President-elect Joe Biden’s administration is still coming together, but he has already named much of his national security team, most key White House positions, and a treasury secretary. And you can sense a theme emerging in what he’s done so far.
Essentially, what’s happened repeatedly is that the name of someone who’s completely unacceptable to the left will be floated in the media for a top job in the Biden administration. That person won’t get the job—instead, it’ll be someone who’s either slightly to the left, or at the very least doesn’t have the same stink on them.
It kills two birds with one stone—the left can say they have helped stave off the absolute worst possible choices and claim victory, and Biden can just pick another name from the endless well of center-right and center-left bureaucrats with experience in the Obama and Clinton administrations. The faces will change, but Biden’s preferred policy will be implemented either way.
This has happened at least three times so far. First, the selection of Ron Klain as Biden’s chief of staff over Steve Richetti was widely praised by progressives as a positive development, even though both are Clinton White House alumni who’ve worked as corporate lobbyists (Richetti for healthcare companies), and Richetti ended up getting hired anyway as Biden’s version of Kellyanne Conway.
Then Biden passed over Lael Brainard, a Clinton alum who played a major role in implementing NAFTA and was later a major advocate of the TPP, in favor of former Fed chair Janet Yellen, whose nomination Biden foreshadowed by saying she would be “accepted by all elements of the Democratic Party, from the progressive to the moderate coalitions.”
And most recently, former Biden chief of staff and Democratic Leadership Council head Bruce Reed, a notorious deficit hawk who worked with Biden to pass the crime bill, was passed over for White House budget director in favor of Neera Tanden, one of the most online people in America and a proud enemy of the Bernie Sanders movement. It speaks to how not online Biden is that the transition reportedly considered Tanden a “movement leader” that progressives would embrace, but she didn’t have her hands in the crime bill and she’s not a Third Way apostle.
Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas summed it up best. “Neera Tanden is not a pick progressives would have chosen, but she’s better than (former Biden chief of staff) Bruce Reed,” she told CNN in a statement. “Tanden’s on the record over the past several years pushing back against nonsensical worries about the deficit.” The sight of one of the biggest Democratic left groups rationalizing the choice of someone who has been so publicly antagonistic towards the left is a good sign of where things stand.
Then there’s the case of Rahm Emanuel, who’s been mentioned over and over again as a candidate for either transportation secretary or, to a lesser extent, White House trade representative. This, on paper, is the easiest decision of all: Not only is Emanuel one of the most reviled figures of the Clinton and Obama White Houses, he was also a historically shitty mayor on public services and, oh yeah, he helped cover up the murder of a teenager. The left has mounted by far its most public, heated offensive against a potential Emanuel nomination. As Representative-elect Jamaal Bowman wrote for the Appeal earlier this week: “We can’t restore the soul of the nation with Rahm Emanuel in public office. It doesn’t matter whether it’s Transportation Secretary or Assistant to the Transportation Secretary, Rahm doesn’t belong in any of D.C.’s halls of power.”
It’s still possible Biden picks Emanuel for the job, but it’s a layup to not choose him. His Senate confirmation would be a nightmare, even the mention of his name infuriates some of the Democratic Party’s core constituencies, and all for what? There’s no shortage of neoliberal technocrats out there, and not picking Emanuel allows Biden to prove he’s “listening” and gives the left the sense that it has a little sway.
Biden and Harris were interviewed by CNN’s Jake Tapper on Thursday night. When Tapper asked them to point out someone they’ve nominated so far who could be described as a progressive, there was a notable silence. Then Harris said, “We’re not done yet,” and Biden mentioned his Homeland Security nominee before giving this non-answer:
What I think people are saying is, a lot of people are saying, am I going to pick some very, very prominent and well-known progressive who sits in the House or the Senate right now? As close as everything is in terms of the House and the Senate, they are tough decisions to make, to pull somebody I’m going to badly need out of the Senate, and we not — don’t reelect or have an appointment of somebody who is a Democrat. And so it is — I think people are going to see not only at the Cabinet level, but the sub-Cabinet level, there is already people we’ve appointed, and we will appoint many more. But it is not — again, I understand the push. I truly understand the push.
It’s not an answer that should give the left much confidence.
There’s a few caveats here. One is that the left is probably going to get a few bones thrown its way in the coming days, whether it’s Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge at the Department of Agriculture, Bernie Sanders at the Department of Labor, or former National Education Association president Lily Eskelsen García as the next Secretary of Education.
Another is that it’s likely that a lot of these leaks and rumors are being laundered by these people who want these jobs and their friends and allies. And finally, because the Democrats have the slimmest of House majorities and need to win two Senate elections next month in a state where they haven’t done so since 1998, progressives are toning down their demands of Biden to prove that they’re capable of working with the next administration.
It’s a pretty impossible position to be in, especially after such a soul-crushing defeat in the Democratic primary earlier this year. But if the left wants to have real influence, and not merely a standing invitation to have its ideas politely rejected over and over again, it is going to have to stop accepting scraps.
At the moment, it’s hard not to get the sense that the left is getting rolled—bounced repeatedly into offering relieved praise to Biden for not picking the absolute worst candidates—while Biden achieves exactly what he’s always wanted: getting his people into roles where they’ll shape policy that more often than not pisses off progressives. The President-elect successfully tamed the Democratic left on his way to winning the election, and there’s little evidence thus far that he’s not going to continue doing that once he’s in the White House.