The Women Who Could Lead Biden’s Economic Recovery

A significant number of women are being considered for key economic slots in the Biden administration, including as secretaries of Treasury, Commerce and Labor. 

The Women Who Could Lead Biden’s Economic Recovery: Janet Yellen; Lael Brainard; Elizabeth Warren; Sarah Bloom Raskin
Left to right: Janet Yellen; Lael Brainard; Elizabeth Warren; Sarah Bloom Raskin.

This story originally appeared on The 19th.

President-Elect Joe Biden has the potential to place women at the helm of the nation’s top economic advisory positions—and help shatter another glass ceiling on the way. 

In the conversation for the three Cabinet positions most associated with the economy—Treasury, Commerce and Labor—are several top female economists and business leaders who together could help shape the post-pandemic recovery. If the Treasury role, in particular, goes to one of the female frontrunners, it would be the first time a woman holds that post after a 231-year history of White men in the role.

“It wasn’t that long ago that there were designated Cabinet positions for women, and the world has moved past limiting women to Health and Human Services and Education, for example,” said Daniel Schnur, a political communications professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Southern California. Now, with women in talks for the Treasury position, “it looks very likely that that long overdue step is about to be taken.”  

The two women who have risen to the top of the list for Treasury are Lael Brainard, the lone Democratic voice on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, and Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve. Also in discussion: Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sarah Bloom Raskin, who also sat on the Fed’s board and was a former deputy secretary of the Treasury. 

The Women Who Could Lead Biden’s Economic Recovery: Janet Yellen; Lael Brainard; Elizabeth Warren; Sarah Bloom Raskin
Sarah Bloom Raskin in September 2015. (Edward Kimmel / Flickr)

The pick is consequential, not just because it’s the top economic Cabinet position, but because of what it will say about the incoming Biden administration, said Schnur, who was also a longtime Republican strategist. 

“The identity of the Biden Treasury secretary will tell us a great deal about how aggressive he intends to be—not only on stimulus, but on a range of other economic issues,” he said. 

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The continued economic devastation of the coronavirus pandemic has, post-election, put the question of another stimulus package back into focus. So far this year, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and current Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin have led those talks, working with parameters set by Mitch McConnell’s Senate, which have recently stalled once again. There’s no doubt whomever Biden chooses for Mnuchin’s seat will take up the mantle of passing coronavirus relief—a package Democrats and Republicans agree is needed but remain divided on its scope.

That’s why a centrist choice may be the best approach for a Biden administration, said Bill Whalen, a research fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a political analyst. Whalen believes a moderate would signal “stability” for the markets, and, politically, has the potential to sail through confirmation. 

The Women Who Could Lead Biden’s Economic Recovery: Janet Yellen; Lael Brainard; Elizabeth Warren; Sarah Bloom Raskin
Lael Brainard in 2011. (Flickr)

Brainard’s work at the Fed has been praised for its analytical approach and command of fiscal and monetary policy. She previously served as the Treasury undersecretary for international affairs, a role that made her a key global negotiator, including in deliberations with China on a more flexible currency.

“She’s held in very high regard in both political and finance circles, which is no easy feat,” Schnur said. “And she would provide a strong centrist voice in a position where Biden’s own ideological stamp is going to be very important.” 

Yellen would also bring decades of experience to the position. She was the first woman to chair the Federal Reserve from 2014 to 2018. Yellen has served on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors, as the president and CEO of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco and as chair of former President Bill Clinton’s White House Council of Economic Advisers. As chair of the Fed, Yellen worked to keep interest rates low to combat unemployment, an achievement that earned her high praise

The Women Who Could Lead Biden’s Economic Recovery: Janet Yellen; Lael Brainard; Elizabeth Warren; Sarah Bloom Raskin
Janet Yellen during a farewell dinner at the ECB on 9 January 2018, ahead of the end of her term in office. (European Central Bank / Flickr)

Heidi Hartmann, founder of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, said Yellen would be a wise choice for the role.

“She has an extremely thorough decision-making system, she looks at all sides, she is very good at building consensus, she respects everyone’s opinion, she is very clear in her communication,” Hartmann said. “She is extremely thoughtful and I think she can be persuasive because of her gravitas.” 

Hartmann, who went to graduate school for economics at Yale University after Yellen, said Yellen was so distinguished that students—including Hartmann herself—kept the notes she took as a teacher’s assistant for economist James Toobin, the 1981 Nobel laureate, for many years.

Thea Lee, the president of the Economic Policy Institute, said Yellen’s work on unemployment as chair of the Federal Reserve helped “tilt the balance of priorities at the Fed” away from just controlling inflation. 

“[Brainard and Yellen] have been through the political ringer a lot,” Lee said. “They both have a good shot at confirmation.” 

The issue of confirmation is what has likely put Sen. Warren, who has rallied against Wall Street and cemented herself as a progressive leader, lower on the list. Not only is a likely Republican-controlled Senate less willing to confirm her, but with razor thin margins in that body, it would be a risk for Democrats if Warren lost her Senate seat. That would create an opening for Republican Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to appoint an interim replacement.

If Biden were looking for a reason not to select Warren, Schnur said, “then the very close balance and the makeup of the Senate gives him more than adequate cover.” 

The Women Who Could Lead Biden’s Economic Recovery
U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren speaking with supporters at a town hall at Bonanza High School in Las Vegas, Nevada in April 2019. (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

In the end, the confirmation of any appointment may come down to other female senators—Republican moderates like Maine’s Susan Collins or Alaska’s Lisa Murkowski. 

Schnur said “it’s going to be very difficult for Biden to get anything through the Senate that doesn’t have the support” of either Collins, Murkowski or both — regardless of the outcome of two Georgia runoff elections that will determine which party controls the Senate.

So far, it’s unlikely Biden will announce his Cabinet nominations for another few weeks. Until then, Whalen, the Hoover Institution fellow, said the president-elect’s strategy of not boxing himself into a commitment to choose a woman for the roles may work in his favor—a lesson learned from past presidents like Bill Clinton. 

Clinton said he would nominate the first female attorney general in his first term, but his first two choices were derailed when it was revealed both employed undocumented immigrants as nannies—a scandal called “Nannygate”—before he ultimately picked Janet Reno. 

Biden’s strategy is “very smart politics,” said Whalen. “It keeps us all in suspense, but it also keeps you from, in case one pick doesn’t work out, kind of a comedy of errors Clinton ran into … The one thing that stands out at this point is you see a long list of women who are in play, but there is not a mandate, per se.” 

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Chabeli Carrazana is The 19th's women and the economy reporter. Previously, she worked as a business reporter for the Miami Herald, where she covered the tourism industry, and the Orlando Sentinel, where she covered NASA, the private space industry and labor issues.