Joe Biden’s Balancing Act Filling His Cabinet

President-elect Joe Biden won with a large coalition. He had the left. Centrists. Republicans who were disaffected with Donald Trump. Black voters. Millennials. 

And so far, he’s managed to keep the party largely satisfied with his choices for his Cabinet and other top administration jobs. They’re the Goldilocks nominees. Maybe not everyone’s ideal picks, but they work. 

“I think he’s done a very good job,” said Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), a Biden friend who lost his reelection bid and has been discussed as a possible attorney general. “I think he has been thoughtful, deliberative and done a good job carrying his promise to get both talented and diverse selections.”

“We’re thrilled with the economic team who understands we have to raise wages and put money in people’s pockets as a key metric of the health of this economy, not simply whether the stock market is doing better,” said Mary Kay Henry, president of the 2-million-member Service Employees International Union. “So for us, it’s a huge shift and a welcome set of leaders, and we fully support the picks that he’s made.” Henry has been in frequent contact with the Biden transition team.

Still, there are warnings of trouble as Biden fills in names for the remaining 15 of his 23 Cabinet positions, with the transition team planning to announce its health policy team next week.

Black, Asian and Latino lawmakers and groups are increasingly voicing frustration that, although Biden has named a diverse slate of nominees and appointees, the highest-ranking officials are largely white. Progressives have also promised bruising battles if certain people are chosen, and a Democratic senator has already said he will oppose a leading candidate for CIA director if Biden chooses him. 

But putting in place an economic team that managed to keep most of the party happy was no small feat. The left wing of the party wanted major structural reforms to the economy but came around to accept that Biden didn’t run for president on that agenda. Still, he showed he was open to listening to the progressive community during the campaign, and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), in particular, had his ear on policy.

For many on the left, Warren was their top choice for treasury secretary, even though she was always a longshot. Even as her allies were pushing her for the job, behind the scenes, Warren was privately advocating for Janet Yellen, the former chair of the Federal Reserve, to get the job, according to a person familiar with the discussions. Yellen, if confirmed, will be the first female treasury secretary.

Before Biden announced publicly that he would indeed be choosing Yellen, he personally called Warren to let her know about his decision, and the two had a “good, warm call,” according to the source who requested anonymity to speak candidly. 

Few if any of Biden’s economic appointments have gone to figures who would have landed big jobs in a more progressive administration of Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.). But they have for the most part been policymakers whom Warren and Sanders find acceptable.

Biden’s Council of Economic Advisers ― Cecilia Rouse, Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey ― were all fringe members of the Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama economic establishment who espouse broadly progressive views. During the Obama years, they were typically given positions on panels stacked with more conservative thinkers and ignored. They will now be running the shop. 

Yellen is an academic economist at a job typically reserved for Wall Street attorneys. Her policy record includes support for most of the major conservative reforms of the Clinton era ― the shift to the North American Free Trade Agreement and bank deregulation ― but she is viewed as a student of data rather than a free-market fundamentalist.

Given concerns during the fall that Biden would import his economic team from private equity firms and Silicon Valley giants, the staff decisions have mostly come as a relief to progressive watchdogs. Even the appointments that grate ― Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, a prolific tweeter, at the Office of Management and Budget, BlackRock executive Brian Deese at the National Economic Council ― are viewed as creatures of politics rather than ideologues bent on reviving the bad ideas of the 1990s.

“Frankly, he was so smart to reach out very early to Elizabeth [Warren] and other key progressives and include them and their ideas in the very early stages of the election campaign,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “He has been so inclusive so as to put himself in a position where he doesn’t have to worry so much about these fights. He’s got a platform regardless of who he picks. Had he not adjusted his platform, then people might be much more concerned about these picks.” 

The policy consensus among economists has been shifting over the past few years. Experts in the field are friendlier to big budget deficits than they were during the Obama presidency and more conscious of the problems for workers and foreign policy generated by globalization. It is not a progressive discipline, but middle-of-the-road economists today espouse more nuanced views than those of a decade prior.  

So far, no Democratic senators have indicated any opposition to Biden’s economic choices. Sanders supporters are livid about the choice of Tanden, who has had a tense and combative relationship with the senator and his backers since the 2016 presidential campaign. Yet Sanders himself has so far stayed silent, allowing the controversy to simmer rather than bubble over into a full-blown mess. GOP senators, however, have already promised to oppose her ― a bigger problem for Biden if Republicans retain the Senate next year. 

Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) called the GOP blowback “predictable” and praised Tanden, saying he was ready to defend her during the confirmation process.

“I’m on the budget committee, so I’m really looking forward to that hearing. I love jousting with Lindsey Graham,” Kaine added, referring to his combative South Carolina Republican colleague.

Personnel As Policy

President-elect Joe Biden has tapped former Fed Chair Janet Yellen to be his treasury secretary.



President-elect Joe Biden has tapped former Fed Chair Janet Yellen to be his treasury secretary.

The fact that the left is largely satisfied with Biden’s Cabinet selections is not an accident. It came about after years of laying down infrastructure around the importance of making sure that the right personnel are in place, following the maxim that personnel is policy. And it emerged from disappointment with Obama’s first term, when many progressive activists acknowledge that they simply didn’t realize the importance of influencing personnel at the time. 

“The enormous amount of outreach that the transition began in the middle of the summer is a direct result of so many people taking ‘personnel as policy’ to heart,” said Anita Dunn, a close Biden adviser who was also in Obama’s inner circle.  

“There was a lot more focus on policy during the [Obama] transition from allied groups than personnel. And I think many of them have talked openly about taking a different approach this time,” she added. “I think the transition has recognized that, and that was one of the reasons why there has been such broad engagement. I think they’ve done a very good job, but that’s certainly a significant difference from 2008.”

“Progressives are much better educated about how power works in Washington in November 2020 than they were in November 2008,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which is focusing on executive branch personnel. “As a result … the transition process will be monitored extremely closely. That did not occur in 2008. Progressives weren’t really even necessarily super familiar with who Tim Geithner was, let alone worry he might become treasury secretary.” 

Biden’s economic team is a departure from Obama’s. Obama brought in people who were on Wall Street or pushed by Wall Street, deficit hawks and officials who openly denigrated the left. Biden has had those options as well, but he chose differently. Gary Gensler, a former Wall Street executive who became known for cracking down on Wall Street as an Obama administration official, is now overseeing Biden’s team reviewing financial regulatory agencies. Julie Siegel, a top Warren adviser and former Consumer Financial Protection Bureau official, is on the staff of Biden’s transition team.

Even in cases where someone does have ties to a financial institution, they’re not seen as hostile to the left. Wally Adeyemo spent two years at private equity giant BlackRock, but he also formed a strong relationship with Warren and her allies while working as chief of staff at the CFPB and was on the board of the progressive economic think tank Demos. He had a reputation for keeping an open door and listening to progressive activists, even if he wasn’t a person who emerged from the movement. 

“Let me tell you – Sen. Warren really likes you,” Biden told Adeyemo when he announced his nomination for deputy treasury secretary on Dec. 1. 

Hauser’s Revolving Door Project was originated to influence a potential Hillary Clinton administration after the 2016 election. That outcome obviously didn’t happen, and he’s had four years to get ready for the current moment, working closely with the progressive group Demand Progress to send signals to the Biden team on nominations and appointments. 

Revolving Door Project, Demand Progress and a number of other progressive groups have a No Corporate Cabinet site identifying potential candidates that they want Biden to avoid for top administration jobs. 

“The Biden team would be wise to take revolving door concerns more seriously, as for many people who’ve been chosen or are under consideration, multilayered private-sector entanglements represent a huge vulnerability with the public, and potentially with senators of both parties. An attitude of ‘Trump did it, so we can too’ won’t cut it: Two wrongs don’t make a right ― or guarantee confirmation,” said David Segal, co-founder of Demand Progress. 

The influence of progressives goes beyond Biden consulting Warren on the treasury secretary. A background in corporate America is now seen as a potential liability in a way that it wasn’t in 2008. 

The Biden team has generally received high marks from activists too on officials’ outreach and willingness to hear their priorities and concerns. 

“We’ve found them both very open to conversations and suggestions, as well as very receptive and responsive and communicative of input ― and that’s both personally and for the reproductive freedom and justice coalition who engages with them, both from a gender equity and a health lens,” said Ilyse Hogue, president of NARAL Pro-Choice America. “So far, I think they’ve done a good job on that front, with the caveat that a lot of positions have not been named yet. So we’re keeping an eye on that, obviously.”

Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, has also been in discussions with the Biden transition team, noting that officials have been meeting recently with organizations focused on the rights of women, immigrants and workers. 

“I think the transition team has done a really good job of listening and engaging with different constituencies who are really key and who are really on the front lines of crisis right now. … That process is really important, and ultimately, there’s a lot that we’re going to need them to deliver on,” she said, citing the disparate effects of the coronavirus pandemic on women and people of color. “So the more information they can gather from constituencies, the better.”

Rumblings Of Dissatisfaction

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has called on Biden to name more Black leaders to top administration jobs. 



Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) has called on Biden to name more Black leaders to top administration jobs. 

Biden’s foreign policy choices were generally met without much widespread objection, even if some on the left found them a bit predictable and not enough of a break with the foreign policy establishment as they may have liked. 

Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a progressive who served as special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa and the Democratic Republic of Congo during the Obama administration, called Biden’s choices ― including Tony Blinken for secretary of state and Jake Sullivan for national security adviser ― “a promising group.”

“They both have the gravitas of having been in the room where it happens before, but have also shown they’re capable of bringing some fresh thinking,” he said. 

But the front-runner for CIA director is already creating controversy. One Democratic senator is already publicly promising to break from the president-elect if he chooses Mike Morrell for the position.

Morrell was deputy CIA director under Obama. But Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, has called him a “torture apologist” for defending the CIA’s use of waterboarding and other harsh interrogation tactics, and said his nomination would be a “nonstarter.” Sens. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) have also expressed concerns, according to CNN. 

Some in the party would also have liked to have less of a reliance on people who have long been in government and more openness to individuals willing to shake things up.

“If you fell asleep in 2016 and woke up to see the names coming from the presidential transition, you wouldn’t be faulted for believing this was Hillary Clinton’s team,” said one senior Democratic official who requested anonymity to speak freely. “The names of Ron Klain, Neera Tanden, Brian Deese, Jake Sullivan, Alejandro Mayorkas, Janet Yellen, Heather Boushey, Avril Haines and so on were very likely going to be hers, too.”

The past few days have been especially rocky for the Biden team, with increasingly public calls to ensure that his remaining nominees are more racially diverse and with heightened pressure by outside groups to choose their favored candidates. 

I would love to see more diversity in the future picks, especially people of color and women of color.
Ai-jen Poo, executive director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance

Biden already has nominated the first female treasury secretary, the first woman of color to lead the Office of Management and Budget, the first woman of color to chair the Council of Economic Advisers and the first Latino and immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security. His entire senior press team will be women. But two of the “big four” Cabinet positions that he has filled ― treasury secretary and secretary of state ― have gone to white candidates, and many of his allies want to see the attorney general and defense secretary posts go to non-white nominees. 

“It’s really important to note about all of these picks that they weren’t picked because of checking off any kind of box,” said Dunn. “They were picked because they’re highly qualified people who are right for their jobs. … The mix of them is going to make this one of the strongest groups of people ever in an administration because of the diversity of viewpoints, of backgrounds. People who come from different parts of the political spectrum but who have a set of shared values.” 

During a call between transition officials and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Rep. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) confronted incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain over what he viewed as the mistreatment of New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who is a co-chair of the transition team. News reports indicated that she was not a serious front-runner for secretary of health and human services and had turned down an offer to be secretary of the interior. The Interior Department offer irked many of Lujan Grisham’s allies, since the job, focused heavily on public lands, would have been an odd fit for the former New Mexico state health secretary. To her allies, it seemed like she wasn’t being treated fairly.

Close Biden ally Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and other Black lawmakers have advocated for Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) to serve as agriculture secretary. They’ve been joined by liberal groups, who see her as a better alternative to centrist Heidi Heitkamp, a former Democratic senator from North Dakota. 

Clyburn has openly expressed his disappointment that there aren’t more Black nominees for top jobs. 

“I want to see where the process leads to, what it produces, but so far it’s not good,” he said in an interview with The Hill

Biden’s team has tapped three Black leaders for top roles: Adeyemo, a Nigerian American economist; Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, named as a top White House adviser; and former Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, selected to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.

“I would love to see more diversity in the future picks, especially people of color and women of color,” Poo, of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told HuffPost. 

“Obviously groups are doing their job, which is to push us. And we appreciate that,” Dunn said. “But we feel like we’re doing our job, which is to keep the commitment that Joe Biden made. And that at the end of this process, people are going to see a Cabinet that … looks like America.”

Biden told reporters on Friday that he remains steadfast in his plan to create a diverse administration. 

“I promise you,” he said, “it’ll be the single most diverse Cabinet based on race, color, based on gender, that’s ever existed in the United States of America.”

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