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U.S. President-elect Joe Biden during a news conference at The Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., Dec. 16, 2020.Kevin Lamarque/The Associated Press

President-elect Joe Biden continues to score points for fulfilling his promise to form a government that “looks like America.”

“Barrier breakers,” he calls his new cabinet picks. “Our cabinet doesn’t just have one first or just two of these firsts, but eight precedent-busting appointments – and today, a ninth,” Mr. Biden said Wednesday while naming Pete Buttigieg, who is gay, as his Transportation Secretary.

On Thursday there was more. He tapped Deb Haaland, an Indigenous and Democratic congresswoman representing New Mexico, to serve as Interior Secretary. It’s the department that oversees tribal lands. She becomes the first descendant of the original inhabitants of American lands to serve in the cabinet. It’s about time.

Then came the news that Mr. Biden will name the first Black man, Michael Regan, North Carolina’s environmental quality boss, as head of the Environmental Protection Agency. He joins a plethora of African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans at the White House table.

Critics on the right say it’s identity politics run amuck, that Mr. Biden is going overboard, kowtowing to political correctness.

But for a country where there is so much social and racial division after four years of mainly white-man rule, what better way to tend to grievances than with a rainbow coalition in command?

The Biden cabinet is a reflection of the new America, says Moe Vela, a Hispanic attorney who served as director of administration to Mr. Biden when he was vice-president. In the three biggest states, California, Texas and New York, he noted that the majority of residents are people of colour, or close to it.

There’s more than demographics at work, he said in an interview. The Biden picks have a great wealth of governing experience. They are a reflection of Mr. Biden himself, a politician who seeks to bring people together, a rassembleur who wants to serve “as a model for inclusivity, for unity,” setting an example for Americans to follow as he has on wearing a mask.

But the Biden cabinet is more old than new. It is chock-full of men and women who served in the bureaucracy or White House of Barack Obama, who had a diverse team as well. “I would have liked to have seen more new faces,” said Mr. Vela.

While it looks like America, the question is can Mr. Biden’s dramatis personae fix America? Many of the picks are his friends, safe choices. There are few contrarians, not much potential for dramatic new departures.

The country faces a severe urban-rural divide, one which was emphatically evident in the election results, with the Republicans totally dominating in rural regions. But there is no cabinet post to address the schism. The U.S. has never had an equivalent of a federal-provincial relations minister like there’s been, under various titles, in Canada.

Though the cabinet borrows heavily from the Obama-Biden administration, there is no great sin in that. While granting that the cabinet is Obama-heavy, Mr. Vela said the important consideration is experience. “I don’t think we’ve ever had such a perfect ugly storm in this county as now. This is no time for a cabinet that needs on-the-job training.”

Along with vice president-elect Kamala Harris, Mr. Biden’s other precedent-breaking appointments, all of whom served the Democrats in the Obama years, include Janet Yellen as the first female Treasury Secretary, Lloyd Austin, the first Black Pentagon chief, and Alejandro Mayorkas, the first Latino head of the Department of Homeland Security. In addition, Xavier Becerra becomes the first Latino to head the Department of Health and Human Services, and Susan Rice is the first Black woman to head the Domestic Policy Council.

Not all are seasoned in their fields. Ms. Rice, a global affairs specialist, has no experience on domestic matters. Mr. Buttigieg’s only experience in transportation, Republicans chide, is fixing roads as mayor of South Bend, Ind. However, the two are choices that will counter the erosion of intellectual standards as seen in the Trump years.

Mr. Biden’s foreign policy team, also Obama era veterans, is headed by Antony Blinken in the Secretary of State portfolio, who is rich in knowledge of the ways of the world. On climate change, a huge priority for Mr. Biden, the experience and expertise is deep as well, with former secretary of state John Kerry on the team, as well as Gina McCarthy, who served under Mr. Obama as EPA administrator.

The appointment of Ms. Haaland to head Interior is an inspired one for the 1.9 million Indigenous people whose education and health care are so affected by the decisions of the department. In its 171-year-old history, the department has had a contentious relationship with the country’s recognized tribes, which number in the hundreds.

In the Biden cabinet, Ms. Haaland will be the one who represents a bold departure from traditional thinking. The country needs builders, not just menders. For the Obama-era types on Biden’s team, to be up to that task is a tall order.

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