As the US presidential race enters its final stretch, foreign diplomats and journalists are furiously trying to guess who might get top positions in a Joe Biden administration were he to win the White House.
It’s a parlour game that never tires the “beltway bandits” who can spend hours checking who’s up, who’s down in the “real” race of influencing the mind of the president.
This time around the field of contenders is more crowded because everyone who is anyone in the DC think tank-private consultancy circuit wants to serve and help “fix” the country after President Donald Trump’s tumultuous tenure. Competition for positions will be fierce.
Biden’s “government-in-the-making” is said to be populated by 2,000 people, divided into working groups, which are further divided into sub-groups, which are then given specific subjects to tackle such as the Israeli-Palestinian issue or China or Iran. There are several Indian-Americans in the mix and in fact, the South Asia group is co-chaired by an Indian-American, Sumona Guha, and Tom West, both former State Department officials.
But this large circle of advisors is headed by the real power elite whose place in a Biden administration is said to be 99% secure. As long-time Biden aides and confidants, they are more equal than others. Most of them, including some prominent Indian-Americans, have already served in senior positions in the administration of former President Barack Obama.
At the centre of the inner circle is Tony Blinken, former deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama years, and a long-time Biden confidant. He is likely to be the next secretary of state a fitting finale for a Washington insider, who has worked in the White House since Bill Clinton’s presidency, rising steadily.
A Harvard University and Columbia Law School graduate, Blinken has been with Joe Biden the longest, from the time when Biden was a senator and Blinken was staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A consummate foreign policy man, Blinken’s loyalty, expertise and management style have made him “simpatico” with Joe Biden who appreciates familiarity of long association and style.
In the campaign, Blinken has been the chief spokesman on foreign policy issues, appearing on TV and participating in various think tank webinars. Last Saturday, he made a strong pitch to Indian-Americans at a virtual event to mark India’s Independence Day, saying Joe Biden was a “champion of stronger ties” with India. He stressed Biden’s crucial role in getting the Indo-US civil nuclear deal through the US Senate.
“It wouldn’t have happened without his leadership,” Blinken said. He listed other achievements of the Obama-Biden team vis-à-vis India, including the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, declaring India a major defence partner and supporting its candidacy as a permanent member of a reformed UN Security Council.
Then there is Jake Sullivan, another frontrunner for a top job. He was Joe Biden’s national security adviser during the Obama administration and director of policy planning at the State Department. He advised Hillary Clinton during her presidential campaign and prepped both Obama and Clinton for debates.
Sullivan was part of the team that secretly met Iranian officials in 2013 in Oman to discuss the possibility of a nuclear deal, an effort that finally led to the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action or JCPOA between Iran and P-5 +1 — the five permanent members of the UN and Germany. It was hailed as a major achievement of the Obama administration. Trump walked out of the deal soon after he became the president.
It is unclear what job Sullivan, a Rhode scholar, might want or get. He could either be Joe Biden’s NSA or his Chief of Staff or even a “czar” to coordinate the response to the Covid-19 pandemic which would be the issue facing the probable Joe Biden administration.
A possible point of difference and therefore interest for those playing the parlour game is the different approaches Sullivan and Blinken bring to China — the former appears more hawkish of the two, at least from his writings.
RICHARD VERMA & NISHA BISWAL
Among Indian-Americans, Richard Verma, a former ambassador to India, and Nisha Biswal, former assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, are likely to be considered for prominent jobs. Richard Verma is widely respected across the political divide he may get a senior position at the State Department. He has been working behind the scenes to firm up support within the community ever since reports surfaced that some Indian-American votes may be shifting to Donald Trump because of his proximity to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Nisha Biswal, currently the president of the US-India Business Council, is Gujarati and has good contacts in PM Modi’s circle. She was instrumental in arranging Modi’s first trip to Washington as the prime minister in September 2014 when some in the Obama administration were not as enthusiastic. Nisha Biswal has experience working both on Capitol Hill and in the executive branch.
To be sure, new Indian-American stars will rise in the next administration given the large number of activists and policy wonks in the pool, especially from the “progressive” wing.
To repeat the competition for top jobs will be intense.