Biden is nominating Denis McDonough, who was Obama’s White House chief of staff, as secretary of the Department of Veterans Affairs, a sprawling agency that has presented organizational challenges for both parties over the years. But he never served in the armed forces, a fact noted by a leading veterans organization.
Biden is also naming Susan Rice as director of the White House Domestic Policy Council, giving her broad sway over his administration’s approach to immigration, health care and racial inequality and elevating the prominence of the position in the West Wing.
The move marks a surprising shift for Rice, a longtime Democratic foreign policy expert who served as President Barack Obama’s national security adviser and U.N. ambassador. She worked closely with then-Vice President Biden in those roles and was on his short list to become his running mate during the 2020 campaign.
In selecting Rice and McDonough, Biden is continuing to stockpile his administration with prominent members of the Obama administration. He will make the formal announcements Friday, along with his nominations of Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary. Vilsack filled that same role during Obama’s two terms.
In choosing Rice to oversee the White House council, advisers said Biden is signaling the importance of domestic policy in his early agenda. Though the council was created with the intention of being on par with the White House National Security Council, it traditionally has had a lower public profile, including for its directors.
Rice’s role overseeing the council does not require Senate confirmation.
Although Biden has insisted his administration will not simply be a retread of Obama’s presidency, he is bringing back numerous familiar faces. His team has defended the moves as a nod toward experience and the need to hit the ground running in tackling the pressing issues facing the nation across multiple fronts.
Shirley Anne Warshaw, a professor at Gettysburg College who has studied the presidency and Cabinets, said following Obama as he builds out his team gives Biden an advantage.
“This is a much better bench than Obama had because these people have the experience of serving in the Obama administration,” Warshaw said.
McDonough, the VA nominee, is an experienced manager who was chief of staff throughout Obama’s second term.
McDonough was previously Obama’s deputy national security adviser, including during the Navy SEAL raid in 2011 that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, and was a longtime congressional staffer.
McDonough was credited with helping Obama try to bridge divides on Capitol Hill, including around one of his most substantial second-term legislative achievements: the Veterans Choice Act. The legislation gave former service members more options to seek care and the VA secretary more authority to fire underperforming staffers.
The bill came about following exposes during the Obama administration into mismanagement at some VA hospitals and mounting complaints by advocacy groups. As chief of staff, McDonough was also deeply involved in an overhaul of VA leadership after the scandals, which led to the ouster of the department’s secretary.