So far, Joe Biden has avoided one of the biggest potential pitfalls of the transition process that will end with him moving into the White House: infuriating the left wing of the Democratic party.
Yet Biden’s transition has also yielded the results he wanted in terms of ushering in a team of experienced figures drawn mostly from his own circle of friends and advisers who have given a decidedly centrist tone to the incoming administration.
Biden has so far named his senior staff, who don’t require confirmation from the Senate, to a generally positive response. As he’s begun unveiling his nominations for cabinet secretary positions, the reaction from leftist quarters of the Democratic party – and its cadre of often young activists primed to attack – has mostly turned out to be be a mix of yawning and marginal grumbling.
There has also been applause for naming women and people of color to top posts in an administration that also includes Kamala Harris as vice-president.
“I appreciate that the Biden transition is trying to make an argument for diversity of its selections, but if we’re being honest, what we’re seeing is a valuing of experience in people who have served in key important posts and [who] understand what it’s going to take to try to be effective bureaucrats in those posts,” said Faiz Shakir, the manager for Bernie Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign.
“As a progressive, I care deeply about vision and what you want to do when you hold those posts. However, that is not to dismiss or downplay the value of experience. So they are selecting for their experience and that has its upshots.”
So far, Biden has avoided nominating ostentatious prospects to cabinet posts, opting instead to bring in veterans of the agencies they are set to run.
Biden picked Antony Blinken, a former deputy secretary of state, to run the state department. Biden picked former secretary of state John Kerry to a new high-ranking post as climate tsar. Biden named Jake Sullivan, a longtime national security aide to the former vice-president to be national security adviser. To serve as director of national intelligence Biden picked Avril Haines, a former deputy director of the CIA. For the treasury department, Biden plans to appoint the former Federal Reserve chairwoman, Janet Yellen.
More telling is who Biden hasn’t appointed. He hasn’t brought on a liberal standard-bearer like Elizabeth Warren. And the president-elect passed over Democrats with a national profile who campaigned for him, like the former South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg whose name had been floated for ambassador to the UN. He picked Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a former ambassador and state department official. The former Obama administration national security adviser Susan Rice was seen as a frontrunner for that job.
Yet the progressive groups most eager to bash top agency picks from such an establishment Democrat like Biden are somewhat satisfied.
“We are encouraged by Joe Biden making one of his first major appointments John Kerry, as it demonstrates the urgency of taking bold, global action on the climate crisis,” Alexandra Rojas, the executive director of the Justice Democrats political action committee said in a statement.
“But America also needs a domestically focused climate tsar who directly reports to the president and will oversee an Office of Climate Mobilization agreed to in the Biden-Sanders taskforces.”
We are encouraged by Joe Biden making one of his first major appointments John Kerry
Shakir called the Blinken pick “a solid choice”. When Ron Klain was announced as chief of staff, Warren even tweeted that he was a “a superb choice”. The liberal outside group Democracy for America called Yellen a “historic, progressive choice for Fed Chair in 2013. If selected, she’ll be a historic, progressive choice for treasury secretary.”
There are signs, though, that the Biden administration and liberals are just enjoying a perhaps temporary detente as the Trump era winds down and before Biden has even occupied the Oval Office. Not all appointments have been without grumbling.
Liberal groups have expressed opposition to the longtime Biden adviser Bruce Reed, possibly running the Office of Management and Budget, an agency charged with producing the administration’s budget. Leftwing congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have signed a petition against Reed, calling him a “deficit hawk” and criticizing his past support for benefit cuts, like social security.
There have also been rumblings that the transition could meet turbulence if Biden decides to install Brian Deese, a former OMB official, at the head of the national economic council. Some of the strongest ire from liberals has been directed at the idea of the former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel becoming secretary of transportation.
The constellation of progressive activists and groups that form the left of the party also have preferred candidates. The Progressive Change Campaign Committee and the Bernie Sanders-aligned Our Revolution group want New Mexico congresswoman – and Native American – Deb Haaland to run the Department of the Interior.
The importance of progressives battling with Biden over nominees is that it could complicate his ability to set up a functional cabinet and retain the broad electoral coalition that elevated him to office.
But the real sticking point to Biden’s choices is likely to be confirming these nominees with a Senate where Democrats either have a slim majority or are still stuck in the minority with Republicans in control. That issue will be decided by two Georgia run-off Senate races that will go to the polls in early January, with both parties pouring huge amounts of cash and manpower into the contests.
“It is a tremendous dark cloud over the personnel process,” said Bill Dauster, a former deputy chief of staff to then Democratic-Senate leader, Harry Reid. Dauster added that “it’s clear from statements Republicans have made that they intend to ration out their Senate confirmations in a stingy way”.
Part of Biden’s argument to placate senators – like Sanders and Warren – who had been angling for influential administration posts is that their current position is essential in the powerful upper chamber of American government.
“We already have significant representation among progressives in our administration,” Biden said in an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt. “One thing is really critical: taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House – particularly a person of consequence – is a really difficult decision that would have to be made. I have a very ambitious, very progressive agenda. And it’s gonna take really strong leaders in the House and Senate to get it done.”
Justice Democrats shot back that Biden’s picks could have been better, and in that response statement offered a list of non-white male progressives for the remaining cabinet positions.
Biden so far has avoided naming any senator to a cabinet position, and instead prioritized agency experience above all else. Reinforcing that priority, there are signs that Sally Yates, a former acting attorney general, is the heavy favorite to run the Department of Justice. Outgoing Alabama senator Doug Jones, a longtime friend of Biden’s who has kept in contact with him, is another potential candidate, although Yates appears more likely.