Who Will Biden Pick for Secretary of State? Here are Some Clues from the Past

For clues on who President-elect Biden might select as his Secretary of State, I researched how his predecessors chose their first Secretary of State.

I began with President Kennedy because he was the first president to enter office with the modern National Security Council system largely in place. 

Here are 13 insights I was able to draw:

Every President-elect has selected a Secretary of State of their political party. Even presidents with centrist views and a mandate for bipartisanship did not appear to seriously consider a cross-partisan choice.

Presidents-elect are drawn to Secretaries of State with similar credentials: Every Secretary except Rex Tillerson served in a senior role in the previous administration of the same party. All except Hillary Clinton and Tillerson served in the military. All, except Tillerson, were either lawyers or generals. 

Familiarity and proximity to the candidate are important: With the exceptions of Kennedy and Trump, every president-elect had either worked with the secretary-to-be or was very familiar with him/her.

The list of potential Secretaries of State often narrows well before the candidate is elected: Nixon and both Bushes had effectively decided before the campaign began. All the others except Kennedy and Trump were strongly predisposed to certain candidates by the time they got their party nominations.

The president-elect’s top choices can fail to materialize: Reagan settled for his fourth choice. Kennedy got his third. Nixon—second choice. Obama had to lobby his first pick aggressively after she declined several times.

Presidents-elect seeking a strong Secretary of State are inclined towards national celebrities, even if they have baggage: See Alexander Haig, Colin Powell, and Hillary Clinton as the most salient examples.

Presidents-elect are disinclined toward candidates with strong ideological views: None of the candidates had reputations as grand strategists, nor were they associated closely with certain foreign policy philosophies.

Presidents-elect appreciate political assistance from their secretaries-to-be: William Rogers and James Baker were long-standing political confidantes. Cyrus Vance endorsed Carter shortly after his preferred candidate lost and proved to be an active and well-liked campaign aide. Haig chose not to challenge Reagan in the primaries and delivered a strong address at the convention. Warren Christopher introduced Bill Clinton to high-powered fundraisers and headed his VP and Cabinet transition teams. Colin’s Powell’s political support may have been decisive in Bush’s victory. Hillary Clinton campaigned loyally for Obama after her defeat.

Political (as opposed to foreign policy) advisers wield outsized influence over the selection: Nearly all the Secretaries-to-be met the president-elect initially through their political rather than foreign policy networks.

Past foreign policy titans can prove to be influential: The sway of Dean Acheson and Adlai Stevenson over Kennedy is a particularly apt example. Nixon’s suggestion of Haig to Reagan was critical. Condoleezza Rice weighed in on Tillerson’s behalf.

Presidents-elect tend to forgive inconsistent political loyalty: Dean Rusk was not involved in the campaign. Rogers and Nixon had a competitive relationship. Vance endorsed Carter’s opponent in primary. Haig almost challenged Reagan for the nomination. Powell openly hedged before endorsing Bush. Clinton ran against Obama. 

Presidents-elect prize candidates popular on the Hill: Kennedy rejected his first choice, William Fulbright, due to concerns on the Hill unrelated to foreign policy. Nixon explicitly cited Rogers’s good relations on the Hill. No President has appointed someone expecting a serious confirmation fight.

Presidents-elect are concerned with balancing their Cabinet: Kennedy wanted “new faces.”  Carter wanted a diverse Cabinet on all fronts with national recognition. Reagan did not want two Bechtel executives. Clinton and George W. Bush wanted racial/gender/ethnic balance.

These lessons lead me to the following betting insights:

Buy No on candidates, whose selection would be historically anomalous. These include:

  • Antony Blinken
  • William Burns
  • Pete Buttigieg
  • Chris Murphy
  • Mike Pompeo
  • Mitt Romney (If you are a degenerate gambler, you may want to gamble on 1% yes shares. Even though Romney is highly unlikely to be selected in my view, Biden may say he is open to a Republican Secretary of State, which might be enough for this to spike to 2% or higher.)

Buy Senator Chris Coons in the low teens. Coons fits the bill on many levels, but removing such an effective ally from the Senate carries its own risks. Worth buying in the teens but don’t hold until the end.

Buy Susan Rice. I am not convinced that Rice will get selected. She could engender more opposition on the Hill than usual. But I would be surprised if she is not a finalist. The question is when to buy yes. Although she may be overpriced in the low-30s, it may be worth getting in early. Given how seriously she was vetted to be VP, it’s entirely possible that, like the Bushes with Baker and Powell, Biden has already more or less decided to pick her.

Expect Volatility. I would be surprised if Biden does not vet other candidates who are not currently listed on PredictIt. Consider this as you weigh your strategy on Rice and Coons. Consider too that there is no guarantee that Biden’s first pick will in fact want the job or get through the vetting process.

Pratik Chougule is a contributor to Star Spangled Gamblers and author of the book How to Make Money from Political Predictions: A Guide to Generating High, Steady Returns from PredictIt.

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