As Joe Biden’s transition team begins to assemble a cabinet, the former vice president is facing pressure from both the right and left of the Democratic Party over possible appointments—with the question of whether to put Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren in charge of the Treasury Department as one of the top issues for progressives.
Warren is lobbying for the position and is expected to have a private meeting with the president-elect to make her case. To Warren, running the powerful Treasury Department means she would have a chance to effect the big structural change she ran on as a presidential candidate.
But reporting from New York magazine in late October indicated that Warren was unlikely to get the nod, because “Biden advisers worry there’s no obvious fit that wouldn’t concern a big swath of the candidate’s moderate backers.” And whispers from unnamed members of the Biden campaign downplaying a possible Warren role in a Biden administration for a number of reasons—including the composition of the Senate—have left the Massachusetts senator’s allies angry and feeling betrayed over the perceived dismissal of a stalwart surrogate.
New York state Senator Alessandra Biaggi, a strong Warren supporter, said she saw rejecting Warren as an insult to those in the progressive movement who have energized the Democrats throughout the Trump era.
“In many ways, this is like a smack in the face to the people who have been pushing so hard for these past three and half years to push back and grab the power in a way that will give Democrats a voice,” Biaggi told me. “And I don’t think you can deny that is a real issue.”
Control of the Senate is still in doubt and will likely not be clear until two Georgia special elections in January. Should Democrats narrowly win with a 50-50 split, every seat will count, meaning that Warren would be unlikely to get the position, since Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, would select her successor.
Supporters of Warren, however, argue that the Massachusetts legislature, which has a Democratic supermajority, could force Baker to appoint someone of the same party to the seat. While this is likely true, no effort to do so has thus far been put forward. Biden is also reportedly considering a blanket ban on appointing sitting Democratic senators to the administration to avoid losing any votes in Congress.
But if the GOP retains control of the Senate, New York State Assembly member Yuh-Line Niou said, she is skeptical about what the chamber could accomplish and wonders if Warren’s talent might be best used elsewhere.
“If we don’t have a Senate majority, then the Senate will still be in deadlock, no matter what,” said Niou. “So maybe we just have to have a stronger executive branch, just like the Republicans did.”
While Biden may not appoint any Democratic senators, he is considering another constituency: Republicans. Politico has reported that Biden is looking at former Ohio Governor John Kasich and businesswoman Meg Whitman for roles in the administration, a move that came in for criticism from progressives already uneasy with the president-elect’s closeness to conservatives.
Jeff Yang, a writer and Warren surrogate from California, told me that while he understands the urge on Biden’s part to bring in people of differing political views, a focus on accommodating the right wing at the expense of the left is not going to work.
“Biden will be a president for all Americans,” said Yang. “But if he doesn’t have progressive, responsible representation in the cabinet, then it’s going to be a lot harder for progressives—who have, by and large, rallied around him—to believe that that extends to the left wing of his own party.”
Yang said he found it “startling” that Warren is not being considered and that Biden’s people appear set on finding excuses to keep her out of the cabinet. It reminded Yang of the vice presidential search, he said.
“Many progressives were promised essentially up to the very moment that she was actually in the hunt for the vice presidency,” said Yang. “And it turns out that the ticket was the ticket they planned from the beginning.”
To Yang, the Biden camp’s reported refusal to take Warren and her supporters seriously is sending a bad message to a part of a coalition that the former vice president will need as he confronts generational crises that will only get worse over the next three months. It’s an all-hands-on-deck moment, Yang said, and to ensure success, the incoming Democratic administration needs to get progressives on board.
“We need to have the best team possible in place to solve the profound and extreme problems we’re facing with the country,” said Yang. “And I don’t think—regardless of what other issues there might be behind the scenes—anybody can doubt that Elizabeth Warren would be a player on that team.”
Passing by Warren, Biaggi said, is also an indication that the Democratic Party doesn’t understand how to work with its own coalition.
“Part of why we won back the House in 2018 was because of organizing a majority of left-wing people who, even if the person that they were organizing for was a little bit more moderate, still understood they needed to organize people because they understood they need to get the House,” said Biaggi.
Sara Nelson, the international president of the Association of Flight Attendants–CWA, offered a different perspective. Nelson said that complaints over Warren were an example of allowing “disappointment and anger” over cosmetic issues to get in the way of working for actual systemic change.
“There’s a lot of issues to organize around and, frankly, organizing around whether or not Elizabeth Warren should be Treasury secretary is lost on the vast majority of Americans,” said Nelson. “So if that’s where we’re starting from as a progressive, we’ve lost already.”
Nelson also told me that she sees conversations around who gets what cabinet position as indicative of an ongoing issue in left organizing that places personalities and celebrity over the interests of the working class.
“I’m missing how they’re going to actually organize the American people and make a change in politics,” said Nelson. “That is the problem with left politics right now—the fact that it is so fractious in that way, so self-selecting and elitist.”
But she added, “Of course, I want Elizabeth Warren as Treasury secretary.”
Biaggi doesn’t see it that way. She said that in her view, Biden’s spurning Warren, Sanders, or both would lead to “trouble for the Democratic Party” down the line—in keeping with her analysis that the presidential election was a nail-biter because voters weren’t compelled by the arguments from the top of the ticket. A dismissive approach to progressives would be harmful to the party’s future, she said.
“I don’t think that’s a very wise decision for building a party as strong as we need to be to fight the real enemy,” Biaggi said.
Niou also disagreed with Nelson, expressing the need for vigilance on every front as the country gets on the path to recovery. That includes the cabinet, she said, and pushing for change inside of the White House.
“Right now, we are fighting for our lives,” said Niou. “And it is important that we have these ideas everywhere, and we have to have all of our leadership be pushed to fight for us as working people here and in all of our country.”
“We would love for the budding administration to be a more progressive administration,” said Jamaal Bowman, representative-elect for New York’s 16th district. “That’s where the energy of the party is, and that’s where the energy is for people across the country.”
Bowman told me that there is some reason for hope in the incoming administration’s treatment of the progressive movement. While Biden is not expected to reverse his long-standing political positions and take a sharp left turn, Bowman cited “some movement to the left” by the former vice president.
“When you look at the commitments to environmental justice, when you look at the conversation around universal child care, in conversations around the $15 minimum wage—all those things are good for the Biden administration,” Bowman said. “The American people are really excited about the progressive movement right now.”
For Bowman, a Biden cabinet that leaves out Warren raises concerns about the president-elect’s priorities once in office.
“This is the time for us to govern in a way that truly centers working-class people,” said Bowman. “So it’s frustrating to see the private sector, particularly Wall Street and the corporate elite, still being a part of the debate and conversation and it seeming like that’s who he’s leaning towards for cabinet positions.”
Bowman added that Warren, with her experience as an economic scholar, a senator, the founder of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and a former presidential candidate, is an ideal candidate to take on rebuilding the economy after Trump. Because of the near-universal understanding of the stakes, Bowman said, the incoming administration will be expected to make real changes to how our government and economy function, and that creates an opportunity.
“I believe Joe Biden and the Biden-Harris administration will respond to that pressure, because it’s not just the radical leftists,” said Bowman. “It’s people who are practical, who understand we have to fundamentally rebuild our political and economic system.”