Joe Biden’s initial cabinet picks should come as a surprise to no one. They are almost entirely people he worked with in the administration of Barack Obama, and that administration was staffed overwhelmingly with centrists who were the epitome of Washington insiders. Most left their government positions and entered private sector think tanks and lobbying firms which generally advocated against policies most would consider progressive.
What should concern progressives is the way Biden characterizes his cabinet. When NBC’s Lester Holt asked the president-elect if he would consider adding a Trump supporter to his cabinet, Biden said he would yet, when asked if he was considering Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, he said ““we already have significant representation of progressives in our administration.”
If Biden considers the likes of Tony Blinken, Jake Sullivan, Avril Haines, and John Kerry progressive, we should be very worried about what he is calling his own “progressive agenda.”
The concerns don’t stop there. Rep. Jim Clyburn, the powerful South Carolina Democrat who was enormously influential in turning many Black Democratic voters away from Bernie Sanders both in 2016 and 2020 is now voicing concerns about the number of Black nominees Biden has tapped for his new cabinet.
“From all I hear, Black people have been given fair consideration,” Clyburn said. “But there is only one Black woman so far. I want to see where the process leads to, what it produces. But so far it’s not good.”
Biden is who we thought he was. He deceived no one. He ran on a promise of getting things “back to normal” after the madness of Donald Trump. That’s just what he’s doing. Many of us, certainly among progressives, argued that “normal” was not desirable. “Normal” before Trump was an increasingly polarized, oligarchical country with an obscene and growing gap between the wealthy and the poor. A country where even the middle class has to work longer and longer hours for relatively meager rewards, and where racism, misogyny, transphobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, and other forms of hate were boiling barely below the surface waiting for a demagogue to tap into them.
In short, “normal” was what brought us Trump, and that is what Biden explicitly and repeatedly promised to bring us back to.
That’s what Democrats voted for when Biden won the nomination, and that’s what we’re getting. I find it odd that this would bring any complaints from centrists.
Yet here’s Clyburn, and he is concerned about the number of Black people in the cabinet. I share his concern.
But is it simply a numbers game? Is that what matters? Don’t we want more people from marginalized communities in office because they will address the needs of those communities? Ultimately, isn’t that the point?
But Clyburn doesn’t seem to care about the policy. If he did, he would have at least shown some support for the ideas of Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or Julian Castro in the primaries, even if the nonsensical “electability” argument prompted him to support Biden over them. Instead, he backed the Democratic establishment.
Would Clyburn be satisfied with the appointment of a Ben Carson to some post? Would he be satisfied with Daniel Cameron as Attorney General? Or Sen. Tim Scott as Secretary of the Interior? I assume not, but his only concern seems to be with identity representation, not people whose views are focused on helping marginalized communities rather than big industries and wealthy donors.
Progressives need representation in the Biden administration in a much more significant way. The election was powered in large measure by progressive energy, and by activists who bit the bullet, knowing that Biden was hostile to the progressive wing of the party, but worked hard to get him elected anyway. The enormous number of votes for Trump, more than any other candidate in history except for Biden, is powerful evidence that the notion of disaffected Republicans swaying this election is a myth.
That, in turn, implies that Democratic leaders are motivated more by ideology than electoral politics in their antagonism toward progressives within their own party. Jim Clyburn is, unfortunately, emblematic of such centrist Democrats.
But here’s the good news: politics is about a lot more than the names of the people in the office. Whatever the track records of Biden and his team may be, they are political creatures. Over the past few years, progressives have worked the political system better than we have in decades, and we are starting to come out of the shadow cast over “liberals” in the 1980s, when the word become a four-letter one in politics.
While the people in the offices are not from our “side” of the party, they are mostly (with one or two exceptions) people who recognize the growing majority in the party that is leaning more and more left. They recognize that, while Democrats nominated Biden, they also repeatedly said that they support progressive policies. The Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and cancelling student loan debt all enjoy clear majority support.
Clyburn’s concerns are legitimate and important, but they don’t go far enough. Merely being from a marginalized community doesn’t mean your agenda is driven by the concerns of that community, or even that you necessarily understand those concerns. We need Black, Brown, women, LGBTQIA, Muslim, Jewish, all sorts of people in government to address the needs of a diverse nation.
But just looking diverse isn’t enough. That diversity must include progressive actors, and Biden doesn’t seem interested in including such people. That should surprise no one. But it should also stop no one. Progressives have the power to influence the new administration no matter who Biden staffs it with. Whether he does the right thing in terms of political and ideological diversity, we will still be able to have that impact, and we must not allow ourselves to be discouraged by Biden’s determination to revert back to the sort of administration that brought us Donald Trump in the first place.