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WASHINGTON — In the month since Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election, his team has engaged with progressive Democrats and left them feeling heartened. There’s a stark contrast — at least for now — between the loud internal disputes between progressives and the Democratic Party’s more moderate establishment that have raged for the past five years.
“The honeymoon is not over and we’re going to continue to be optimistic, we fought like hell to get him elected and so far he hasn’t totally, you know, burned us in any way,” said a staffer for a progressive member of Congress who requested anonymity.
“So far, look, there haven’t been any great home runs in the Cabinet,” the staffer said. “But more importantly, there haven’t been any huge disasters.”
Much of the drama within the Democratic Party was fueled by the contentious 2016 presidential primary between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. After President Trump’s general election victory against Clinton, the so-called blue wave of Democratic victories brought in a quarter of staunchly left-wing women of color who became known as “the Squad” and grew massive national followings while sometimes clashing with party leadership on matters of policy and strategy.
Sources have confirmed Biden’s post-election engagement with progressives has included meetings between members of his transition team and two “Squad” members: Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Biden’s transition team has also met with Jamaal Bowman, who, like Ocasio-Cortez, toppled a veteran House Democrat in a New York primary race. Ocasio-Cortez and a slew of other progressives endorsed Bowman in this year’s primary.
A source close to Sanders, who requested anonymity to discuss private deliberations, said the senator has talked with Biden since the election and remains in close contact with the president-elect’s team. The source noted that Biden has allowed progressives to have input on both policy and personnel matters.
“Biden won and he’s going to put the team together that he wants to put together,” the source said. “There’s an approach to that where you can give the middle finger to progressives and say, ‘I’m going to do what I want.’ That’s not the approach they’ve taken.”
The source also pointed out that Biden established unity task forces with Sanders that drafted policy recommendations in the wake of this year’s Democratic presidential primary, in which Sanders was Biden’s chief rival.
“That was a really big step,” the source said of Biden’s unity task force. “It showed their seriousness.”
As part of that effort, Ocasio-Cortez was a co-chair of the climate unity task force along with former Secretary of State John Kerry, Biden’s climate czar for the incoming administration. Ocasio-Cortez’s team did not respond to requests for comment.
The meetings between progressives and the transition have included input on potential Cabinet picks. According to the staffer, progressive members have focused on “red lines” — Cabinet picks that would generate intense opposition from the left — as well “asks” for both personnel and policy matters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, another former presidential candidate, wrote a column last month about initiatives she hoped Biden would prioritize, including canceling billions in student loan debt, lowering prescription drug prices, declaring the climate crisis a national emergency, reviewing racial disparities in the coronavirus response and raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour, among others. Warren’s column has been discussed as a possible blueprint for progressive asks for the incoming administration.
Two of the primary red lines for progressives are Cabinet candidates Bruce Reed, a relatively conservative longtime Biden staffer, and former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel, who was chief of staff to President Obama when Biden was vice president. Reed had been named as a potential director of the Office of Management and Budget, while Emmanuel was floated as a possible secretary of transportation. Reed’s past support for cuts to Social Security and Medicare has led to opposition from progressives including Omar, Bowman and Ocasio-Cortez. Emmanuel’s tenure leading the Second City — particularly his opposition to some police reform measures — sparked similar resistance from the left. Biden’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Omar told Yahoo News she remains hopeful that Biden will have the “most progressive” White House in U.S. history.
“The Biden-Harris administration has a tremendous opportunity to deliver progress and turn the page on four years of chaos under Donald Trump,” Omar said. “We’ve been encouraged by their willingness to engage and listen — and avoid folks who don’t support progressive priorities like Bruce Reed and Rahm Emmanuel.”
The left-wing opposition to those potential Cabinet picks is, so far, one of the only signs so far of tensions that could surface between Biden’s team and progressive Democrats. But Biden’s initial picks have largely gained support from Washington’s top progressives. Ron Klain, who will be Biden’s chief of staff, was dubbed a “unifying pick” by Ocasio-Cortez. The source close to Sanders similarly complimented Klain for a willingness to work with progressives.
“There’s a choice to either see the progressive wing as an asset or a liability. Some of the people around him do see us as a liability … but Ron and a lot of the people close to Biden are willing to say, ‘Let’s take a beat and see how we can utilize some of these folks and the energy they bring in,” the source said.
The engagement and positive comments taking place between Biden’s team and progressives in Washington are a far cry from the debates over policy and strategy between moderate Democrats and the party’s left that seem to be perpetually raging on Twitter. In a sign of the potential goodwill, opposition to Neera Tanden was fairly muted after she was named as Biden’s pick to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden, the president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress, made enemies in progressive circles but, unlike Reed, who was linked to the position before her, has not been identified as one of the choices that would spark massive opposition from the left. Indeed, Tanden’s appointment even earned support from Warren.
Progressives also have some ideal candidates they are hoping to see make it into Biden’s Cabinet. Sanders has expressed interest in becoming secretary of labor. Multiple progressive sources also said getting New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland appointed as secretary of the interior would be a major goal.
Sean McElwee, a strategist who has advised Ocasio-Cortez among others, said progressives have been largely satisfied with Biden’s process for building his administration due to its level of engagement — and the fact they have yet to see any of the more controversial picks. McElwee also suggested Heather McTeer Toney, an Environmental Protection Agency administrator under Obama, to lead that department, and Arun Mamjumdar, a former undersecretary of energy, as a strong choice to take the secretary post.
“I think progressives really got what they wanted from the Cabinet, which is that, if someone like Elizabeth Warren called, they would pick up the phone — and that really is a big step forward, McElwee said. “We‘ve actually ended up in a situation where no one who is the worst person for a position from the progressive perspective is picked.”
Another sign of the relatively warm relations is the fact there is no huge battle shaping up for the chairmanship of the Democratic National Committee. After the last election, there was a heated battle for the position with then-Rep. Keith Ellison serving as a proxy for progressives and Tom Perez, who ultimately became chair, drawing the support of moderates. This time around, Jaime Harrison, a former chairman of the South Carolina Democratic Party who raised massive funds and attention while trying to unseat Sen. Lindsey Graham this year, seems to be a consensus pick to replace Perez, who is not running for reelection. The choice will ultimately be Biden’s, since sitting presidents typically have sway over who leads their party’s national operation, but Harrison has been the only major candidate identified for the national committee chair position. He and the DNC did not respond to requests for comment.
While Perez’s predecessor, Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz of Florida, faced accusations she worked against Sanders in 2016, Perez avoided the primary fray. That likely helped lower temperatures this year.
McElwee considered the disputes over DNC leadership “silly” and relatively “inconsequential.” In the wake of Biden’s victory, he suggested the party has bigger things to worry about.
“After Trump’s election, we didn’t have a Cabinet to fill, so DNC chair became this proxy fight, whereas this time it’s worth everyone’s time to worry about who’s filling the Cabinet seats,” McElwee said, later adding, “In retrospect, it was kind of a weird fight, and I think we’re not going to re-litigate it.”
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