WASHINGTON – Minnesotans are poised to influence the policies and messages of President Joe Biden's administration as it confronts domestic political turbulence and uncertainty abroad, in pivotal jobs from COVID-19 response to national security to vice presidential communications.

As the new administration staffs up, it's only natural Minnesotans would land in key jobs. The state's strong schools, well-funded research institutions and an institutionally powerful DFL Party have long helped in-state operatives and experts rise when Democrats control Washington.

"When the president asks you to do something, the only answer is yes," Denis McDonough, a Stillwater native whom Biden nominated as U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs, told the Star Tribune.

But crises and challenges face most of the Minnesotans newly enlisted by the Biden administration.

"We're facing converging crises — an economic crisis, a pandemic, a reckoning on racial justice, and a climate crisis, to name a few," said Rachel Palermo, an assistant press secretary for Vice President Kamala Harris. "And I'm grateful to be able to play a role in addressing them."

Palermo grew up in New Brighton and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield.

On the paramount crisis facing the country and world, University of Minnesota epidemiologist Michael Osterholm has already been advising the new administration for months, as a member of this presidential transition's COVID-19 task force.

"We had no national plan," Osterholm said of the handover from the last administration. He pointed to Biden's all-hands-on-deck push for 100 million vaccinations as "the difference between day and night. That's not a partisan statement. Just look at what has happened in the last two weeks."

Osterholm's advisory gig wrapped up officially as Biden took office, but he continues to advise on COVID policy. Another Minnesotan on a similar assignment going forward is Andy Slavitt, a former UnitedHealth Group executive who served in the Obama administration.

As the senior COVID adviser to Biden, Slavitt will help organize the crucial national mass inoculation program.

Rebuilding the job market will be an important task for the new administration as the country emerges from the pandemic-driven downturn. Jessica Looman, a former Minnesota commerce commissioner and deputy state labor commissioner, has stepped into the role of deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Labor's Wage and Hour Division specializing in workplace protection for employees.

"In Minnesota, we have been able to begin to address wage theft, worker misclassification and family economic security, but there is still a lot of work to do to protect and respect working people across the country," Looman said in a statement.

Jake Sullivan, who graduated from Southwest High School in Minneapolis, is likely the Minnesotan most closely in the new president's orbit, serving as his national security adviser. Sullivan faces the task of keeping the nation safe from everything from nuclear attacks to suicide bombers, while simultaneously engaging the world's other military powers.

McDonough, a St. John's University graduate and a former chief of staff to President Barack Obama, has a particularly tough assignment: take over a sprawling, scandal-plagued agency that many in Washington feel has failed in its mission to care for the men and women of the U.S. military. In recent years complaints have included long wait times for appointments, poor treatment, inept and insensitive management, and sexual harassment controversies.

"For me, the defining principle is that every decision gives greater access for veterans with better outcomes," he said. His new assignment is not political, McDonough said, but rather "a sacred obligation."

Jim Spencer • 202-662-7432