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Biden Faces Pressure To Make Good On His Pledge To Bring Diversity To His Cabinet

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Joe Biden appeared with his pick for defense secretary today - retired General Lloyd Austin. There's been some pushback to that choice because he recently served in uniform, and he's being chosen to be the top civilian leader of the Pentagon. It's just the latest example of pressure that Biden is feeling over his Cabinet choices. And here to talk with us more about that is NPR's Scott Detrow, who's covering the Biden transition. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Hey. Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: Seems like this Austin pick caught a lot of Democrats by surprise. Is there any sense that this could create problems with the confirmation process?

DETROW: Yeah. Austin would be the very first Black defense secretary. Biden has worked closely with him. He knows and trusts him. But the fact that he has only been out of active duty for four years means that he is not actually allowed to be able to serve as defense secretary unless Congress passes a waiver in both chambers OK'ing that. And that would be in additional - in addition to the usual Senate confirmation. So the fact that a lot of Democrats on the Hill had not been given a real heads up was notable and surprising since Congress is going to really need to OK this pick even more than other Cabinet positions, and also because Joe Biden has made such a big deal about his relationships with lawmakers and his time in Congress.

SHAPIRO: Tell us more about why this law is important. I mean, it's unique to the Defense Department position, right?

DETROW: Yeah. Just stepping back, one of the basic core beliefs that shaped this country - along with, you know, selecting leaders through elections - is civilian control of the military. That the president, the people, make final decisions, not the people in uniform. So many times throughout world history, we have seen militaries overthrow governments. And that's something that was very top of mind at the founding of this country and ever since. So to really underscore that principle, Congress passed a law saying that any defense secretary who had previously served would need to be retired from active duty for at least seven years. Now, four years ago, President Trump nominated James Mattis, who had not been retired for long enough. But Congress passed a waiver saying he could hold the position anyway. At the time, a lot of Democrats were skeptical and said, we do not want to do this ever again. And this is something that Austin directly addressed when he appeared with Biden this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: I come to this role - this new role - as a civilian leader with military experience, to be sure, but also with a deep appreciation and reverence for the prevailing wisdom of civilian control of our military.

DETROW: It is worth pointing out that a lot of Democrats are raising concerns, but we did see some of the hard lines from some key Democrats really soften over the past couple days. They seem to be open to the idea, maybe OK with it.

SHAPIRO: Biden has been facing a lot of pressure to make good on his pledge to bring diversity into his Cabinet. And in another part of the program, we hear from a former colleague of General Austin's about the significance of having a Black man in that role. What else are we learning about Biden's choices this week?

DETROW: We found out that he is planning on nominating Ohio Congresswoman Marcia Fudge to head the Housing and Urban Development department. And that's interesting because she had earlier made it clear she was not really interested in running HUD. She wanted to be agriculture secretary. Fudge represents Cleveland, she's the former head of the Congressional Black Caucus and she's a longtime member of the Agriculture Committee. And she had been making the case that the Department of Agriculture has a lot of control over policies that affect people in cities, people of color, even though it is often viewed and thought of as a department that focuses on rural issues. So instead, Biden is nominating longtime ally Tom Vilsack for Agriculture. And if that sounds familiar, it's because he held that job for all eight years of the Obama administration. This is another example of Biden really valuing loyalty and long relationships, even if it causes some frustration from other corners of the party.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR political correspondent Scott Detrow. Thank you.

DETROW: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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