Biden Picks Janet Yellen To Be Treasury Secretary In Historic Appointment

Nov 23, 2020
Originally published on November 24, 2020 8:26 am

Updated at 6:15 p.m. ET

The United States has had 77 Treasury secretaries in the last 231 years. So far, they've all been men.

That's about to change.

President-elect Joe Biden plans to nominate former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to head the Treasury Department, a source close to the transition told NPR on Monday

If confirmed, Yellen would play a leading role in shaping economic policy as the United States continues to dig its way out of the deep hole caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Yellen also made history when she became the first woman to lead the central bank, a tenure that lasted from 2014 to 2018. She was confirmed to that position, winning some support from Senate Republicans.

She was a top White House economist in the Clinton administration as well, and has won praise from progressive Democrats.

"Janet Yellen has absolutely shown a willingness to challenge corporate power and not be intimidated by big banks," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "That is a key ingredient as you rebuild our economy."

While the economy has bounced partly back from the pandemic recession, the recovery appears to be losing steam just as the virus is setting records for new daily infections.

The surge in COVID-19 cases has already triggered new restrictions on business activity and is likely to discourage consumers from going out and spending money as retailers are preparing for the important holiday shopping season.

Yellen echoes the president-elect in saying that controlling the pandemic is the No. 1 priority.

"I think we need a much more effective effort than we've had," Yellen told Bloomberg TV in October. "And if we have that, it will be good not only for health but for being able to open up the economy."

Yellen warned that federal aid that helped jump-start the recovery during the spring and early summer is drying up, even as new daily infections are soaring.

"Fiscal policy response in the United States has been extremely impressive," Yellen said. "But the fiscal support has now lapsed."

Emergency unemployment programs that currently support some 13 million people are set to expire at the end of December. Yellen stressed the need to extend relief for jobless workers as well as for cash-strapped state and local governments.

Yellen's appointment, which has not yet been officially confirmed, comes as Biden has pledged to appoint a diverse Cabinet.

His transition office on Monday announced that Alejandro Mayorkas would become the first Latino and immigrant nominated as Department of Homeland Security secretary.

Biden also tapped Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, which would make her, if confirmed, the first woman to lead the intelligence community.

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President-elect Biden's early Cabinet picks suggest an emphasis on experience and also on diversity. He says he will nominate a Latino to head the Department of Homeland Security. He chose the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. The office of treasury secretary has existed since Alexander Hamilton's time, and there's never been a woman in that job - until now. Biden says Janet Yellen will be his nominee sent to the Senate.

NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now to talk about Yellen's nomination. Hey there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: So a fairly mainstream pick, even if it breaks a barrier.

HORSLEY: That's right. Yellen is a trailblazer, but it's a familiar trail by now. So people seem reassured by this news yesterday. The stock market took news of Yellen's nomination in stride. Progressives certainly welcomed it. And some conservatives applaud it as well. Yellen is a familiar face in Washington. She led the Federal Reserve for four years. She was also a top economist in the Clinton White House. She's described as extremely competent and experienced. She's familiar to central bankers around the world. And she's somebody who can build consensus, which would be another valuable skill at the top of the Treasury Department.

INSKEEP: And it's not like there's nothing to do with the economy. What would her priority have to be?

HORSLEY: Well, no surprise, it starts with the pandemic, which has killed more than a quarter-million people in this country and is once again pushing hospitals to the limits. Yellen echoes the president-elect when she told Bloomberg Television last month that's the biggest challenge that the incoming administration has to tackle.


JANET YELLEN: I think we need a much more effective effort than we have had. And if we have that, it'll be good not only for health, but for being able to open up the economy.

HORSLEY: You know, the positive news we've had about vaccines in recent weeks does offer hope for an economic rebound during the spring and summer. But we've still got to get through the winter first. And so for the moment, we're going to have to rely on those more traditional public health measures like mask-wearing and social distancing.

INSKEEP: Scott, in some ways, this winter coming up may remind people of the transition of Franklin Roosevelt after 1932. The Depression was on. There wasn't a new president, and the Depression was getting worse by the day. Now we're in this transition period, and the pandemic seems to be getting worse and worse.

HORSLEY: That's right. And the president-elect and his team are pushing lawmakers to pass a new round of coronavirus relief now, not wait for the new administration to come into office. Yellen stressed in that Bloomberg TV interview that the money Congress pushed into the economy last spring was really helpful in jumpstarting the recovery. But it was only a down payment. And now new bills are coming due.


YELLEN: Fiscal policy response in the United States has been extremely impressive, but the fiscal support has now lapsed.

HORSLEY: Just as an example, Steve, we've got 13 million people in the country who are getting emergency unemployment benefits right now that are set to expire at the end of December. So Democrats want to see those programs extended, and they want to see help for state and local governments as well.

INSKEEP: Well, the other agency that can act to help, of course, is the Federal Reserve. But isn't the outgoing administration moving to restrict what the Fed can do?

HORSLEY: That's right. Last week, Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin decided to end some of the Federal Reserve's emergency lending programs that have been helping corporations, mid-sized businesses, local governments. Mnuchin's position is those emergency programs have worked, so now it's time to shut them down. Others are saying, not so fast. You know, the emergency's not over yet, and taking away those tools delivers one more challenge for the incoming president and his team.

INSKEEP: NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks so much.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.