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Assemble the shadow cabinet: How Joe Biden can beat Trump at his own reality TV game

With a little bit of creativity, Biden can pioneer an entirely new kind of remote campaign—a savvy twist on microtargeting for the social media era.

Assemble the shadow cabinet: How Joe Biden can beat Trump at his own reality TV game
[Photos: Joyce N. Boghosian/The White House/Flickr (Trump); Flickr user Gage Skidmore (Biden); Charles “Duck” Unitas/Unsplash (flag); rawpixel (television)]

Maybe none of this matters. Maybe the presidential election will be solely determined by how Donald Trump handles the coronavirus, and the end result will be the same whether Joe Biden runs an effective, vigorous campaign or goes on vacation for the next six months. But if you’re a Democrat, hiding out in your basement doesn’t feel like a winning strategy. Biden’s home videos and avuncular podcast, “Here’s the Deal,” aren’t exactly catching fire. Meanwhile Trump is dominating the airwaves, using daily coronavirus briefings to broadcast political rallies from the White House lawn. Team Biden needs to amp up the X factor if it wants to recapture the public’s waning attention.

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One way to do that is by playing the media’s favorite parlor game: Who’s getting what job in a Biden administration? Rather than waiting for the transition to select and announce his Cabinet, Biden should do it now. And make it fun.

Every week, Biden would name a new member of his presidential team. The campaign would announce which job will be filled next, give the media a few days to speculate about the potential candidates, and then Biden could hold a (remote) event, revealing that week’s choice. He could even interview each potential nominee on his podcast. Call it “The Apprentice: White House Edition.”

In the normal jumble of transition announcements traditionally held in November and December, no one really cares who’s being nominated as the next Secretary of Agriculture or Commerce or Labor. But in a pandemic, where everyone’s at home, has nothing to do, and is starved for anything positive and anything new? It will get far more attention than anything Biden’s doing right now.

There’s a substantive benefit too. By pre-selecting his Cabinet, Biden would give voters a much better sense of what they’d be voting for—and can draw a real contrast with Team Trump. The White House, after all, is much more than the person sitting in the Oval Office. It’s a collective enterprise whose success or failure is determined by experienced political appointees, inspired civil servants, and smart management. Every time that Biden names a highly respected leader to his future Cabinet, it would underscore his competence versus the current West Wing occupant. It would show how much better he’d handle a global pandemic. It would show that he’s a decisive leader who can put together a top team, lead with conviction, and solve a crisis.

Imagine if Biden were to name Bill Gates as the next secretary of Health and Human Services. Right-wing conspiracy theorists aside, the idea of Gates helping manage the nation’s response to COVID-19 would appeal to millions of voters—including many who are currently tuning Biden out. Imagine naming Gretchen Witmer or Andrew Cuomo to high-level Cabinet positions. Imagine naming Preet Bharara or Sally Yates as attorney general.

Imagine creating a role for Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or AOC to develop policies to ensure income inequality doesn’t widen during the current pandemic, providing an olive branch to the left. Imagine asking Andrew Yang to lead the efforts around introducing Universal Basic Income. Hell, imagine naming Bill Simmons as sports czar. The point is to develop an entirely new mode of campaigning, one in which you can activate specific portions of the electorate for each person you appoint—a savvy twist on microtargeting for the reality TV age.

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Traditionalists might argue that it’s risky for Biden to announce his Cabinet now. And they would be right. Political appointees need time to be vetted properly. But Biden could easily begin rolling out his selections now, beginning with public figures who have already been subject to rigorous scrutiny. Anyone who requires more vetting could be announced later in July or August. Sure, someone Biden names will probably say something stupid between now and November 4. But the odds of any of them being more gaffe-prone than Biden himself seem very low.

And let’s be honest—Biden needs a gimmick. He’s a career politician running against the greatest entertainer ever to occupy the Oval Office. Trump sucks up all of the oxygen in the room (or on a Zoom) on a normal day. During a global pandemic, competing with him for attention is like screaming into a hurricane. The usual playbook isn’t going to cut it. Team Biden has to try something different. Something that gets the media excited. Something that gives the voters a way to see the type of leader he’ll be. Personnel is policy, as they say. When Biden is as known for saying “you’re hired” as Trump is “you’re fired,” he’ll be halfway to victory in November.


Bradley Tusk is a venture capitalist, writer, philanthropist, and political strategist.

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