Welcoming the Old Guard

Alexandra DeSanctis
·6 min read

After a primary campaign riven by debates over radical policies championed by progressive factions within the Democratic Party — and indeed a general election that saw many incumbent Democrats threatened or defeated because of voters’ uneasiness with progressivism — the incoming administration and Congress appear to be gearing up for four years of fairly standard left-wing fare.

Last week, Representative Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) was handily reelected speaker of the House by her fellow Democrats. Although she’ll have to face a full House vote when the next Congress convenes in January, it seems she’s more than primed to retain her position. Unlike in 2018, Pelosi didn’t face a challenge from a progressive candidate dissatisfied with the long-time congresswoman’s liberal bona fides. Even Democrats unhappy with Pelosi’s leadership — who have, at times, openly contested her priorities and decisions — went out with hardly a whimper.

The only congressional casualty among establishment Democrats was Senator Dianne Feinstein, who, after facing harsh criticism from the Left for being too friendly with Republicans and not hard enough on Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, has stepped down as top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee.

The incoming presidential administration, meanwhile, thus far looks as if it will be a rehash of the cabinet we witnessed during eight years of the Obama-Biden administration. The former vice president managed to drag himself across the finish line in this year’s election with the help of a not-insignificant amount of support from the former president. Now he seems prepared to surround himself with familiar faces.

Biden has announced Antony Blinken as his pick for secretary of state. Blinken has been with Biden for a long time: He served as a top aide back when Biden was in the Senate. When Biden became senior Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Blinken worked for him as staff director.

During the Obama administration, Blinken went on to serve as Biden’s national-security adviser and in 2014 was selected deputy secretary of state. In other words, he’s been around a while — and he and cabinet picks like him are a far cry from what progressives want to see from the president-elect.

Two top progressive groups, Justice Democrats and the environmental-activist Sunrise Movement, earlier this month unveiled a wish list for how they want Biden to fill more than a dozen cabinet positions. For secretary of state, they suggested Representative Barbara Lee (D., Calif.), about as different from Blinken as any pick could get. And Blinken isn’t the only former Obama staffer getting a nod from the incoming administration. To helm the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, Biden has picked Alejandro Mayorkas, who worked on the transition when Obama was first elected and later served in several administrative roles, including deputy secretary of DHS.

Considering some of the other names Biden’s team has released as potential nominees, progressives seem primed for disappointment after disappointment. For one thing, progressive elements in the party want to see candidates who failed to defeat Biden during the 2020 Democratic primary installed in the cabinet. Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren is their pick for Treasury secretary, and Vermont senator Bernie Sanders to head the Department of Labor. One of those pipe dreams, at least, is dead, as Biden reportedly has selected former Federal Reserve head Janet Yellen for the role.

Indeed, Biden’s decision to place Yellen at Treasury underscores that while progressive firebrands such as Warren and Sanders have been rumored contenders for top spots, Biden himself seems disinclined to go in a more progressive direction — although he’s positioning his reluctance as a desire not to remove Democrats from the Senate. “Taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House, particularly a person of consequence, is a really difficult decision that would have to be made,” Biden said in a recent NBC interview.

For head of the Department of Health and Human Services, Biden is considering New Mexico governor Michelle Lujan Grisham. Progressives prefer two-term congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, a left-wing Democrat and former activist who was arrested in 2018 after participating in a sit-in at a Senate office building in protest of the Trump administration’s immigration policy.

Biden reportedly is still mulling over a few contenders for attorney general, including Alabama Democratic senator Doug Jones, who was defeated in his reelection race this cycle by Republican Tommy Tuberville; California attorney general Xavier Becerra; former deputy attorney general Sally Yates; and Obama’s 2016 Supreme Court nominee Judge Merrick Garland. Progressives are angling for Minnesota attorney general Keith Ellison, a progressive former congressman who lost his 2017 bid to lead the Democratic National Committee.

The progressive wish list lobbies for hard-left congresswoman Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.) to head the Department of Housing and Urban Development. Instead, Biden is considering several slightly more moderate options, including two women he vetted to be his running mate: Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms and California congresswoman Karen Bass.

And it’s not just activists gearing up to resist Biden as he falls back on establishment favorites. Far-left Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar have signed on to a petition urging Biden not to nominate Bruce Reed, his former chief of staff, to helm the Office of Management and Budget. The petition labels Reed a “deficit hawk” and slams him for having supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare.

According to Axios, Omar said she is “proud to join Justice Democrats and our progressive coalition in saying no to deficit hawks.” The petition, along with such noises from Omar and Ocasio-Cortez, might be seen as a reaction to early disappointments — progressives attempting to signal to the new administration that Biden will face blowback if he continues filling his cabinet with picks like the ones he’s released thus far.

Up and down the list, Biden seems unwilling to cater to the most radical progressive priorities, at least when it comes to how he staffs his administration. As Evan Halper put it in the Los Angeles Times, Biden is selecting “a Goldilocks Cabinet, neither too left or right.” His rationale makes sense. Though he often failed to resist the progressive elements of his party and drifted to the left on several key issues during the campaign, he has pledged to govern as a moderate. Filling his cabinet with faces from the last administration is one way to at least give the impression that he’s doing just that.

Meanwhile, most of his nominees will have to be confirmed by the Senate. Even if Democrats manage to win one of the Senate runoff races in Georgia, the upper chamber will be closely divided, and Biden will need the support of a few Republicans to get slots filled. That reasoning will give him cover to reject the demands of progressives, who should steel themselves for more of the same.

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