Joe Biden won’t be sworn in for another 64 days, but the President-elect is already under pressure from activist groups to bring progressive leaders into his administration – and close its doors to establishment figures with cozy relationships to Wall Street, defense contractors and the fossil fuel industry.
The pressure campaign has played out in public, with the release of open letters and lists of acceptable candidates for top Cabinet positions, via private calls with potential nominees, and on social media, where progressive groups have warned the incoming administration against reneging on Biden’s promise to forge an aggressive new path in the fight against climate change.
Top progressives have mostly sounded a cautiously optimistic tone following the release of Biden’s “agency review teams” and his quick decision to name longtime adviser Ron Klain, who has built bonds across ideological lines, as his White House chief of staff. But the cutting backlash in response to the appointment of Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond to a top West Wing post on Tuesday underscored the fraught nature of the relationship.
There are also potential fights on the horizon and the uncertainty surrounding control of the Senate could further complicate a detente that has largely carried over from the campaign. If Democrats fail to win both runoff elections in Georgia early next year, the body will remain under the control of Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell – and everything from Biden’s legislative agenda to his Cabinet nominations would likely face partisan blockades.
Richmond’s installation as a senior adviser and director of the Office of Public Engagement drew a harsh rebuke from climate groups, led by the Sunrise Movement.
“Today feels like a betrayal, because one of President-Elect Biden’s very first hires for his new administration has taken more donations from the fossil fuel industry during his Congressional career than nearly any other Democrat, cozied up to Big Oil and Gas, and stayed silent and ignored meeting with organizations in his own community while they suffered from toxic pollution and sea-level rise,” Sunrise Movement executive director Varshini Prakash said in a statement shortly after Richmond’s move was made official.
There are also concerns among some progressives over whether the coalition has the capacity to speak with one voice on a broad range of issues, including arenas where it is less organized and engaged, like national security.
“That’s one of the growing pains for the progressive movement, which is how do we organize to maximize our power? You have to do that by building collaboration,” said Nina Turner, a former top aide on Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. “I just don’t think we do that enough, not yet anyway. I’m sure that all of the different progressive groups probably have their list, and have been thinking about it, but we would be stronger if we came together and decided on a list and then went forward that way.”
Lists of names – and demands
The Progressive Change Institute, an organization with ties to Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, sent a letter to the Biden transition team and made public a list of 400 names, each with a brief biography, that should be considered for key personnel roles at every level of government. Progressive groups Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement have also released a roster of preferred names for key leadership roles in the administration, along with a call for the creation of a White House Office of Climate Mobilization.
The director of the new office, an idea promoted by the Biden-Sanders “unity task forces,” would report directly to the President and have the authority to bring together leaders from an assortment of federal agencies – a position akin to the national security adviser, but with a mandate to address every aspect of the climate crisis.
“You really use that convening power and authority to move forward on this crisis, whether or not Democrats have the Senate,” said Sunrise Movement political director and co-founder Evan Weber. “It’s something that Joe Biden without having to go through the Senate. It doesn’t have to be appointed. It’s not like a cabinet pick that would have to be approved.”
Among the group’s top choices to run the office is Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who ran a brief but influential Democratic primary campaign. Some of his former aides and supporters went on to form Evergreen Action, a group dedicated to jumpstarting a “national mobilization to defeat the climate crisis.”
“I think Gov. Inslee would really make a fantastic part of a Biden-Harris administration. This new position that we envision, this sort of special assistant to the president on climate mobilization, for us, would be the sort of dream location for him,” Weber said.
The post-campaign posturing among both progressive organizations and the incoming administration is a stark reversal from what followed the election of Barack Obama in 2008, when the left largely demobilized and party establishment figures dominated the transition’s selections for powerful insider roles.
“Progressives definitely have a seat at the table and the Biden team is serious about listening to all stakeholders, which includes progressives,” Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, told CNN. “I think progressives are being listened to much more than in 2008 or would likely have been the case at this point in time four years ago.”
Hauser pointed to the roles handed to Biden aides like Klain and the President-elect’s longtime Senate chief of staff and 2020 transition chief Ted Kaufman as evidence that progressive priorities, like constraining the influence of Wall Street, are being taken seriously by Biden’s team.
“The agency review team for Treasury and the Federal Reserve and other financial regulators reflect both Kaufman’s history and what I think is Biden’s true North Star, which is that he does not see himself as a Wall Street Democrat,” Hauser said. “I don’t think he does.”
Naming Gary Gensler, a Goldman Sachs alum who turned on the industry and emerged as a top Warren ally, to lead the transition’s Federal Reserve, Banking and Securities Regulators group was another victory for progressives – and clear signal that the Biden administration is positioning itself to take a harder line against the big banks.
But it remains to be seen whether that translates into the big ticket nominations the left is lobbying for. Warren is progressives’ choice to lead the Treasury Department, but the favorite for the job is Lael Brainard, a Federal Reserve governor with better relations on Wall Street. Though lower profile than Warren, the selection of Sarah Bloom Raskin, a deputy secretary of the Treasury under Obama, would be considered a significant win for progressives.
Meanwhile, Sanders’ private push for public support from union leaders as he pursues a nomination to run the Labor Department has yet to gain much traction.
The Vermont senator was the top choice in the list put out by Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, but Michigan Rep. Andy Levin, who also appeared on their slate, has now been endorsed by the Communications Workers of America, the United Auto Workers and, notably, National Nurses United, a longtime Sanders ally.
As progressives begin to coalesce around Levin, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, who has AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka lobbying on his behalf, is also emerging as a leading candidate. American Federation of State, County & Municipal Employees President Lee Saunders and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten have also said they would back the moderate Walsh for Secretary of Labor.
Tensions bubbling up
The race for top foreign policy positions, most notably on the defense front, is another potential flashpoint.
Michèle Flournoy is considered the leading contender for Secretary of Defense and would become the first woman to lead the department if selected and confirmed. But her seat on the board of defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton and other ties to the industry, along with what many progressives view as hawkish positions that have fallen out of line with the Democratic mainstream, has invited some early opposition.
In a letter to Biden last week that did not name Flournoy, but was widely viewed as pushback on her potential nomination, Reps. Mark Pocan of Wisconsin and Barbara Lee of California, two leading House progressives, requested “that the next Secretary of Defense have no prior employment history with a defense contractor.”
“One of the big issues over the last four years was Yemen and the US relationship with the Saudis and the Emiratis, because of the war in Yemen. And you saw a lot of folks, Ben (Rhodes) among them, and others who said, we got this wrong in the Obama administration. We’ve learned some lessons,” said Stephen Miles, executive director of Win Without War. “The fact we haven’t heard some of those things from Michelle is concerning. We’ll be looking for evidence that folks have seen and learned some lessons about the last four years.”
Flournoy sought to address some of those concerns in a recent call with progressive foreign policy groups, two sources – including one on the line for the discussion – told CNN. Her proactive approach to heading off a clash with party progressives suggests that potential nominees, in the estimation of many on the left, are conscious of the Biden team’s desire to head off intra-party clashes.
“I think she has to really show an introspection about how the Afghanistan escalation was a mistake, how the war in Yemen was a mistake, how the interventions in the Middle East and Libya was a mistake,” said California Rep. Ro Khanna, who led the House charge to pass a War Powers Resolution aimed at ending US involvement in Yemen. “And that’s she’s going to have a different approach to those policies.”
Even as the jockeying intensifies, the debates over the incoming administration’s top Cabinet posts, personnel and policy priorities is still in its infancy. If Democrats take control of the Senate with a pair of victories in Georgia, Biden will gain power but also lose a negotiating point – that he has no choice but put forward nominees that can win some GOP support – with progressives.
But for some on the left, the particulars of the balance of power on Capitol Hill are a secondary concern. Biden campaigned on a promise that he could successfully engage with Republicans and convince enough of them to allow him the ability to govern, they reason, so progressives should not tamp down their pressure campaign in deference to partisan challenges.
Phillip Agnew, co-founder of the Dream Defenders and a senior adviser to Sanders’ 2020 campaign, compared the fight to keep establishment figures like former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel, a longtime liberal antagonist, out of Biden’s government to the battle Democrats waged against Betsy DeVos, President Donald Trump’s Secretary of Education.
“I think we should give no quarter to any cabinet appointment. I think the cabinet process should become one of the hardest that any president has ever kind of experienced,” Agnew said a recent event hosted by the leftist publisher Haymarket Books. “This is an opportunity for us to really flex.”