The Current Biden Cabinet Raises Questions

December 10, 2020



By: Adam Beddawi, Policy Analyst
December 11, 2020

W E ARE IN THE TRANSITIONAL PHASE of the American political life-cycle, marking the sunset of the Trump administration and the dawn of a new governing regime.

Given the significance of this moment, the diverse array of interest groups who secured the commitment of 80 million plus voters are playing close attention to the cabinet selections of the incoming Biden administration.

If Parties reflect the interests of their voting majorities, then one may expect the Biden cabinet to reflect the interests of the progressive machine in Georgia that flipped the Peach State, or of the diverse coalitions who pushed the Democratic Party over the edge in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. More often than not, however, cabinet appointments reveal the strategic partnerships that bridge government agencies to civilian firms or institutions, lending both logistic, material, and political support. These lobbyists, technology companies, financial firms, and other such groups constitute the broader party infrastructure.

Biden’s cabinet choices, then, reflect the contradictions at the core of the contemporary Democratic Party. On the one hand, the Democratic Party campaigned and messaged as the center-left party their voters take them to be. For instance, Biden took great pains to distance his campaign from lobbyists in the D.C. milieu, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer promised a “Rooseveltian” piece of COVID-19 response legislation, and, when stimulus talks had stalled, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi claimed responsibility for those hit hardest by the resultant economic crises.

On the other hand, many cabinet appointees represent interest groups opposed to marginalized people. One of the Biden transition team’s earliest choices was former Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen to serve as Treasury Secretary. While Yellen was one of the figures most closely associated with the “quantitative easing” strategy that precipitated the Great Recession, she has also signaled a willingness to use fiscal spending measures to stimulate economic recovery. The working and middle-class fractions of the American Muslim community were among those hit hardest by the Great Recession. As such, they would be interested in knowing that Brian Deese was appointed to lead Biden’s National Economic Council. Deese was the architect of several Obama-era deregulatory initiatives before becoming the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock, a Wall Street that manages $7 trillion in assets. Both Yellen and Deese have the benefit of hindsight and the burden of a seismic economic collapse to consider — in a context of social unrest, no less.

NAACP President Derrick Johnson and Working Families Party national director Maurice Mitchell both criticized the cabinet selections for lacking people with “energy for racial justice” or who would “fight for working people”. The 33% of American Muslims who live at or below the poverty line are surely well-represented among the rising numbers of people impoverished by the coronavirus-related economic collapse. In order to address their very real concerns of human insecurity -- evictions, small-business closures, precarious employment, or job losses, etc -- they will need the Biden administration to take the opposite approach to economic recovery than that of the Obama administration.

Many of Biden’s cabinet selections undermine the Democratic Party’s gestures to working-class people and small business owners. Of course, the gestures may still amount to something. Whether they do is a political question. Through contestations of power and influence between the Democratic Party and the community-based organizations fighting for the interests of their constituent communities, this contradiction can be resolved. For the Democratic Party, there is a lot riding on these fights. Millions of dollars are at stake for the industrial titans to which they are beholden, just as millions of livelihoods are at stake among the voting coalitions to whom they are responsible.

Ironically, one area of dispute between the Party and community reveals a deeper consensus between them. Biden’s selection of Lloyd Austin to lead the Department of Defense Secretary sparked a clash between the administration and progressive groups who supported Michèle Flournoy. Between Fluornoy and Austin, two different historical precedents would be shattered, though both represent corporate and military ties that belie progressive policy goals.

While diversity signals a transcendence of the historical barriers to entry at elite positions, diversity as an end-in-itself is a limited political goal.

Racial, gendered, or ethnic affinity does not guarantee consensus around the policy platform priorities of the Democratic Party’s working class constituents, the majority of whom are demographic minorities. In fact, a better determinant of policy consensus are the aforementioned strategic partnerships. The Democratic Party is juggling a contradictory entanglement of interests and strategic partnerships. Some exist between those in elite institutions that toe a corporatist line, and others in civic and social institutions that stand with the majority of Democratic voters. Ultimately, whether the Democrats resolve these contradictions in favor of their voters will decide their success over the next four years. After all, it was the failure of the Obama administration to do just that which opened up the floodgates for a populist candidate like Donald Trump.


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