The day before President Joe Biden officially announced he is running for a second term in the White House, he broke other news: his Domestic Policy Adviser, Susan Rice, would be stepping down. Rice has served in that role since the beginning of the Biden administration. We also learned this week that Acting Federal Aviation (FAA) Administrator Billy Nolen will leave his role this summer. Nolen has been in the acting head of the FAA for just a few months, but was at the agency before his appointment to acting administrator.
The departures are not surprising. Working in a presidential administration, especially the first two years of a first term, requires grueling hours, time away from family and friends, and, for many people who have been leaders in their field, a significant pay cut.
In fact, what we thought was unusual was how little news we have regarding turnover in the Biden administration during its first two years. Could it be that President Biden has been better than his predecessors at keeping top staff in place?
The story is more complex than you might think. Let’s take a look.
Tracking Biden “A Team” Turnover
Scholars at Washington, D.C.’s Brookings Institution have been tracking turnover in the Biden administration since the president took the oath of office in January 2021.
They noted that, when it comes to top White House personnel, President Biden “had a highly stable first year in office.” Only five people on the president’s “A Team” left their jobs in 2021. (The “A Team,” as defined by Brookings, is mostly made up of senior White House officials. The list, in other words, does not include cabinet secretaries. More on what has happened in the cabinet in just a bit.)
After a relatively stable first year, things changed quickly, however. In fact, in 2022, Biden administration turnover quadrupled. That year, 21 members of the “A Team” announced their resignations, including:
Chief of Staff Ron Klain;
Chief Strategist and Senior Adviser to the President Anita Dunn;
National Economic Council Chair Brian Deese;
National Climate Adviser Gina McCarthy; and
Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
While an increase in turnover is normal in year two of a presidency, President Biden did experience more churn than his most recent predecessors. (The Brookings Institution has tracked White House retention going back to the first year of the Reagan administration — 1981 — so its data can be used to compare President Biden against six other presidents: Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump.)
In fact, the second-year turnover rate for the Biden “A Team” was the second highest (32 percent) in the last four decades. (At 40 percent, President Reagan had the highest second-year turnover.) Combining year one and year two turnover, the Biden administration’s turnover rate (40 percent) was the third highest behind Presidents Donald Trump (66 percent) and Reagan (57 percent). The two Presidents Bush had the lowest turnover rates during their first two years in office.
Four months into his third year in office, the president’s “A Team” turnover rate is up to 47 percent and Brookings released that number on April 5, before it knew Rice, the president’s Domestic Policy Adviser, was planning to leave.
Is the president’s batting average any better at executive branch agencies? Let’s take a look.
Biden Administration Cabinet Turnover
As defined by Brookings, cabinet membership includes the heads of federal executive departments (e.g, the Departments of the Defense, Education, Treasury, and Homeland Security, etc.) that are in the presidential line of succession. This list, therefore, excludes some Cabinet-level appointments (e.g., Small Business Administration and Environmental Protection Agency administrator, and White House chief of staff).
When it comes to these positions, the Biden administration turnover story tells a pretty remarkable tale of stability.
Not a single member of the President Biden’s cabinet left in 2021 and only one (Department of Labor Secretary Marty Walsh) left in 2022. And there have been no departures announced yet this year.
That means only one — one! — member of President Biden’s cabinet has stepped down since he was inaugurated in January 2021.
President Biden’s cabinet turnover rate is the lowest since 1981. President George H.W. Bush, who had one of the lowest “A Team” turnover rates, had one of highest levels of cabinet departure. Five cabinet members left in his first two years in office. President Trump had the highest first two-year cabinet turnover record. Seven cabinet secretaries departed the Trump administration in the president’s first two years.
President Biden’s low cabinet turnover rate is being heralded by his political allies as the president moves into reelection. As Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) told NBC News, “Not one single member of the cabinet has left in disgrace, is writing a tell-all book or has bad-mouthed the president. There are no leaks, no backbiting, nothing.”
Why? Well, White House aides have a (totally positive, of course) explanation for the lack of departures. NBC News reported “Why cabinet members stay put rather than take better-paying jobs in the private sector or embark on independent political careers may have something to do with how they’re treated. Biden has made it a point to show them they’re valued, aides argue.”
Anita Dunn, one of the White House advisers who has left the Biden administration, cited another reason. “This is a president who really uses his cabinet and values his cabinet,” Dunn told NBC News. “Often, cabinet members feel as though they are disconnected from the White House. In this case, the president has really depended on his Cabinet for advice.”
Cabinet officials must be approved by a majority of the U.S. Senate, of course. Is the close margin in the Senate (where Democrats currently have only a two-seat advantage) another reason that President Biden’s cabinet is staying put?
The Plight Of Marty Walsh’s Successor
As noted above, only one member of President Biden’s cabinet, former Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, has left the administration. While U.S. Senate rules no longer require that cabinet nominees have 60 votes to overcome a filibuster — instead they only need a bare of votes for approval — Walsh’s designated successor has run into a Senate brick wall.
President Biden nominated his choice to replace Walsh, Julie Su, on March 1. Only today, 57 days after her nomination, did Su receive a vote on her nomination in committee. The Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) Committee vote came along party lines, 11 Democrats for and 10 Republicans opposed. HELP Committee Ranking Member Bill Cassidy (R-La.) said Republicans oppose Su’s “decades-long record of partisan activism, promoting policies that undermine workers to the benefit of politically-connected labor unions.”
Republicans have pledged to put up a fight on the Senate floor over the Su nomination, creating a prolonged (and problematic) vacancy at the top of the Department of Labor.
Despite the fact that they cannot mount a filibuster, GOP lawmakers could successfully stall Su’s nomination. In fact, as Fox News noted, “Su's nomination now heads to the floor of the U.S. Senate, where a handful of Biden’s other high-profile nominees have been stuck in limbo amid intense opposition from Republicans, moderate Democrats, and independents.” As examples, Fox News cited:
Phil Washington, President Biden’s nominee to lead the Federal Aviation Administration, who recently withdrew his nomination after Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-Ariz.) said she would not support him in committee; and
Gigi Sohn, who was nominated to lead the Federal Communications Commission, but dropped out after Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he would oppose her nomination.
According to data published by The Partnership for Public Service (PPS), it took an average of only 61 days for President Biden’s initial set of cabinet nominees to move from nomination to confirmation. Su’s nomination, already at 57 days, will likely take much longer than that. (The cabinet approval times during the Obama and Trump administrations were 97 days and 98 days, respectively.)
The United States is one of the few advanced economies that takes this long to confirm members of its executive branch cabinet. In fact, PPS found, of the 30 countries with the highest GDP that rely on presidential systems, only three took longer than the United States to fill cabinet positions: Nigeria (166 days), Liberia (108 days), and South Korea (96 days).
There is an important caveat, however: Only six of those 30 countries required cabinet confirmations by a national legislature, PPS noted.
Still, as PPS also said, “Cabinets comprise the secretaries or ministers heading various departments, and executives benefit from having key leadership positions filled quickly in order to execute their agendas. Delays in getting essential staff in place can leave national security planning gaps while slowing policy implementation and personnel decisions.”
That statement may be true, but with the race for the White House (and the U.S. Senate) in full swing, do not expect Senate cabinet approval times to speed up any time soon.