What does Biden’s Cabinet and staff mean for progressives?

The words “coalition,” “big tent,” and “balance” are being thrown around a lot when Cabinet picks are discussed. But history teaches that the left will usually be the junior partner in the coalition. Whether that is true this time around remains to be seen.

David Moscrop, Ph.D., is a #FESFellow2020. This is his final piece in a series on social democracy and the U.S. elections.


As President-elect Biden prepares to enter the White House, we are at a pivot point in how progressive politics will be evaluated in the United States. After four years of ‘the resistance’, something new will emerge. The egregious behavior the of the Trump administration catalyzed a resurgence on the left that had been long in the making. Progressives still struggled during the presidential campaign with centrist, establishment, and plutocratic Democrats across the country giving Joe Biden a run for his money for the nomination. This dynamic was particularly obvious with the rise of “the Squad” and Bernie Sanders, and as progressive Democrats beat long-term establishment incumbents. But even at their height, those contests were attenuated by the far-right, norm-busting, racist, and anti-democratic actions of President Trump and Republicans who enabled him. Now, attention is turning back towards the Democrats and the left’s focus will likely re-adjust as progressives try to push the party to the left.

The most high-profile site of contest is the new White House – Biden’s Cabinet and senior staff. To date, the President-elect’s picks seem to have left progressives with little to celebrate and lots to be concerned about. Writing for NBC News, Alex Seitz-Wald captured the spirit of lowered expectations, writing “…progressives so far failed to persuade President-elect Joe Biden to put their favored candidates in top jobs for his administration…But they appear to have succeeded in making enough noise to keep out their biggest foes, at least for now.” Not exactly reason to pour out the Champagne. Seitz-Wald notes that Biden is concerned not only with appealing broadly to Democrats, but also getting his picks confirmed by the Senate, indicating the leftists who hoped to see their policy agenda represented by the Cabinet now have run up against both the Republicans in the Senate and Democrats more broadly. 

As the Wall Street Journal reports, Biden’s transition team is heavy with current and former lobbyists — at least 40 of them in fact — but some come by way of the labor movement and ought to be welcomed, even as others may not be. Steve Ricchetti, a former lobbyist for powerful interests including the pharmaceutical industry, is now in a counselor to Biden. Ricchetti’s inclusion elicited a rebuke from the Justice Democrats. The organization also balked at the inclusion of Cedric Richmond as Director of the Office of Public Engagement for his links to the fossil fuel industry. Picks such as Neera Tanden, who will lead the Office of Management and Budget, are being welcomed by some “with a sigh of relief”—because it could have been worse, from some progressive perspectives. 

The words “coalition,” “big tent,” and “balance” are being thrown around a lot when Cabinet picks are discussed. But history teaches that the upshot of these euphemisms—that’s what they are, after all—is that the left will be the junior partner in the coalition, in the corner of the big tent, and the lighter weight of balance. Whether that is true this time around remains to be seen. At first glance, things may seem to headed that way. But that is not necessarily the whole story. Progressives may have more to be encouraged by than meets the eye.

For instance, former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen is likely to be welcomed by many progressives. As NPR reports, Adam Green of the Progressive Change Committee welcomed her nomination as Secretary of the Treasury, saying “Janet Yellen has absolutely shown a willingness to challenge corporate power and not be intimidated by big banks.” While many on the left had hoped for Elizabeth Warren, Yellen is a choice plenty of progressives will be able to live with, especially as she advocates for a robust stimulus package in the wake of the pandemic. The inclusion of Heather Boushey of the Washington Center for Equitable growth on Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors is good news for those looking for a left voice on economic policy. The same is true of Jared Bernstein from the Center on Budget and Policy priorities who is also joining the Council. As disconcerting as some Cabinet, Cabinet-level, and staff picks may be, these three make up a core of pro-social program economic thinkers who may be well poised to advance the more ambitious bits of Biden’s agenda—even as they will be working alongside Brian Deese in his capacity as Director of the National Economic Council. Deese comes to the job by way of BlackRock and trails with him a centrist, establishment approach that may signal business as usual, even as Biden tasks him with, among other things, looking to green up the economy.

At Health and Human Services, the surprise choice of Xavier Becerra ought to be welcomed. The veteran congressman and current California attorney general will be constrained by Biden on Medicare insofar as the president-elect, no surprise, supports a public option. But Becerra has expressed support for Medicare for All and is a strong advocate for healthcare access, including abortion rights. As the New York Times reports, “Mr. Becerra’s office boasted frequently of the many lawsuits he had filed against the Trump administration, including suits challenging the president’s immigration and environmental policies. His activism in fighting the Trump agenda in court earned him praise from leading progressives in the Democratic Party.”

The left has some hopes for the Secretary of Labor, as they should. Biden’s pick for labor has yet to be announced—Sanders has said he would take the job but seems unlikely to be asked—but Representative Abby Finkenauer of Iowa is reportedly in the running. At 31, she is one of the youngest members of Congress, and is a pro-labor and union stalwart concerned with fair and equitable wages. At the same time, some labor leaders are pushing for California Labor Secretary Julie Su, who would be another welcome choice for those concerned with worker rights and unions. One might expect progressives to do well with Biden’s choice at this post, and observers ought to keep in mind that there are encouraging choices beyond Sanders, who will continue to be a powerful and needed force in the Senate along with Elizabeth Warren. 

At both the State Department and the Department of Homeland Security, Biden’s choices of Anthony Blinken and Alejandro Mayorkas signal continuity with the Obama Administration, and each has a lot of work ahead of them after years of damage by Trump. Each will be a significant improvement on recent office holders. While Blinken may not be fully embraced by progressives—in large part because of his approach to the Middle East which is synonymous with Biden’s—Mayorkas received immediate praise from Marielna Hincapié of the National Immigration Law Center and he seems prepared to dismantle Trump’s racist and cruel immigration policies.

Despite what some progressives see as setbacks in failing to expect Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders to make it to Cabinet, the Biden team seems to be reckoning with the burgeoning left in different ways. Already, the Biden side is more progressive than either the Obama or Clinton administrations were, and as Foreign Policy reports, the left is attempting to shape the Cabinet discourse by way of the art of the deal.

If progressives can influence Cabinet positions on economic, defense, and intelligence files while welcoming a stalwart at labor there could be more to the left’s influence on the Biden administration than betrayed by letdowns on Warren and Sanders, who seem to get outsized, even exclusive, attention much of time. Writing in The New Republic, Osita Nwanevu argues that leftists should “break from the Democratic establishment and hone America’s future outside the halls of power.” He makes a compelling case, pointing to the left’s limited influence on the Democratic establishment, calling for it to appeal “directly to the American people.” However, Nwanevu is too quick to dismiss leftwing advances in recent years and subtleties in the Biden Cabinet, as well as in the president-elect’s platform, suggest progressive victories are there to be had, and a two-track approach from within and outside may not only be possible, but welcome and effective, too. 

Progressives will not dominate the Biden Cabinet, but they were never going to. A two-track approach to agenda-setting and policy execution from within the Administration and without is wise, just as critiques of Biden and his team are essential. At the same time, however, the left should not ignore the advancements made by progressives, even if some big-name wins continue to elude them.

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