“The grown-ups are back in charge,” announced a relieved Financial Times editorial board, hailing the early cabinet appointments of President-elect Joe Biden. So far, his picks have all been known quantities: experienced, smart, and competent—no small relief after the madcap chaos of the Trump years. However, they will inherit cascading calamities that require new thinking and dramatic change. And their experience in office is a testament to the failure and follies of the so-called best and brightest.
Notably absent is anyone from the Democratic Party’s rising left: advisers to Senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, opponents of the war in Iraq, activists from the Black Lives Matter and climate change movements, or advocates of deep structural reforms.
Biden doesn’t consider that a problem. Discounting the idea of Sanders or Warren joining the administration, Biden boasted, “We already have significant representation among progressives in our administration.” New thinking, he claimed, is guaranteed because “we’re going to have the first woman lead the intelligence community, the first Latino and immigrant to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and a groundbreaking diplomat at the United Nations.” Assembling a cabinet that looks like America is vital, but diversity of gender and ethnicity does not ensure new vision or ideas. Biden’s picks to date largely reflect the former but not the latter. Here is a summary of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The Good: Biden’s economic team is much better than many had feared. Janet Yellen, his nominee for treasury secretary, won’t be a bulldog like Warren in curbing Wall Street, but as a reputable economist and former head of the Federal Reserve, she has treated maximum employment as a priority. Jared Bernstein and Heather Boushey, nominated for the Council of Economic Advisers, cut their teeth at the labor-backed, progressive Economic Policy Institute and have extensive experience and expertise on poverty, work, and family. Cecilia Rouse, the council’s proposed chair, is one of the leading economists on education in the United States. Biden’s choice to head the National Economic Council, Brian Deese of the oligopolistic asset management firm BlackRock, gives finance a seat at the table (but even he has received high praise from Bill McKibben, a leader in the climate change movement). Together they provide real expertise to backstop Biden’s progressive economic campaign promises. The nomination of former senator and secretary of state John Kerry to a new post as special envoy on climate change signals that issue’s priority. Biden’s pandemic crisis team fulfills his promise to put the experts back in charge, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra’s surprise nomination to head the Department of Health and Human Services elevates someone with fierce intelligence and extensive congressional experience.
The Bad: When it comes to national security, the Blob is back. In nominating Antony Blinken as secretary of state, Jake Sullivan as national security adviser, and Avril Haines as director of national intelligence, Biden has resuscitated the national security establishment that Donald Trump scorned. Putting Raytheon board member and retired general Lloyd Austin at Defense oils the revolving door while trampling the principle of civilian control of the Pentagon. All see America as the indispensable nation. All were proponents of the debacles of recent decades—forever wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, interventions in Syria and Libya, the genocidal assault on Yemen, the accelerated drone assassination program. All embraced the conventional wisdom on corporate globalization—and the ruinous trade deals that accompanied it. And, of course, all claim to have learned from their misadventures.
These appointments—and the striking absence of anyone who got it right at the time—do not augur well. Biden will reverse many of Trump’s follies by returning to the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization, attempting to revive the Iran nuclear deal and nuclear arms control, and reengaging with America’s allies. But the forever wars will go on, with more drones and fewer troops. Conflicts with Russia and China will intensify. And despite ritual denials, America’s commitment to policing the world will continue to distort our politics and priorities.
The Ugly: Biden has gained a cheap grace by not selecting the most egregious candidates floated for some key positions. Fierce pushback from progressives impeded Michèle Flournoy at Defense—an unrepentant hawk who has been making her fortune as a strategic adviser to defense firms.
The nomination of Neera Tanden, the president and CEO of the Center for American Progress, to head the Office of Management and Budget is a gratuitous thumb in the eye of Sanders, whom she has scurrilously slurred over the past five years. But even she is preferable to Bruce Reed, a stalwart of the neoliberal Democratic Leadership Council (the group that Jesse Jackson indelibly dubbed “Democrats for the Leisure Class”) and the former executive director of the Bowles-Simpson commission, which peddled a truly perverse austerity program in the midst of the country’s halting recovery from the Great Recession.
The Biden camp has also floated the name of disgraced former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, straight from his vile mishandling of the police murder of Laquan McDonald, as transportation secretary. Emanuel routinely scorns progressives, whom he once dismissed as “fucking retarded.” That he hasn’t been formally put forward—yet—has earned Biden no small credit from progressive activists.
Biden will continue to roll out his appointments over the coming weeks. Progressives have been pushing hard for Representative Deb Haaland, a Native American member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, to be named secretary of the interior. Appointments at agencies that regulate banks, protect consumers and the environment, enforce labor laws, and prosecute antitrust and white-collar crime will give a better sense of the president-elect’s willingness to challenge the entrenched interests that dominate Washington.
The shape of the administration, however, is already emerging. Biden campaigned on a return to normalcy, even while acknowledging that the country faces threats as great as those during the Great Depression. He’s brought back the Democratic establishment, claiming it can be a source of new vision and new thinking, while the leaders, activists, and intellectuals who challenged the conventional wisdom and got it right have been left out of the mix. Progressives will be pushing from the outside, not the inside. Even as they work with the administration to combat Republican obstruction, progressives must organize independently to champion reforms commensurate with the challenges we face—and continue to build the movements needed to drive them.