room that bears the group's name, to allow for social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic.
Many smaller tables were pushed together to create one gigantic square. Department secretaries and other participants wore face masks. And the portion of the meeting opened to press coverage lacked the over-the-top, hail-to-the chief tributes that came to define Donald Trump's Cabinet meetings.
Biden immediately pointed out the diversity of his Cabinet, which includes the first Black defense secretary in Lloyd Austin, the first openly gay Cabinet member in Pete Buttigieg at transportation, the first Native American secretary in Deb Halaand at Interior and the first female treasury secretary in Janet Yellen, among others.
Vice President Kamala Harris is the first woman, Black person and Indian American elected to her office.
Biden declared the group “looks like America" and added, "That's what we promised we were going to do, and we've done it.”
Trump's Cabinet was largely white and male.
Thursday's meeting came a week after the Senate confirmed the final Cabinet member and a day after Biden released his infrastructure plan, which was a major item on the agenda.
The White House allowed press to witness just the opening three minutes, where Biden announced that he had asked five Cabinet secretaries “to take special responsibility to explain the plan to the American public.” He directed Transportation's Buttigieg, Energy's Jennifer Granholm, Housing and Urban Development's Marcia Fudge, Labor's Marty Walsh and Commerce's Gina Raimondo to be especially visible to the public and lead outreach on Capitol Hill.
Biden also directed the entire Cabinet to examine agency spending to ensure it follows his “Buy American” commitment.
With the sales blitz for the infrastructure plan just beginning, the focus of the meeting was on how the package can be relevant across government, as well on continuing to emphasize benefits Biden expects from the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill he signed into law this month, said White House deputy press secretary Andrew Bates.
Cabinet meetings in the modern era are less about setting administration policy than ensuring that all the government agencies are on the same page, say former officials. The sessions also offer presidents an opportunity to make their priorities and values clear. Deeper debates are generally reserved for smaller, subject-specific gatherings of Cabinet officials and senior advisers, such as the National Security Council and the Domestic Policy Council.
“As the federal government has become increasingly complex over the years, the role of the Cabinet has evolved as well," said Chris Lu, President Barack Obama’s first-term Cabinet secretary. “In addition to serious policy discussions, Cabinet meetings are an opportunity for the president to lay out broad directions for how his team should operate."
“The meetings can help align priorities, build morale, and allow Cabinet members to develop relationships with colleagues who they don’t normally see,” Lu said.
All 16 permanent members of the Cabinet — the vice president and heads of the executive departments, including Yellen, Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken — attended in person on Thursday. So did other Cabinet-rank officials, including White House chief of staff Ron Klain and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines.
Shalanda Young, acting budget chief, participated after Neera Tanden, Biden’s first choice for that job, withdrew her nomination amid Senate opposition. Biden is also awaiting the confirmation of Eric Lander to lead the Office of Science and Technology Policy, a post the president has elevated to Cabinet rank.
In all, 25 people were there, the White House said.
In normal times, scheduling an in-person Cabinet meeting would require weeks of planning to block off time in the travel schedules of the various principals. These days, most remain in Washington due to the pandemic.
Trump’s Cabinet meetings became known for their high level of presidential adoration, with “Dear Leader”-esque praise coming from attendees. His first full Cabinet meeting, held in June 2017, began with Vice President Mike Pence declaring that it was “the greatest privilege of my life to serve as the vice president to the president who is keeping his word to the American people.”