In conversation with Mona Sutphen, Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama

In conversation with Mona Sutphen, Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama


Tulchan Frameworks, hosted by James Harding, Co-founder and Editor, Tortoise Media, in conversation with Mona Sutphen, Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Obama.

As the world absorbed the lessons of the vice-presidential debate between Mike Pence and Kamala Harris in Utah, and Donald Trump said he would not participate in a virtual event with Joe Biden on October 15, the conversation focused on the prospects, character and intentions of the Democrat nominee - with less than a month to go until polling day on November 3.

Biden’s cross-generational political cohort

The former vice-president has been a fixture in US politics for decades and so draws upon a group of supporters and allies drawn from the senior ranks of the Democratic Party all the way back to Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign. It is part of Biden’s style to surround himself with competence and capable advice.

Transition work

This has been under-way, formally, since August, the team chaired by former Delaware senator, Ted Kaufman. There is a series of policy groups, whose members are sworn to the strictest secrecy. Biden’s inner circle includes Jake Sullivan (his National Security Adviser when he was vice-president), Bruce Reed (his former chief of staff), John Podesta (former chief of staff to Bill Clinton and chairman of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign), Jared Bernstein (his former economic adviser in the White House), Yohannes Abraham (former Obama administration official), and Tony Blinken (former Deputy Secretary of State).

Potential picks

Lael Brainard, presently at the Fed, is a potential Treasury Secretary; Ted Kaufman or Jake Sullivan would be likely chiefs of staff, while Tony Blinken would make sense as National Security Adviser; Susan Rice, former NSA to President Obama, is already involved in the transition work and might become Secretary of State; Michele Flournoy, a former Under Secretary of Defense, is seen as strong contender for the top job at the Pentagon.

The political landscape

If Biden wins, the working assumption will be that he will not seek re-election in 2024. So from day one, the race to be the Democrat nominee in that election would be on. Whoever wins on November 3 will be operating in the midst of the pandemic and serious economic pressures. This leaves strictly limited bandwidth for other political priorities.

Climate change

As President, Biden would seize upon this challenge as a natural differentiator from Trump and as a means of satisfying the progressive wing of his own party. He also believes that he could seal a deal with US labour to stimulate growth and secure jobs: to understand Biden, it is important to grasp that he is closer to labour interests than was Obama and would devote political energy to (for instance) raising the minimum wage and putting money in the pockets of America’s working people.


Reform will require increased taxes, almost certainly on businesses - accompanied by a crackdown on tax avoidance.

A turn-out election

The proportion of voters who are undecided is relatively smaller, so victory depends upon getting people to the polling stations. In the final days of the contest, watch where Trump and Biden are campaigning and - crucially - where they are spending money. To stand a chance of winning, Trump has to mobilise those in the industrial mid-West who did not turn out in 2016. Biden certainly has a respectable advantage in the battleground states - but it is a rule of thumb that Democrats lose if they are not worried. So, as bad as Trump’s position may appear, there is a strong resistance to complacency of any kind on the Biden team.

The wider world

Biden is very pro-Europe, and would also seek a very different relationships with Russia and China. He would be open to re-entering a nuclear deal with Iran and fresh negotiations in the Middle East - but only if the chances of success were clear. Keep in mind: this would be a President with only very limited scope to pursue matters other than coronavirus and economic recovery. He would ration his time and energy accordingly.