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Biden Pledged Historic Cabinet Diversity. Here's How His Nominees Stack Up

Updated on Feb. 6 at 8:40 a.m. ET

President Biden pledged to make his Cabinet the most diverse in U.S. history, better representing the makeup of the country.

An NPR analysis of the past three administrations' initial Cabinets shows that so far, he has kept his word, with an inner circle that outdoes his two most recent predecessors in matters of representation of race and gender.

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When broken down by race and gender, Biden's desired Cabinet is nearly 55% nonwhite and 45% female. (Confirmation hearings are still underway or have not yet started for a number of positions.)

Former President Donald Trump's initial confirmed Cabinet was 82% white and 82% male. Former President Barack Obama's first-term Cabinet, meanwhile, was 55% white and 64% male.

Biden's Cabinet also includes multiple historic nominations that aren't highlighted in these overall numbers, including in Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay secretary confirmed to the Cabinet; Janet Yellen, the first woman to lead the Treasury Department; and Deb Haaland, who, if confirmed, would be the first Native American in a president's Cabinet.

"Numbers don't tell you everything. And so in this small sample size, just looking at the scene, it looks like he's doing OK with [diversity]. But in fact ... there are some historic firsts," said Kathryn Dunn Tenpas, a nonresident senior fellow with Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, who has compiled data on the diversity of presidents' Cabinets.

Tenpas noted that Biden's nominees included a number of breaks from past administrations, appointing women and racial minorities to positions that have historically been held exclusively by white men.

"I think he gets extra credit for putting them in positions that historically never happen," she said. "I would describe it as a determined commitment to diversity."

Even before his nominees were announced, Biden had been under pressure from activists and civil rights groups to not only have a diverse Cabinet but also to pursue concrete policies to address inequality in the U.S. He has also received criticism from the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus for not nominating an Asian Cabinet secretary.

Trump, a longtime businessman, sought to run the country like a corporation and built a Cabinet more reflective of a typical C-suite than a traditional administration. Nominees like Rex Tillerson, the energy executive Trump tapped to lead the State Department; and Betsy DeVos, who led the Department of Education, faced criticism for their lack of prior government experience — which Trump saw as an asset.

Biden and Obama, however, turned to people with robust government experience to lead key departments. In fact, many of Biden's nominees played a role in Obama's administration, too.

Less than 5% of Biden's Cabinet nominees do not have prior government experience. Some 14% of Obama's Cabinet was new to government, compared to about 32% of Trump's team lacked government experience.

Explore more details in the chart below.

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(Note: What presidents consider part of their Cabinet varies across administrations. We have compared the same set of key positions for consistency.)

NPR Washington Desk intern Claire Oby contributed to this report.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: February 6, 2021 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story incorrectly identified Nikki Haley as white. In fact, she is of South Asian descent.