Sherrod Brown, the progressive senator from Ohio, says he’s talking with the Biden campaign about “where he needs to look and who he needs to look at” as he begins to form a potential administration.
Other people in positions of power, both inside and outside government, are engaged in similar conversations.
It’s part of an early, behind-the-scenes effort by the Biden campaign to shape the contours of a government he has pledged would be “the most progressive administration since FDR.”
Biden’s White House and his Cabinet would likely lean on his connections from the Obama administration, including institutionalists who are palatable to centrist Democrats. But in the same way Biden shifted left on policy in recent months in response to the pandemic, he is also taking advice from the progressive wing of the party.
Interviews with more than a dozen Democrats familiar with his transition process describe an effort by his campaign to assemble a center-left amalgamation of personnel designed to prioritize speed over ideology in responding to the coronavirus and the resulting economic ruin. Think Susan Rice, but also Elizabeth Warren. Pete Buttigieg, but also Karen Bass.
“I think those [ideological] distinctions are going to be a little hard to draw in this administration,” said Matt Bennett, whose center-left group Third Way, like others, is developing lists of candidates to propose to Biden’s advisers for sub-Cabinet and other roles.
One Democratic strategist familiar with Biden’s work to form a government said, “Does it mean that the chief of staff won’t be [longtime Biden advisers] Ron Klain or Steve Ricchetti or something? No, but it does mean you’re going to see some unusual suspects in the government, I think.”
Among those advising Biden on the transition are centrist-minded establishment figures such as Tony Blinken, the former deputy national security adviser in the Obama-Biden White House, and Lawrence Summers, the ex-Treasury secretary and bane of progressives who said last week that he will not go into the administration. Ricchetti, Biden’s former chief of staff, is a former lobbyist.
But Biden is also taking economic advice from Warren, Democrats familiar with the campaign say. She is widely viewed as a potential Treasury secretary in a Biden administration. It did not go unnoticed when Biden in April called corporate America “greedy as hell.” He has also proposed raising the corporate tax rate.
And progressives have been heartened by the composition of his transition team. Headed by former Sen. Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden adviser and Biden’s successor in the Senate, it includes Julie Siegel, who has been a top Warren adviser, and Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.
"I think this is about getting seasoned people that are really qualified to do the job. People with experience, people that are smart as hell and people that reflect America," Kaufman said in an interview. “A lot of this isn’t about ideology or anything else. It’s totally about what do you do with the incredible hollowing out that Trump has done ... so many of the agencies just are empty, the career people have left.
"You’re going to be walking into a very difficult situation, and a lot of it’s going to be blocking and tackling.”
One name often mentioned as a potential secretary of State is Rice, who was Obama’s national security adviser and made Biden's short list for vice president. Blinken is often mentioned as a potential national security adviser.
Warren’s potential selection for Treasury could depend in part on the balance of the Senate after the November election. If she steps down, her state’s Republican governor, Charlie Baker, would appoint her replacement — a Republican, presumably — until a special election. But there are workarounds.
A veteran Democratic strategist close to Biden’s transition team said that if Warren wants a post, she is “definitely in the Cabinet.” And even if she isn’t, she's likely to influence Biden’s thinking.
Elsewhere in the Cabinet, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, who endorsed Biden in early January and served on his vice presidential selection committee, is a likely candidate for transportation or Housing and Urban Development, among other possible positions. Rep. Karen Bass (D-Calif.), another finalist for vice president, could be secretary of HUD or Health and Human Services.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham “comes up a lot” in Cabinet talks, according to one former Biden adviser who remains in contact with Biden campaign officials. Buttigieg, the former South Bend, Ind., mayor and presidential contender, is seen as a likely choice for ambassador to the United Nations or secretary of Veterans Affairs. And Jared Bernstein, a longtime economic adviser to Biden, is frequently mentioned as a potential chair of Biden’s Council of Economic Advisors. Bernstein was among the administration veterans and academics who gave Biden and Harris an economic briefing last week.
Discussing the kind of leaders he wants to surround himself with at an event in April, Biden said his job is “to bring the Mayor Petes of the world into this administration … and even if they don't come in, their ideas come into this administration.”
He has left open the possibility of including a Republican in the Cabinet and is considering adding a climate-focused position.
“I think he will govern like [Bill] Clinton in terms of consensus-building, but he will be surrounded by a lot of Obama people,” said former New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, who served in the Clinton administration as energy secretary and ambassador to the U.N. “I believe he will have a free reign for six months, and then if there isn’t major, positive change, you know, the fractures in the party will start showing.”
The health and economic wreckage from the pandemic has changed Biden’s outlook on the presidency and his preparations for a potential administration. Seeing the immediate, post-Trump era in more transformational terms than he did before, he has adopted a more expansive legislative agenda, including more robust college affordability, bankruptcy and Social Security plans. He has significantly expanded his proposal to address climate change, proposing to spend $2 trillion over four years on a suite of programs.
Biden’s advisers are preparing for the opening months of his administration almost as a rescue mission, with contingencies to address the coronavirus based on how severe it remains and on whether a vaccine is available.
“Between Covid-19, what Trump’s done and the economy, this is going to be a totally different transition because of that. It’s just going to be very, very difficult," Kaufman said.
However, he added, “When [Biden] shows up on the first day, he’s not going to need to be told where the Situation Room is. He’s been in the Situation Room for hundreds of hours. So he’s going to come in as … the most experienced and qualified person in terms of federal experience of anybody in the history of the country.”
The prospects of Biden’s legislative agenda would rest heavily on whether Democrats win the Senate. Just as Biden is preparing to populate the executive branch, he is laying groundwork to move legislation. Biden speaks with Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and their staffs are in regular contact.
Last month, Biden signaled an openness to ending the 60-vote filibuster rule, a practice President Barack Obama recently called a “Jim Crow relic.”
“The filibuster is gone,” said Harry Reid, the influential former Senate majority leader and a friend of Biden. “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when it’s going to go … Next year at this time, it will be gone.”
When asked what changed Biden’s thinking about the filibuster, Reid said, “I don’t know. I talked to him and Ricchetti about it. Maybe that helped a little bit. I think, just basically, pragmatism — if he’s going to get anything done as president, [the filibuster] has got to go.”
Biden campaign advisers say he considers his “Build Back Better” agenda a package that can get broad buy-in, not a legislative starting point. Jake Sullivan, a former top State Department official and a senior adviser to Biden, said that as he formulates his legislative agenda, Biden is “being attentive to how you construct a bold, integrated agenda that can also attract a big tent coalition of support.”
And Stef Feldman, the Biden campaign’s policy director, said that in addition to Biden's legislative experience, he "also knows how to move the levers of government in the executive branch.”
Brown, who would likely become chairman of the Senate banking committee if Democrats win the Senate, said it is not Biden "moving to the left," but "Biden, and all of us around him, recognizing this is going to be a very consequential presidency."
The fear among some progressives is that Biden’s relationships and penchant for compromise may serve to water down the Democratic agenda. Larry Cohen, the former Communications Workers of America president who now chairs the Bernie Sanders-aligned group Our Revolution, said the inclusion of progressives on Biden’s transition team is “the reason I’m hopeful” about a Biden administration.
Invoking Biden’s frequent references to FDR, Robert Reich, the Clinton-era Labor secretary, recalled that Roosevelt initially “was certainly not thought of as somebody on the left.” At first, he placed trust in the nation’s financial institutions, pursuing a working relationship with both populists and business interests early in his administration.
It was only after businesses balked and the relationship deteriorated that Roosevelt changed course.
Then and now, Reich sad, “America was ready and willing and eager to try almost anything.”
“The country will get behind Joe Biden, I think, in very powerful and important ways,” Reich said, adding that Biden has the opportunity to be “a transformative president … It’s almost entirely a function of the times.”