President Joe Biden has embraced the progressive left to fill many corners of his domestic policymaking machine. When it comes to global affairs, he’s pure establishment.
The president’s roster of foreign policy advisers has satiated Democrats’ craving for a return to normalcy on the world stage after the turbulent Trump years, helping strengthen trans-Atlantic partnerships that were often undermined by the former president. That means a long line of Biden nominees — ambassadors and State Department officials alike — who are fixtures of the Washington foreign-policy firmament.
And it creates an ironic contrast with Biden's domestic nominees, emblematic of a president embracing progressive outsiders, even in the face of opposition from some in his own party. Senate Republicans have greeted those domestic picks with intense scorn, occasionally forcing Majority Leader Chuck Schumer to run through procedural hoops simply to discharge nominations to the floor, but Biden's foreign-policy choices have faced a different kind of opposition.
Individual GOP senators are trying to slow-walk a slew of nominees for ambassadorships and top State Department posts, but not largely based on the ideologies of a list of stocked with players from the Obama administration and academia. The Republican blockade of Biden’s foreign policy picks stems from bigger policy disputes with his administration, and the few who have achieved confirmation fit a similar establishment profile.
“These are a wide range of backgrounds, but skilled, experienced, seasoned, capable, competent nominees or ambassadors,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview at the recent Halifax International Security Forum.
At that conference, Coons met with U.S. allies he said were impressed with Biden’s picks but wanted to see more of them confirmed by the Senate. Many of the diplomatic and national-security nominees Biden has sent to the upper chamber hail from the D.C. foreign-policy circuit — often referred to as the “Blob” — or other exclusive Democratic circles. Some also worked with Biden during his time as Senate Foreign Relations Committee chair, while others served closely with him when he was vice president
“He feels a high degree of comfort himself on foreign policy and national security decisions. And so it doesn’t surprise me that he would bring people in who have been part of his own journey as a public servant,” Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.), another ally of the president, said in a brief interview in Halifax.
The list begins with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Biden’s top aide during his time as Foreign Relations chair. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman already spent four years at the upper echelons of the department, serving as political affairs chief under Obama. Julianne Smith, whom the Senate recently confirmed as U.S. ambassador to NATO, served as Biden’s deputy national security adviser when he was vice president and previously led NATO policy at the Pentagon.
It wasn’t a given that Biden would stick to the establishment lane for his foreign policy advisers. He has taken heat from the left throughout his career for his positions on overseas affairs, most notably his support for the Iraq war that began under former President George W. Bush. And Biden is teaming up with progressives this Congress on their long-standing push to repeal or replace outdated authorizations for the use of military force that undergirded the so-called “war on terror.”
But while liberal wonks like Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan and Justice Department antitrust chief Jonathan Kanter have elated liberals and even received modest GOP support, Biden's foreign-policy picks haven't stretched left. Matt Duss, Sen. Bernie Sanders’ (I-Vt.) longtime foreign policy adviser, was reportedly under consideration for a top State Department job, but ultimately remained on Capitol Hill. Duss had amplified criticisms of some Biden foreign-policy decisions on social media.
But Biden has elated progressives with some of his major foreign-policy decisions, including the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and his endorsement of scaling back sprawling presidential war powers.
The White House did not immediately comment for this story.
Some progressives were also unhappy with Biden’s decision to nominate former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel as U.S. ambassador to Japan. But their opposition centered on his handling of civil-rights issues as mayor, rather than concerns about his qualifications for the post in Tokyo.
Beyond Khan and Kanter, Biden tapped two high-profile former House progressives for his cabinet — Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra — and named two prominent liberal women of color, Vanita Gupta and Kristen Clarke, to senior Justice Department posts. They got through despite near-unanimous opposition from the GOP that could have doomed their chances in a 50-50 Senate.
“What America has seen with Joe Biden’s policies is the biggest political bait and switch that we’ve ever seen,” said Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.). “He ran as a moderate, he was going to be a unifier, and he’s moved even further than the progressive left might have ever dreamed that he would move.”
Hagerty, who served as the U.S. ambassador to Japan under Trump, is enthusiastically backing Emanuel’s nomination to the same post. He still drew a stark line between his own career in business as well as state government and "the profile of the government official and academia and the foreign policy establishment” that has dominated Biden's administration.
While Biden’s foreign-policy nominees are falling victim to opposition mostly unrelated to their personal experience, several of his picks on the domestic side have proven too liberal for centrist Democrats to accept. That includes Neera Tanden, whose nomination to be Biden’s budget chief was pulled, and, more recently, Saule Omarova, the banking regulator nominee, whom five Democrats plan to oppose. Biden was also forced to withdraw his nominee to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, David Chipman, who was a prominent gun-control activist.
Vice President Kamala Harris has voted to break Senate ties on ten nomination votes, all but one of which were for domestic-policy positions.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) has blocked swift action on dozens of diplomatic nominees over his opposition to the Biden administration’s decision to waive sanctions on the Russia-to-Germany natural gas pipeline known as Nord Stream 2. His moves have angered not only Democrats and the Biden administration, but also European allies and even some fellow Republicans. Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) has done the same for certain national-security nominees, stemming from his objections to how the Biden administration withdrew the U.S. from Afghanistan.
“To not have an ambassador weakens our ability to solve problems and speak on behalf of the United States to address issues,” Coons said of the impasse.
Cruz, for his part, has shown some signs of relenting — offering to lift some of his holds in exchange for votes related to Nord Stream 2 sanctions.
But more than 50 of Biden’s mostly establishment foreign-policy nominations remain stalled on the Senate floor, and Democrats are pushing Schumer to carve out valuable floor time before the end of the year to confirm as many of them as possible.
“My hope is we’re going to work some nights and weekends between now and the end of the year,” said Kaine. “We’re going to have to work some non-standard hours to do it. I hope we’ll be willing to.”