The ‘e’ word in Biden’s cabinet isn’t elite so much as experienced

RASHMEE ROSHAN LALL November 30, 2020

Someone recently wrote about how “elite” has become an insult when applied to politics.

It’s true. Populist nationalists have magicked the term “political elite” into a hideously entitled bunch of very well-networked people with old school ties or at least tiaras from the same sort of high school prom. Or something equivalent to that in different countries and different systems. That kind of  “elite” has real wasta. (It’s the Arabic word for clout and I first used it for Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law on January 15, 2017, five days before the 45th “elite”-bashing president was sworn in. Click here to read The Arab Weekly piece.)

At one level, the last thing in the world anyone should want is to have the Kushner sort of “political elite” in charge. Who would they serve most devotedly than themselves and their ilk? Mr Trump himself is extraordinarily “elite” and entitled, as well as incompetent and uncaring.

The flip side is that the people Mr Trump routinely brands “elite” are generally experienced, hard-working and honest. What’s more they are  competent around the business of government and policy-making.

Joe Biden’s incoming team is “elite” in the right way.

As treasury secretary, Janet Yellen will be someone who actually understands both the theory of labour markets (as an academic), as well as the practice of getting them to work (in her four years chairing the Federal Reserve). She’s also said to be a deal-maker and someone who cares about the less fortunate among us. (Finally, she’s said to not take herself too seriously. An academic friend of hers recently went on the radio to describe Ms Yellen suggesting, at a particularly low moment for the department, “oh well, let’s just go and have a martini”.)

The same goes for Tony Blinken, Mr Biden’s pick for secretary of state. Not only is very experienced in foreign affairs and the job of running the State Department, he likes to play guitar in his own band. Heartwarmingly, Mr Blinken seems to recognise that he may be a big cheese as a diplomat but is no Jimi Hendrix or Eric Clapton. (Fewer boastful claims from the State Department – “swagger”, “greatest” etc – would be more believable than the way things are now.)

And then there is Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s National Security Adviser, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, his nominee for UN envoy. They’re supposed to be fairly level-headed people.

John Prideaux, The Economist’s US editor, recently noted that “in generational terms, this group (like Mr Biden’s presidency) mostly looks like the final turn for an elite that grew up during Vietnam and found itself in charge on 9/11.” That generation, he noted, had its youth shaped by “an interminable war in East Asia” and it found itself “responsible for an even longer war in Central Asia”.

It is the generation, Mr Prideaux went on, which “thought it had found the formula for stable, ever-increasing prosperity, only to be hit by a financial crisis that nearly became a depression”.

So, they’ve seen it pretty much all.  The “e” word in the Biden administration doesn’t stand for “elite” so much as “experienced”.