Though there are many positions left to fill, Biden’s Cabinet announcements so far fit a pattern: The former vice president has chosen people for top positions who haven’t sparked bitter or protracted fights with the left — without giving progressives any major wins. None of Biden’s nods have been wildly off the mark to the left flank of the Democratic Party. And the president-elect has also selected leaders who, despite being moderate, have spent time building relationships with progressives.
“It could have been a lot worse,” said Rebecca Katz, a progressive strategist who advised incoming left-wing Rep. Jamaal Bowman’s campaign, adding that things could still change. “He’s not picking any lefties. He’s just picking people who haven’t alienated the left, who are listening.”
Several progressive elected officials, aides and activists have, in turn, offered cautious praise of Biden during the transition period and avoided serious battles with him so far. They stressed, however, that it is early in the process and things could certainly shift, especially during confirmation hearings. Still, their posture toward Biden’s Cabinet selections to date stands out when compared with the no-holds-barred brawl between moderate and left-wing Democrats in Congress that has been raging since Election Day.
Progressives said that for many of Biden’s picks, there’s been a worse option that they’re grateful he didn’t choose. In many of those cases, they lobbied his team to keep those people out.
For Treasury, the fear was that he might go with Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, a former venture capitalist who is disliked by labor unions because she cut pensions. For secretary of State, Blinken is viewed on the left as preferable to moderate Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.), a longtime Biden ally. For his chief of staff, they implored Biden to pick his eventual choice, Ron Klain, who played a role in Biden’s outreach to progressives this year, over Steve Ricchetti, a former lobbyist.
“Progressives are breathing a little bit of a sigh of relief because the wing of the party that Joe Biden comes from is not getting everything they want here,” said Waleed Shahid, spokesperson for the Justice Democrats, which recruited Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to run for Congress. “Meaning The Third Way, conservative wing of the party.”
Progressive immigrant rights groups such as United We Dream tepidly welcomed the appointment of Alejandro Mayorkas to head Homeland Security, who as the first Latino to potentially lead the department could bring a “different tone.”
But “Biden and Mr. Mayorkas were part of the team that unfortunately oversaw millions of deportations,” said Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream. “And we see our role as holding everyone accountable to ensure that does not happen again.”
Some even go beyond faint approval. Liberals closely aligned with the Warren wing of the progressive movement said there’s a lot to be happy about in Biden’s early selections.
“The biggest turning point was actually the selection of Ron Klain, which we saw as extremely positive news,” said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “That sent a broader signal that when there are multiple options on the table for Biden, and one of them is most acceptable to progressives that he will go in that direction, keeping peace in the land.”
Some progressives, however, criticize left-wing groups for going too far in applauding Biden’s safe choices.
“I don’t want to exaggerate. John Kerry’s fine. [But] this need to pretend that these milquetoast nominees with mixed records are great progressive heroes is pretty pathetic,” said David Sirota, Sanders’ former speechwriter. “What I think we need right now are advocacy groups and activists and journalists to just be honest about who these nominees are.”
Part of Biden’s successful navigation so far seems to stem from his own strength in nurturing political relationships and his decision to tap personnel with similar attributes. Biden gets along with Sanders and Warren, both of whom have sought top jobs in the administration. Climate activists said Kerry worked well with them on policy task forces that Biden formed with Sanders after the primary. Likewise, Matt Duss, Sanders’ foreign policy adviser, said Blinken helped in the left’s attempt to end U.S. support for the war in Yemen, which meant “a lot.”
“During the campaign, Tony and his team made a point to engage regularly with progressive groups as part of Biden’s broader effort to reach out to the left and unify the party,” said Duss. “There’s no doubt it helped them win, and continuing to do it now will help them govern.”
Progressives said another reason Biden likely went with what they see as broadly acceptable picks — not only to them, but also to moderates and even some conservatives — is because of the close divide in Congress. Democrats hold a slim majority in the House and, at best, would face the same situation in the Senate if the party wins two runoff races in Georgia. That is forcing Biden to appeal more to the left, they said.
Liberal Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) said progressives aren’t going to come out swinging early when they see a lot to applaud. For one, he said, the appointees understand the national security implications of climate change. And Yellen, Schatz said, is “closer to a dream pick” than people may realize because the nominee represents a “big formal break” from “the idea that austerity helps the overall economy.”
Still, the left needs to “see the full pantheon of nominees before we make a judgment about whether this team is sufficiently committed to the kinds of change necessary,” he said. At the same time, Democrats need to be “vigilant” against “the-cupboard-is-bare instinct” when spending money for top priorities, said Schatz. Progressives will push Biden on that point as he makes appointments, but he cautioned, “if we freak out, hair-on-fire about the small stuff, nobody’s going to listen to us about the big stuff.”
That isn’t to say Biden hasn’t received any blowback from progressives. The Sunrise Movement, a group of young climate change activists, said it felt like a “betrayal” when Biden tapped Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-La.) as a senior adviser. The left-wing organization Demand Progress lists Ricchetti, whom Biden has empowered to be the White House liaison to Congress and corporate leaders, as a “Person of Interest” on its website aimed at keeping “corporate insiders” out of the administration.
Moving forward, progressives’ major focus is on excluding Democrats who favor austere governing from Biden’s team. In recent days, progressive lawmakers and strategists have launched petitions and tweeted their opposition to some Obama-era carryovers. For instance, they are trying to keep centrist former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and “deficit hawk” Bruce Reed away from the Biden White House, particularly in top spots such as Transportation secretary and the head of the Office of Management and Budget.
Progressives also oppose Mike Morell, who has defended drone strikes, for CIA director and BlackRock managing director Brian Deese for the National Economic Council. Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the left-wing Center for Popular Democracy, which endorsed Sanders in the primary, said the appointments of Deese or Reed would “feel like a bridge really far away from bringing these different factions within the party together.”
Similarly, Schatz said, a Reed appointment is “worth watching,” but he didn’t want to “assume” that, because Reed was a key presence in a fiscal reform commission derided by progressives under former President Barack Obama, “his views are locked and that he’s gonna work with Third Way and cut spending.”
In a statement provided by Biden’s team, former presidential candidate Tom Steyer came to Reed’s defense: “He’s a climate champion who will fully support the Biden clean energy plan, and anyone who thinks he will put budget deficits over the needs of working families struggling to make ends meet during a pandemic simply doesn’t know Bruce.”
Third Way, the center-left think tank, described its credentials as being from “the Joe Biden wing of the Democratic Party” and said “no Democrats in their right minds” are advocating spending cuts amid multiple crises.
The left is also urging Biden to go with Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a Warren ally, for secretary of the Interior, and keeping a close eye on whom Biden nominates to the Justice Department. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee is pushing Biden on lower-level government positions, collaborating with some 40 liberal and nonpartisan groups on a list sent by the Progressive Change Institute to his transition team.
“It’s not as progressive as I would like it to be, but it’s good news that Biden so far is also keeping conservative Democrats who are hostile to progressives, like Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed, out,” said Bowman of Biden’s picks. “The Cabinet process is just the beginning — these are the folks we have to work with, but also the folks we’re going to push.”