Any of those choices would bring a significant change to the Treasury Department, which has been run by a white man throughout its 231-year history.
No decisions have been made yet, several people close to the Biden transition team said. But Ms. Brainard’s position in Washington’s establishment, and her centrist label, could help her chances of winning confirmation if Republicans retain control of the Senate.
Ms. Brainard, 58, has been steeped in international relations from childhood. The daughter of a Foreign Service officer during the Cold War, she was raised in Communist Poland and Germany before reunification. She wrote her senior undergraduate thesis on utopia, dystopia and social planning — motivated, in part, by her childhood — and then went on to an economics doctorate at Harvard University.
An early foray into government policy came in the 1990s, when she worked for the National Economic Council during the Clinton administration. She then served as the Treasury’s under secretary for international affairs under President Barack Obama. At the Treasury, Ms. Brainard forged a reputation as a perfectionist and a savvy negotiator as she tried to pressure China to allow market forces to guide its currency, and to persuade Europe to pursue a more ambitious economic rescue during the depths of its debt crisis.
“Her breadth of knowledge is just really wide,” said Paige Gebhardt Cognetti, the mayor of Scranton, Pa., and Ms. Brainard’s former aide at the Treasury. “When she sits down, it’s like the U.S. is there, to negotiate hard, but also to listen.”
Ms. Brainard was always “the most prepared person in the room” during her Treasury years, said Austan Goolsbee, who was working as an economic adviser to Mr. Obama at the time.
Colleagues recall her perched at a meeting table in the Treasury Department during Chinese Strategic and Economic Dialogue meetings, surrounded by thick books of briefing material that she had evidently read in full. When she entered a room for such negotiations, several said, the atmosphere would shift. Nobody questioned that she meant business.