WASHINGTON - President-elect Joe Biden has introduced the bulk of his national security Cabinet, but did not include the Defense Department in his rollout this week amid questions about whether he has settled on longtime defense expert Michèle Flournoy as his Pentagon chief.
Flournoy's name has been considered at the top of Biden's list to run the nation's largest security agency, with frequent mention that she would be the first female secretary of defense.
Her prominence served to highlight the absence of a Pentagon nominee during an event in Delaware on Tuesday that included Biden's picks for secretary of state, intelligence director, chief of homeland security and United Nations ambassador, as well as White House national security adviser.
Biden has not yet made a decision and Flournoy remains very much in the running for the job, people familiar with the process said. Those people, who requested anonymity to talk about pending personnel decisions, cautioned against reading too much into the absence of Pentagon and CIA nominees in the initial round of Cabinet announcements. Biden's choice for the U.S. Agency for International Development is also pending.
Tuesday's focus was on diplomacy and a shift away from Trump administration policies that Biden says have alienated allies and punished immigrants and refugees. But it was still notable that Biden didn't mention the Pentagon, or the ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
"It's a team that will keep our country and our people safe and secure, and it's a team that reflects the fact that America is back," Biden said. "Ready to lead the world, not retreat from it. Ready to confront our adversaries, not reject our allies. And ready to stand up for our values."
A Biden transition official brushed off the notion that the Pentagon pick was delayed or that the campaign risked a perception problem by not including a defense secretary now.
"This team has moved quickly across the board, and that includes in terms of the nominations and senior appointments we have put forward," a Biden transition official said.
The official, who requested anonymity to discuss internal decision-making, noted that before Monday the Trump administration had refused to free up federal resources for the Biden transition.
Despite that obstacle, "we have, so far, outpaced the last two administrations in terms of announcing key Cabinet officials," the official said.
According to a report in Politico, another contender for the Pentagon slot is Jeh Johnson, former homeland security secretary under Obama, who would become the first Black defense secretary if named to the position.
Tuesday's announcement included the return of the U.N. job to Cabinet rank and creation of a new Cabinet-rank post focused on climate change.
Flournoy holds centrist policy views that align with most of Biden's national security platform, although the two disagreed over aspects of the Afghanistan war when she was a senior Pentagon official in the Obama administration and Biden was vice president.
Officials close to Flournoy have preached patience about the selection process, citing Biden's desire for expertise and diversity. But they also have acknowledged that no decision has been made yet.
Flournoy comes from the same cadre of professionals with credentials from the Obama administration and Washington think tanks as the nominees who were announced Tuesday. She also co-founded a security consultant firm with Antony Blinken, Biden's choice to be secretary of state.
Flournoy has ties to the defense industry, making her suspect to some liberal Democrats, but it is not clear if Biden shares that concern. Blinken will face the same scrutiny that Flournoy would about the secretive client list at their WestExec Advisors firm. Biden also bypassed liberal complaints about his choice for director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, as being too hawkish.
"Obviously we have concerns. We also recognize the reasons for the nomination and we would expect those concerns to be worked through in the nomination process as it would be with anybody," said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War, a liberal security coalition.
But Miles said it does not appear that liberal skepticism alone would derail Flournoy, whose positions and affiliations are well known.
"It's pretty clear there's something else going on here," that is unrelated to liberal views on Flournoy's candidacy, Miles said.
Mark Jacobson, a former Pentagon official who is now assistant dean at Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs, compared Tuesday's rollout with George W. Bush's Cabinet announcements.
The national security team of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, Secretary of State Colin Powell and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice was considered a unit for weeks, though Rumsfeld and Powell were formally announced 12 days apart in December, 2000.
"When the Bush administration did their famous rollout of 'the Vulcans' " as the group was nicknamed, "it was part of an electoral campaign promise and meant to show competence and experience," a message similar to Biden's, Jacobson said.
"I wouldn't read too much into the fact that it's State, NSC and the U.N. ambassador as Biden's big three," omitting the Pentagon, Jacobson said. "It's still designed to instill a feeling among Americans that there is a competent team in there."
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The Washington Post’s Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.