Presidents are only as effective as the administrations they assemble. FDR’s “brain trust,” for example, drove his effective first term. As President Biden seeks to surpass his predecessors’ accomplishments and become the most effective president of the past 60 years, the staff with whom he surrounds himself are essential. For over a thousand members of his team, Senate confirmation stands between them and the critical task ahead, making it crucial that Biden quickly make nominations to get these senior leaders working towards his vision as soon as possible. As the traditional post-New Deal metric of how a young administration is performing, the 100th day in office is a chance to look back on the Biden administration’s progress thus far and compare it to the Obama administration.
As of May 1st, Biden’s 100th day in office (notwithstanding debate over the official 100th day) Biden is surpassing the Obama administration in the pace of nominations by a significant margin. This stands in contrast to his underwhelming performance in early April. At that point, Biden lagged behind the Obama administration, particularly in filling Senate-confirmed positions in cabinet-level departments. In the ensuing time, his administration not only put forward enough nominations to keep pace with Obama, but it successfully overcame the deficit to surpass it. When exempting nominations that were withdrawn, those that are for a subsequent and consecutive term in the same positions, or duplicate nominations of the same individual within the same agency, Biden comes out well ahead. As of May 1st, the Biden administration has presented the Senate with 12 percent more nominations than the Obama administration had at the same point in 2009. But Biden’s substantial lead in overall nominations does not mean he is leading the Obama administration across the board.
Cabinet-Level Departments and Agencies
Among these 16 Cabinet-level Departments listed above, plus the Environmental Protection Agency (whose director is regularly made a member of the president’s cabinet), Biden is tied with the pace of nominations set by Obama. Of Biden’s 215 total nominations, 159 went to these 16 agencies, while 159 of Obama’s 189 did the same. Despite the same number total, the distribution of the 159 nominees differs significantly between the two administrations.
In early April, Biden lagged behind Obama in nominations to cabinet-level departments and agencies in particular. As of April 12th, Biden had only surpassed Obama’s nomination rate for two of these 16 Cabinet-level departments and only matched Obama’s rate for one more. As of May 1st, Biden is now only behind the former president among seven agencies.
Biden has far surpassed the Obama administration in nominations to the State Department (37 nominees to Obama’s 24) and has three more nominations submitted to the Department of Defense than Obama had at the same time. While expedient nominations are a key step towards a functional government, the focus on foreign policy leaves some domestic agencies trailing far behind the Obama administration’s pace of nominations.
Among those more-neglected crucial agencies are the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Department of Education. In order to address dire issues like climate change, a nationwide housing crisis, and the educational disparities created by a year of remote learning, the president will need strong leadership at these agencies. However, despite the enduring lags at these agencies, his rapid improvement over a short timeframe shows that his administration is working quickly to remedy this lack of leadership.
The Biden administration has made significantly more nominations to independent agencies than the Obama administration had in 2009. These agencies hold often undervalued regulatory powers and are desperately in need of nominations to fill vacancies and expired seats. As of May 1st, Biden has nominated twice as many individuals to fill seats on independent boards and agencies as Obama had by the same point. While Biden’s 16 independent agency nominations dwarf Obama’s eight, there are still significant vacancies among independent agencies yet to be filled. Placing Biden nominees in these seats ought to be a priority for a Biden administration dependent on executive action to make policy as the Senate delays the enactment of a robust legislative agenda. Among the agencies with the most pressing need for nominees are the IRS Oversight Board which has only 3 of its 9 seats filled (one of those board members had his term expire in 2005) and the US Parole Commission which has only 2 of its 5 seats filled, both of which held by members whose terms expired years ago. The Biden administration has significantly improved the nominations to independent agencies over previous Democratic administrations, and the continuation of a brisk nomination pace will prove crucial to an effective regulatory agenda by the Biden administration.
Biden’s uptick in pace of nominations is promising and must continue in the coming months. Democrats hold a fragile majority in the Senate, a majority reliant upon aging Democratic Senators While Democrats under Majority Leader Harry Reid lost their 60 vote filibuster-proof majority with the death of Senator Ted Kennedy in 2009, the current Senate majority is far slimmer and the death of a Democratic Senator could easily temporarily (or permanently, depending on the state) derail future confirmations of Biden nominees to posts throughout the government.
In addition to Biden’s pressing need to fill executive positions throughout the government, the Senate must attempt to clear the nominees presented to them by the President as fast as possible. While discussions on Biden’s next big legislative priority ─ a massive infrastructure package─ continue, the Senate has time to clear the nominee backlog and put the executive branch back under capable leadership. To make it happen, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer should implement changes in Senate floor time rules to allow nominations to move through the chamber faster, or to allow groups of nominees to be debated at once rather than waste the time of the entire body on a single uncontroversial nominee.
If Biden continues the accelerated pace of nominations that he has set in the waning weeks of his first 100 days, there is real hope that he can install a capable leadership core within agencies in the executive branch far faster than the Obama administration did in 2009. This is crucial not only to implementing his major policy goals but also to fully reversing the damage of the Trump years and removing the Trump-selected acting heads of agencies from their current posts.