Politics, not racism or sexism, explain opposition to Biden Cabinet nominees

JIM WATSON/POOL/AFP via Getty Images
US Representative Deb Haaland, Democrat of New Mexico, testifies during the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing on her nomination to be Interior Secretary on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, on February 23, 2021. 

Several of President Biden’s Cabinet nominees are experiencing tough confirmation hearings in the Senate. Many Republicans and even some Democrats have voiced opposition to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) pick Neera Tanden, and nominees such as Deb Haaland for secretary of the Interior and Xavier Becerra for secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) will most likely be approved by slim partisan margins. 

These are qualified individuals, and depending on one’s politics, the opposition to their nominations is regrettable. But even more regrettable is the assumption that such opposition is based in racism or sexism, as some Democrats and activist groups have maintained. Regardless of whether one supports the nominees or not, their nominations have been controversial from the start for lawmakers in both parties for reasons rooted in politics and policy positions. Labelling any critique or questioning of these individuals as examples of racial or gender bias makes it that much harder to call out racism and sexism when it actually exists.

For Tanden, there were early concerns from members of both parties over her negative comments made on Twitter, with a spokesperson for Republican Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) stating in November that she had “zero chance” of being confirmed. It is true that there is clear hypocrisy among those who defended or dismissed former President Trump’s offensive tweets and are now objecting to Tanden. But automatically equating that hypocrisy to a sexist double standard is highly speculative. Especially in the aftermath of the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, it is not unreasonable that some lawmakers, including Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), oppose endorsing nominees known for making highly partisan statements, particularly in an office like the OMB that requires a smooth working relationship with Congress.

For Haaland and Becerra, their opposition is rooted largely in policy differences. Republicans voiced early opposition to Becerra because of his vocal support for “Medicare for All” and abortion rights, while Haaland has drawn conservative criticism as a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal and for her opposition to fracking.

Regardless of one’s positions on those issues, these are controversial matters that fall largely along partisan lines. For Democrats, it is no doubt unfortunate that qualified candidates could get rejected based on their liberal views on these issues. But the fact that such policy divides exist on health care, abortion and climate policy is not new in Washington, and conservative pushback to individuals holding liberal positions on those issues would be expected regardless of their race or gender. 

It is true that sexism and racism are not always overt, and activist groups are right to watch for broader patterns of animosity, opposition or foot-dragging across the confirmation process. But such monitoring has also shown relatively smooth hearings for other women and people of color in Biden’s Cabinet, including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, U.N. Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield and Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas. 

As such, while activist groups are still right to keep an eye on individual hearings that potentially raise a double standard, they should be cautious in making sweeping condemnations that could ultimately backfire. Biden has made racial and gender equity priorities in his administration, and his team is aiming to enact legislation on criminal justice reform, voting rights, economic mobility and other policies that seek to redress entrenched inequalities. But unsubstantiated claims of racism and sexism will only hurt that agenda, pushing away rather than engaging lawmakers, and deepening the cultural divide on these issues.

Julie Norman, PhD, is a lecturer in the department of political science at University College London (UCL) and deputy director of UCL’s Centre on US Politics. Follow her on Twitter @DrJulieNorman2.

Tags Alejandro Mayorkas Biden biden administration cabinet Biden Cabinet nominees Deb Haaland Democratic Party Donald Trump Joe Biden Joe Manchin John Cornyn Linda Thomas-Greenfield Lloyd Austin Neera Tanden Sexism Twitter Xavier Becerra

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