The old boys’ club of Washington is making way for a new class of incoming White House staffers.
The Biden Administration is ushering in one of the most diverse senior staffs in presidential history. Not only did he select Sen. Kamala Karris as his vice president, but the future commander-in-chief announced an all-female senior White House communications team earlier this week. And six of the incoming White House communications staff are moms of young kids.
Know Your Value founder and “Morning Joe” co-host Mika Brzezinski said the recent move represented a “new day” for women, adding that Biden (who has known the Brzezinski family for decades) has long demonstrated his commitment to women.
For example, Brzezinski recounted when her brother, Mark Brzezinski, was about to become ambassador to Sweden in 2011. Mark Brzezinski and his wife, Natalia, met with then-Vice President Joe Biden at the White House.
“They went to talk to Joe Biden to get some last-minute advice,” said Brzezinski, who was at the meeting and helped facilitate it alongside her husband and fellow co-host Joe Scarborough. Biden, according to Brzezinski, expressed his gratitude for those who serve the U.S. abroad, especially spouses who often play a key role in making connections, networking and aiding the U.S. mission overall. Looking at Natalia, Brzezinski said Biden talked about how crucial her role would be, even adding his belief that spouses of ambassadors should be paid.
“He made Natalia feel so valued, more comfortable,” Brzezinski recalled. To herself, she thought: “The fact that he focused on the working spouse and talked about their value in terms of pay — damn, thank you, that is validating.”
Brzezinski also recalled interviewing former Second Lady Jill Biden early in the 2020 campaign on “Morning Joe.” In the heat of the presidential election, Jill Biden, who earned her doctorate in education, continued to work as a community college professor. “Some of her students had no idea she had been second lady,” Brzezinski remembered learning.
“The fact that she held onto her job as a community college professor, there were a million different things that she could have done with her time,” Brzezinski thought. “But she was committed to being a professional woman and taking her career seriously and didn’t let anything get in the way of that.” Jill Biden told Brzezinski she plans on continuing to teach while her husband serves as president.
The two interactions solidified what Brzezinski was thinking – that "a Biden presidency would be a turning point for women like we've never seen before.”
Biden, of course, is laying the groundwork for his presidency now by naming people to key administration positions, including his communications team being staffed entirely by women.
Brzezinski, who knows most of the women on the incoming communications team well, said many of them "worked long and hard, suffered through many years of being pushed aside, and undervalued. It is so exciting to me that they are getting their due.”
"I don’t think the Biden team set out to create an all female-communications team. They wanted the best team and it so happened that the best people for these jobs was a diverse group of women," said Jennifer Palmieri, former White House Communications Director. "That’s progress. It means that the talent pipeline is fully flowing.... Each of these women is the right person for her job on her own merits, but it’s also true that representation matters. For all of us – from young girls and boys to grown women and men – to see women out in front for the president and vice president, will have a positive impact for women well beyond politics..."
Incoming Press Secretary Jen Psaki told Brzezinski on Tuesday that when she first started working in the White House in 2009, she was one of the only female spokespeople. No longer. "Now I am walking back in with not just a group of women, but women from different backgrounds and experiences, many who are moms like me,” she said.
Psaki gave birth to her daughter, now 5 years old, while she was serving in the Obama Administration as White House Communications Director. “I had fewer role models [back then]" said Psaki, who also has a 2-year-old son. Now, "this group is a force that can show young women on the Hill, in college and even younger, that women are not just the organized doers in government, but the strategic forces. That's an important shift that is long overdue.”
Psaki, 42, highlighted the milestone in a Tweet on Sunday evening, calling her future colleagues “some of the most talented, battle-tested communicators out there” and noting they “are also all women, [the] most diverse team in history and also [six moms] of young kids.” She cites her role as the mother of two children under the age of five in her own Twitter bio.
“Jen has unparalleled qualifications to take command of the White House podium at a critical time,” Palmieri told Brzezinski. “It seems that all of her experiences — spokesperson for the Obama campaign, spokesperson for the State Department, White House communications director — has been preparing her for this moment when someone who has respect of the press, trust of the President, knowledge of national security, and an unfailing character is needed to restore credibility.“
She is joined by incoming White House communications director Kate Bedingfield, 39, who most recently served as Biden’s deputy campaign manager and communications director. She was also Vice President Biden’s communications director during Obama’s second term. Bedingfield has a 6-year-old son and a 3-year-old daughter.
“In my years working for President-elect Biden, he has always been a champion for the women on his team, empowering us and respecting our voices,” Bedingfield told Brzezinski on Tuesday. “So, while it is historic, in many ways it comes as no surprise at all to me that he has chosen a team of women to lead White House communications, because it is exactly in keeping with his belief that he should hear from diverse perspectives as he makes any key decisions.”
Bedingfield has “earned the deep respect and trust of all the senior staff because of her heroic, steadfast work on the campaign,” Palmieri told Brzezinski, noting that she also has Biden’s trust and understands how he best communicates.
"Kate is tough, smart, and has the trust and confidence of the president-elect," added Democratic strategist Adrienne Elrod, who served as Biden's campaign director of surrogate strategy and operations. Elrod also got a new, big position, announced Tuesday, as the Biden Inaugural Committee's director of talent and external relations.
The transition team also announced the appointments of Karine Jean-Pierre as principal deputy press secretary and Pili Tobar as the deputy White House communications director. Jean-Pierre, a former Know Your Value contributor, is the former chief public affairs officer for MoveOn.org and worked in the Obama White House as the Regional Political Director for the Office of Political Affairs, then served as Deputy Battleground States Director for Obama's re-election campaign.
Tobar is the former deputy director of the immigrant rights group America’s Voice, and served in Biden’s presidential campaign as communications director for coalitions. She had previously directed Hispanic media outreach for Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer and the Democratic National Committee. She is a first-generation Guatemalan-American and, along with Jean-Pierre, is one of two lesbians of color named to the White House communications staff.
Jean-Pierre, who is also a mom, will bring “grassroots-level organizing experience into the West Wing,” Palmieri told Brzezinski, “[which] will matter a lot when it comes to progressive and diverse voices feeling that they are understood in the White House and help make her a more effective spokesperson and advisor to the President.”
“I got to know Karine over the past four years and immediately pulled her into the Know Your Value community," said Brzezinski. She has such a strong story to tell. And her intellect knows no bounds.”
Ashley Etienne, the former communications director and senior adviser to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, will serve as communications director for Vice President Kamala Harris. Symone Sanders, one of Biden’s senior advisers on the campaign, will become Harris’s chief spokesperson and senior adviser. Sanders became the youngest presidential press secretary ever while working for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign in 2016. Sanders and Etienne, along with Jean-Pierre, are among the prominent black women appointed to the communications team.
“Ashley Etienne knows the White House, the Cabinet and how to communicate on behalf of a powerful woman,” Palmieri told Brzezinski, while “Symone Sanders has proven herself to be an enormous talent and force of nature from the first time she appeared on the national scene in the 2016 presidential campaign. She bonded with the VP-elect and her team during the campaign and, combined with Etienne, will ensure the VP is not just well-represented but a vibrant presence and fully utilized to do all the good public work she can on behalf of the Administration.”
"Symone is not only a strong communicator but has innate political instincts that will be a huge value add to the incoming VP and her team," Elrod said.
The transition team also announced the appointment of Elizabeth Alexander, a former Press Secretary to then-Vice President Joe Biden, as Communications Director for First Lady Jill Biden. She has two young sons.
“We have to give credit to the fact that these are highly qualified women, and I don't think that they were chosen because they were women,” said Kelly Dittmar, the Director of Research at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. “They were chosen because they were highly qualified candidates for the job. But I also think that we can, and should consider their perspectives and experiences as women, as mothers, as mothers of young children, as among their qualifications for office… They're going to bring questions, considerations, and perspectives that haven’t always been there in these conversations in the White House [and] they're going to very likely be more thoughtful about the experiences of parents and as mothers with young children, especially in this pandemic.” From shouldering a greater share of child- and elder-care responsibilities to suffering more job losses than men, women are bearing the brunt of the burden of the Covid-19 crisis.
Dr. Dora Kingsley Vertenten of the Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California pointed out that a double-standard falls on mothers when it comes to employment. “You know, no one ever asks if a man can do a job because he has a young child,” she told Know Your Value. “They're all professionals, they have the education and the experience to do the job that they've been hired for. The fact that they have a family and are committed parents shouldn't be novel.”
Nevertheless, Dittmar added, “our gender-role stereotypes often place additional burdens and challenges and even different expectations on women, especially when they have young kids. When we see these women who are thriving in high power roles, I think it forces us to question those biases.”
Brzezinski said of the recent Biden appointments, "these are all women who know their value. And that moment in history is finally coming when everyone else will too.”