Progressives frustrated with representation as Biden Cabinet takes shape

Some progressives are getting increasingly frustrated with the how President-elect Joe Biden’s potential Cabinet is shaping up, venting that the incoming administration does not properly reflect the role progressives played helping Biden get to the White House.

Liberal groups and lawmakers bristled at Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-Ohio) getting passed over for Agriculture secretary in favor of Tom Vilsack, who held the role in the Obama administration. And there is growing concern the Biden team will pass over Rep. Deb Haaland (D-N.M.), a progressive favorite, for Interior secretary.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) this week took issue with some of the Cabinet picks and urged Biden to include more progressives in his remaining selections.

Biden’s Cabinet picks so far have mostly consisted of establishment figures and longtime allies such as Tony Blinken for secretary of State, Janet Yellen for Treasury secretary, Denis McDonough for secretary of Veterans Affairs and ex-Hillary Clinton adviser Neera Tanden for the Office of Management and Budget.

While the choices have largely succeeded in not upsetting the Democratic base, there is bubbling skepticism among progressive groups that Biden will commit to including picks for top Cabinet positions that will represent their views.

“I think the Biden people have been a little bit less concerned about satisfying progressives. I think they’re a little more concerned about not alienating progressives,” said one Democratic strategist close to the transition.

Sanders told Axios earlier this week that he felt Biden would not have won the White House without the backing of the progressive movement, which deserved “important seats” in the administration.

“Have I seen that at this point? I have not,” he said.

Ocasio-Cortez told reporters on Wednesday that she worried there was no cohesive vision from the Biden Cabinet thus far, noting some of the picks have been more conservative than others.

The Biden team has defended its choices, arguing that the Cabinet is the most diverse in history and will be ready to tackle a whirlwind of crises upon taking office.

“The team that we’ve put together has been a combination of experienced, crisis-tested leaders, many of whom have served in government previously, which the president-elect and vice president-elect see as invaluable at this time,” Jen Psaki, the soon-to-be White House press secretary, told reporters in a briefing Friday.

Some liberal Democrats have also come to the transition’s defense, noting there are still a handful of Cabinet positions left to fill. They have also pointed out that Biden campaigned as a more moderate Democrat who would seek to bridge the political divide exacerbated in recent years.

Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), the Congressional Progressive Caucus chair, praised Biden’s choices of Xavier Becerra for Secretary of Health and Human Services and Katherine Tai as U.S. trade representative and said the caucus has been “engaging with the transition team on a regular basis.”

“I think there are some issues, particularly for me, around Cabinet members who are having engagements with the revolving door, if you will, and so I do think that that’s something we’re looking at very closely,” Jayapal told reporters.

Biden has indicated he is unlikely to nominate Sanders or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) to his Cabinet out of concern for the tight margins in the Senate, but some of his other picks have also disappointed progressives.

Black lawmakers and liberals pushed for Fudge, a Black woman, to serve as Agriculture secretary, but the job went to Vilsack, a 69-year-old white man. While Fudge was ultimately chosen to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it was seen by some as a slight.

“While we believe Rep. Fudge can excel at any leadership position, we share the confusion of many about this move and are left to believe this choice stems from shallow racial stereotypes about the office,” Varshini Prakash, executive director of Sunrise Movement, a progressive youth climate group, said in a statement.

And now there are fresh concerns that Biden may bypass Haaland to lead the Interior department. 

A coalition of indigenous and progressive groups, including Sunrise, on Thursday wrote to Sen. Tom Udall (D-N.M.) asking him to withdraw from consideration for the position. Udall and Haaland are on the shortlist to run the department, but Haaland would represent a historic pick as the first Native American to do so.

“It’s a mystical opportunity for this agency to do something historic,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) who had initially been backed by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus for the Interior job before it threw its weight behind Haaland.

“The agency that was set up eons ago, Interior, to basically disenfranchise and colonize Indigenous America, for Deb to be secretary America will have its first indigenous person in a Cabinet but more historic, in Interior, in the agency that was set up for that purpose. Maybe I’m naive but there are certain political scripts that are almost written for you,” he said.

Sunrise is also hoping Biden taps officials to lead the Environmental Protection Agency and climate offices who align with the Green New Deal, the ambitious package backed by Ocasio-Cortez and other progressive lawmakers.

“We do not think that there is anywhere near the amount of representation yet in the administration for the people that elected him,” said Garrett Blad, a spokesperson for Sunrise Movement, who said tapping Haaland for Interior would represent “a real easy win for everyone involved.”

One Democrat, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, questioned the aggressive public lobbying strategy from some candidates for Cabinet roles and advocacy groups, suggesting it might undermine their case with the Biden team.

Aaron Weiss, deputy director of Center for Western Priorities, a public lands watchdog group, said other major players would be unlikely to respond to Sunrise’s letter.

“No one’s going to take the bait as far as picking a fight with Sunrise,” he told The Hill. “It’s not worth it; there’s no upside to it.”

Cristina Marcos contributed.

Tags 2020 election Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Bernie Sanders Biden transition Cabinet picks Deb Haaland Denis McDonough Elizabeth Warren Hillary Clinton Interior Department Janet Yellen Jen Psaki Joe Biden Katherine Tai Marcia Fudge Neera Tanden Pramila Jayapal progressives Tom Udall Tom Vilsack Xavier Becerra

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