President Joe Biden’s administration is beginning to look like an ideological mullet: all establishment in the front-facing roles, with a progressive party happening in the back.
Biden’s high-profile Cabinet picks tended to have experience, personal relationships and an ability to earn approval from across the ideological spectrum ― Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have all earned bipartisan stamps of approval in the Senate. But left-leaning Democrats are excitedly watching Biden fill agency and sub-Cabinet posts with younger thinkers who have developed big ideas designed to solve the economic, racial, health and climate crises the Biden administration hopes to address.
Some of these younger thinkers are taking leading roles that require Senate confirmation, like progressive Rohit Chopra’s nomination to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Others are assuming lower-profile jobs in the White House, the Department of Homeland Security or the Interior Department where they can play key roles in shaping the administration’s approach in a number of areas including economic recovery, the climate crisis and reversing the Trump administration’s immigration orders.
“We’ve been really pleased,” Congressional Progressive Caucus Chair Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.) said on a conference call with reporters this week, citing the nominations of Chopra and California Labor Secretary Julie Su to be deputy labor secretary on the federal level. “There are just some great, great hires across the board that we’re very excited about.”
Gautam Raghavan, a former Jayapal chief of staff who also worked in former President Barack Obama’s White House, is playing a key role in many selections as the deputy director of the White House office of presidential personnel, she said.
Former Rep. Tom Perriello (D-Va.), a progressive who consulted with Biden’s transition team, downplayed the ideological differences. He noted the pandemic has prioritized both the need for experience in top positions and Biden’s desire for game-changing ideas throughout the administration.
“You’re getting a lot of people who have the policy experience to guide the next generation of big thinkers,” he told HuffPost. “Throughout his career, Biden has tended to be an incrementalist. But his wisdom and experience are pushing him toward doing big things.”
Some of these pairings are in the White House. Former Secretary of State John Kerry and former Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy are the leading climate change experts at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. ― Kerry is the lead envoy to foreign countries on the all-important issue, while McCarthy is coordinating the domestic response.
But filling out the White House climate team are three younger experts with more progressive credentials. Maggie Thomas, who was a top climate policy adviser to the presidential campaigns of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, is the chief of staff in the climate office. Two other younger thinkers ― Sonia Aggarwal and Jahi Wise ― have also secured senior adviser roles.
The National Economic Council has similar dynamics. Progressives engaged in no small amount of teeth-gnashing following the appointment of Brian Deese, an Obama administration veteran who worked at the investment management company BlackRock, to lead the council. They were ecstatic, however, over the selection of former Warren aide Bharat Ramamurti as one of the council’s deputy directors, and the addition of Joelle Gamble, one of several economic aides with expertise on the racial wealth gap.
The selections of Ramamurti, Chopra and Thomas also display Warren’s success in shaping key portions of the Biden administration. Sasha Baker, formerly her top foreign policy aide, is the director of strategic planning for the National Security Council. Progressives are continuing to push another former Warren acolyte, Vanderbilt law professor Ganesh Sitaraman, to take a critical post leading the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the White House.
Potential land mines for intraparty staffing disputes remain, including the selection of who heads OIRA, a fight over the nomination for a major banking regulatory job, and decisions over who lands key positions dealing with possible antitrust actions against major technology companies. Jayapal said she is pushing for Biden to nominate Lina Khan, a Columbia University professor and critic of big tech, to the spot on the Federal Trade Commission formerly held by Chopra. But progressive strategists warned the biggest fight could be over who leads the Justice Department’s antitrust section.
If there was a Cabinet pick that upset the Democratic Party’s left flank, it was Biden’s decision to pick former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack for a second run at the job. Progressives have long argued the Vilsack-era Agriculture Department was far too friendly to corporate farmers and failed to aid Black farmers.
But Joe Maxwell, a former Missouri lieutenant governor who now leads the advocacy group Family Farm Action, said Biden’s picks for other USDA jobs were solid, especially the nomination of Virginia Agriculture Secretary Jewel Bronaugh, who is Black, for the No. 2 job at the department. And he credited Vilsack for engaging with his critics since his nomination.
“He’s doing a good job of outreach, and being open,” Maxwell said. “It’s clear that they’re at least open to a new vision for the department. Time will tell.”
Immigration is another area in which progressives have been hoping to see a dramatic shift from the Obama administration, when Democrats hoped stepped-up enforcement and deportations would pave the way for a landmark deal that never came. While Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee for homeland security secretary, held the No. 2 job in the department during Obama’s presidency, immigration advocates say it’s clear Biden will take a different approach and work to reverse what they see as the worst of Trump’s policies.
Sarnata Reynolds, the director of policy at the Immigration Hub, pointed to the hires of Adam Hunter as DHS’s deputy assistant secretary on immigration and Ashley Tabaddor as the chief counsel for Citizenship and Immigration Services. Hunter was previously the executive director of Refugee Council USA and Tabbador was head of the union for immigration judges, a position in which she frequently criticized the Trump administration’s policies.
“The immigration system has really been positioned for enforcement. We want that whole system to be shifted,” Reynolds said, adding: “So far, from what we’ve seen, we’re very pleased.”
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