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Despite push from progressives, Biden unlikely to offer Sanders and Warren jobs

Biden's first Cabinet picks are longtime members of the Establishment, not the party’s liberal wing.

Updated: November 27, 2020 - 8:34am

The Facts Inside Our Reporter’s Notebook

As a federal agency opened the door to the transition process, Joe Biden has moved swiftly to name a half dozen officials who would join the Cabinet and top-level administration jobs if he is sworn in as president on Jan. 20.

But notably missing from the list so far were popular progressives, like Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
And don't look for them to join up any time soon.

“We already have significant representation among progressives in our administration," Biden said on Tuesday in an NBC News interview. "There's nothing really off the table. But there's something critical: Taking someone out of the Senate, taking someone out of the House, particularly a person of consequence, is really a difficult decision that would have to be made."

So that's just where they'll stay: the Senate. "I have a very ambitious, very progressive agenda. And it’s gonna' take really strong leaders in the House and Senate to get it done.”

Although progressives made up a hefty portion of supporters for Biden, he so far has fed them little. His first Cabinet picks -- such as Antony Blinken, a veteran foreign policy adviser, for Secretary of State; Ron Klain for chief of staff; former Sen. John Kerry for international climate czar; and former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen for Treasury Secretary -- are longtime Establishment figures.

Warren, meanwhile, was progressives' choice to head up Treasury because she has spent much of her career battling big banks and Wall Street. 

"It's safe to say that Elizabeth Warren has definitely earned the trust and the ear of Joe Biden, and will surely have an influential role in agenda setting going forward whether it's being a very powerful senator or a more formal role in his administration," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. "No matter what, she'll be powerful when it comes to agenda setting for the Democratic Party."

And Sanders, who identifies as a democratic socialist, last week expressed his desire to serve as Biden's Labor secretary on Thursday, saying he had the expertise "to focus on the many crises facing working families in this country."

Politico recently floated a theory on Biden's initial picks. "The former vice president has chosen people for top positions who haven’t sparked bitter or protracted fights with the left — without giving progressives any major wins," the political website said. "None of Biden’s nods have been wildly off the mark to the left flank of the Democratic Party. And the president-elect has also selected leaders who, despite being moderate, have spent time building relationships with progressives."

But while Biden said "we still have a lot more appointments to make," progressives right now don't appear too happy.

One appointment, Alejandro Mayorkas to head Homeland Security -- the first Latino to potentially lead the department -- raised eyebrow.

"Biden and Mr. Mayorkas were part of the team that unfortunately oversaw millions of deportations," said Greisa Martinez Rosas, executive director of United We Dream, a progressive immigrant rights groups. "And we see our role as holding everyone accountable to ensure that does not happen again."

David Sirota, a former speechwriter for Sanders, expressed his displeasure in no uncertain terms. "I don’t want to exaggerate. John Kerry’s fine. [But] this need to pretend that these milquetoast nominees with mixed records are great progressive heroes is pretty pathetic," he told Politico. "What I think we need right now are advocacy groups and activists and journalists to just be honest about who these nominees are."

Sanders himself has pressed Biden to make progressives a big part of his administration.

"It seems to me pretty clear that progressive views need to be expressed within a Biden administration," Sanders told The Associated Press. "It would be, for example, enormously insulting if Biden put together a 'team of rivals' — and there's some discussion that that's what he intends to do, which might include Republicans and conservative Democrats — but which ignored the progressive community. I think that would be very, very unfortunate."

Biden may also be picking moderates that have appeal to both parties because both the House and the Senate will be split nearly 50-50. The former vice president said as much when he hinted last week that he had picked his Treasury Department nominee, saying it would be "someone who will be accepted by all elements of the Democratic party, moderates and progressives" -- and perhaps even moderate Republicans.

Progressives have also been voicing their opposition to several potential Biden picks, including former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and "deficit hawk" Bruce Reed in top spots such as Transportation secretary and the head of the Office of Management and Budget," Politico reported.

Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said it was “shameful” and “concerning” that Emanuel was even being considered for any administration post.

“What is so hard to understand about this? Rahm Emanuel helped cover up the murder of Laquan McDonald. Covering up a murder is disqualifying for public leadership,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted, referring to the 2014 police shooting of McDonald, an African American teenager.

Meanwhile, former presidential candidate Tom Steyer, in a statement provided by Biden's team, sought to allay fears about Reed. "He's a climate champion who will fully support the Biden clean energy plan, and anyone who thinks he will put budget deficits over the needs of working families struggling to make ends meet during a pandemic simply doesn't know Bruce."

"Progressives also oppose Mike Morell, who has defended drone strikes, for CIA director and BlackRock managing director Brian Deese for the National Economic Council. Jennifer Epps-Addison, president of the left-wing Center for Popular Democracy, which endorsed Sanders in the primary, said the appointments of Deese or Reed would 'feel like a bridge really far away from bringing these different factions within the party together,'" Politico wrote.

But so far, progressives seem satisfied. 

In a Daily Beast piece headlined, "Progressives Can’t Find Anyone in Biden's Cabinet to Be Mad About—Yet," the liberal website said "the Democratic Party’s left wing publicly applauded the move."

"The Biden team made a really genuine effort to reach out to the left on a whole range of issues, including on foreign policy," Matt Duss, who serves as foreign policy adviser to Sanders, told The Beast. "They understood this helped them to win and now I think they understand that it can help them govern."

"[T]he fact that the future president has curated a slate of names that, so far, have not incited or alienated the left is considered a positive development among those who often eagerly convey grievances about Democratic officials’ policy positions and personal biographies alike."