WILMINGTON, Del. – President-elect Joe Biden is rapidly assembling a team of Washington hands with deep experience, projecting an image of cohesion in contrast to the savage infighting often at play around President Donald Trump.
But below the surface of his tightly scripted events, tensions simmer as factions within Biden’s decades-old orbit jockey for jobs and outside figures grow increasingly vocal in questioning some of the early choices for top positions within the administration.
Though the conflicts don’t break neatly along ideological lines, they underscore a broader challenge certain to become a defining theme of the next four years: whether the former vice president, a centrist, can bridge the divide with liberals and a younger generation of aides who got their start under President Barack Obama.
Self-described "progressives," including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have questioned centrist Democrats and longtime Biden allies whose names have been floated for jobs. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking Black lawmaker, who played a pivotal role in helping the president-elect cement his path to victory, said he was disappointed more Black candidates hadn't been selected for the Cabinet.
Derrick Johnson, head of the NAACP, noted that civil rights leaders have yet to meet with Biden to discuss appointments or the Georgia Senate runoff elections Jan. 5 that will determine control of the chamber and Biden's agenda.
"Civil rights leaders in this country should be on par, if not more, than other constituency groups he has met with," Johnson said, expecting that the historic advocacy group and others would receive that invitation soon.
'The establishment candidate won'
At the center of the anxiety, several Democrats said, is who is line for which jobs and how transition officials are making those decisions. A half-dozen Democrats spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the president-elect they support. Some are former Obama aides. Others work on Capitol Hill. Some hope to land jobs with the new administration and others will not.
“The establishment candidate won, and now the entire establishment is queuing up for all the plum jobs,” one Democrat said, and tension is exacerbated because many aren’t sure where they stand with the new administration. “It is genuinely hard to tell what is putting some over others.”
All presidential transitions face upheaval and jockeying from inside and outside forces, particularly when the incoming party has been out of power. Many of the Democrats who spoke to USA TODAY about internal tension acknowledged it is not vastly different from what Obama dealt with in 2009.
T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for the Biden transition, said the president-elect is assembling an administration to "unite the country," which includes a broad and diverse range of candidates. Ducklo didn't directly address the tensions, some of which have been on public display.
"As the president-elect often says, the Biden administration will look like America, and the process unfolding now includes input from leaders and organizations that are critical to creating a government that can effectively serve the American people in a time of unprecedented crisis," he said.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, said the Biden team was casting a wide net to seek a diverse pool of candidates.
"I would say they are much more open to getting names from people than I saw in the Obama administration," she said. "The Obama transition had a very small group that they were very close to and that's who they worked with. The Biden team is very disciplined and they've entertained and asked for people to give them lots of different names."
A 'normal' transition
Biden, who ran for president in part on a promise to return a sense of “normalcy” to the White House, has ushered in the kind of transition Americans came to expect before 2016. He has managed to do so even as Trump has used his bully pulpit on a daily basis to level claims of fraud in the Nov. 3 election, unsupported by evidence.
Standing in a historic theater in his home state, Biden formally introduced his six-person economic team Tuesday – a series of appointments that highlighted the balancing act he faces as he seeks to keep the stakes up in a big tent party.
His nominee for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, was Obama’s pick to chair the Federal Reserve and won praise from liberals, moderates and even Trump's former economic adviser, Gary Cohn. She would be the first woman to head the department. Wally Adeyemo, another former Obama senior aide, would become the first Black person to serve as deputy secretary of Treasury, assuming he wins Senate confirmation.
Biden’s team included longtime and loyal allies: Jared Bernstein served as chief economist to Biden when he was vice president and will be a member of his Council of Economic Advisers. Same for Heather Boushey, a left-leaning economist and longtime Biden adviser who has focused on the problem of economic inequality.
"This team is tested and experienced," Biden said. "It includes groundbreaking Americans who come from different backgrounds but share my core economic vision."
His picks haven’t come free of controversy from outside observers, or from within. Some of those concerns have been raised publicly.
Biden’s choice of former Hillary Clinton aide Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget has drawn fire from liberals and conservatives. Much of that blowback is rooted in bad blood between Tanden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "Everything toxic about the corporate Democratic Party is embodied in Neera Tanden," Briahna Joy Gray, a former press secretary for Sanders, tweeted this week.
The Democratic rivalries and political maneuvering, however, are still a marked departure from the chaos, backbiting and media leaks that defined Trump's transition to power four years ago. A few days after the election, Trump dropped his transition chairman, former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, replacing him with then-Vice President-elect Mike Pence. Constant staff shake-ups and infighting between those loyal to Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and those who backed former aide Steve Bannon would feature as a theme throughout the Trump presidency.
In the weeks before Inauguration Day, Biden has used polished events focused on policy themes to announce his aides and reinforce his messaging, often without taking questions. During the same period in 2016, Trump paraded a pageant of Republican stalwarts, campaign donors and associates through the lobby of Trump Tower as he mulled his picks and kept the country in suspense from his high-rise perch in Manhattan.
"I am the only one who knows who the finalists are!" the former reality television star tweeted in November 2016 of his Cabinet decisions.
Cabinet 'looks like America'
Some have raised concerns about whether Biden is fulfilling his campaign promise to build a team that "looks like America." He has named several people of color to top jobs, including Symone Sanders, who will be a senior aide to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., who will be a senior adviser to Biden. Three of nine top White House jobs Biden announced last month will be filled by Latinos.
This week's appointments addressed some of the concerns voiced by Clyburn, whose endorsement before the South Carolina Democratic primary in February was key to Biden's success. Clyburn told The Hill newspaper last week that he was disappointed Biden did not feature more Black candidates in his Cabinet.
Biden officials stressed that about half of the Cabinet positions announced have gone to people of color, including Alejandro Mayorkas, who was chosen to lead the Department of Homeland Security, and Linda Thomas-Greenfield, nominated to serve as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
By comparison, President Bill Clinton in his first term and Obama in his second term each appointed four Black Cabinet members, according to the Pew Research Center. Of the 24 senior White House positions Biden has named, five are Black, one is Arab American and five are Latino. Trump appointed one Black member of his Cabinet, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson, and no Hispanics.
Like Obama – who had to bring together former aides to President Clinton with a younger generation of Democrats who had fueled Obama's upstart campaign – Biden must meld a network of allies he has developed over five decades in public service with former Obama aides, as well as a new generation that has gravitated to figures such as Sanders and former South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg.
Those marriages haven’t always been perfect matches.
Some Democrats speaking to USA TODAY described tensions between former Obama aides and longtime Biden officials. Others described frustration building between aides who worked on the campaign from its start and those who came on board after the Democratic primaries. There is uncertainty about whether Biden is committed to promoting diversity in the highest ranks of his White House.
Some of the resentment, Democrats said, lingers from the Obama administration. Some aides to the former president acknowledged Biden wasn’t always embraced inside the White House. Ben Rhodes, Obama’s former deputy national security adviser, summed it up when he described Biden as an "unguided missile" in his 2018 memoir.
"The animosity between ex-Obama people and the Biden people is so obvious to me because they're holding us responsible for how we treated Biden,” a former Obama administration official said on condition of anonymity. “And they treated him pretty crappy. I will say that."
Obama aides have pushed back for years against the narrative that the two men didn't get along and described a close relationship that strengthened over time.
A former Obama administration official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the transition process said the relationships Biden fostered across generations of government are more important than ever, considering the coronavirus crisis and the economic fallout that will confront him on day one. It makes sense, the person said, for Biden to turn first to the people he knows for top jobs.
"There’s nobody who knows the way Washington works more than Joe Biden and so it would be silly not to call on those relationships, given what the country is facing right now," the former official said. "Whether those date back to his time in the Senate or his time as vice president, you know, there’s too much riding on this moment not to summon people with the right expertise."
Biden campaigned on the promise that he would serve as a "bridge" to a new generation of Democrats, but some in the far-left faction of the party have signaled discontent over the potential return of Biden's veteran operatives.
Last week, Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., threw their support behind a petition to block former Biden chief of staff Bruce Reed from leading the Office of Management and Budget. The petition, sponsored by the Justice Democrats, described Reed as a "deficit hawk" who supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare as the head of the Bowles-Simpson fiscal commission under Obama.
The Bowles-Simpson commission, created in 2010, recommended reductions to safety net programs – as well as tax increases – to reduce budget deficits. Its recommendations, rejected by Congress, were criticized from the right and the left, though centrists viewed it as a balanced approach to righting the nation's fiscal woes.
"Rejecting Reed will be a major test for the soul of the Biden presidency," the petition read.
Instead, Biden nominated Tanden for the job Tuesday.
Not all of the jockeying around Biden is tied to political ideology.
One former Obama administration official who has contemplated working for the Biden administration and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters acknowledged there is tension over jobs, particularly among political operatives, if not the top-level policy aides.
Though some of that entails aides who worked for Obama and weren’t as close to Biden, it also involves “multiple lanes and crosscurrents” of staffers from other Democratic presidential campaigns who signed on with Biden after the primaries. In other cases, the person said, there is jockeying between people who served in the Obama-Biden administration in top roles and those who are new to Washington.
“Biden wants people who are loyal, experienced,” the person said. “For super-fast climbers who want to jump the line, this is not going to be satisfying.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden transition runs into tension over diversity, ideology in Cabinet