by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
In filling out his administration, Joe Biden has put not just one but two high-profile, high-powered individuals at the top of his State Department. For secretary of State, he has selected longtime aide and confidant Antony Blinken. He has also created a new Cabinet-level position, climate czar, and given the job to John Kerry, a former senator, presidential candidate and secretary of State (in which position Kerry was Blinken’s boss). The climate czar job, with offices in the State Department and the White House, will apparently have a huge mandate, and Biden advisers are reportedly already concerned about how these two positions will work together—and whether the arrangement could bring confusion or conflict to the new administration.
The parallels between the Blinken-Kerry setup and a previous relationship at the top of U.S. foreign policy are almost eerie. In 1955, President Dwight Eisenhower appointed former Minnesota governor and presidential candidate Harold Stassen to the newly created position of special assistant to the president for disarmament. Stassen was to be the administration’s point person on disarmament issues, with Cabinet rank. But this appointment did not sit well with Eisenhower’s territorial secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, who thought disarmament should be his purview.
Not only did the Cabinet overlap result in an acrimonious few years, it also brought about some embarrassing setbacks for U.S. disarmament policy. If the Biden administration wants to avoid squabbling, confusion and mistakes, and instead achieve comity and clarity, it should examine what went wrong the last time. Maybe it can learn some lessons about how to make the Kerry-Blinken relationship go right.
The very idea of Eisenhower’s circumventing an established Cabinet official seemed off from the start. Eisenhower was a staunch believer in Cabinet government and felt that policy direction should come from the Cabinet heads, and not the White House staff.