Progressives offer mixed messages on key Biden economic aide
President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for his top White House economic adviser has sparked concerns from progressives who fear that his moderate background and corporate experience could derail their priorities.
Biden is expected to name Brian Deese as the director of the White House National Economic Council, according to multiple reports, an influential post responsible for coordinating economic policy across the administration and advising the president on crucial decisions.
Deese has been widely praised by Obama administration figures — including the former president — as an intelligent policymaker who was crucial to the recovery from the Great Recession. He first served on the Obama administration’s task force for reviving the auto industry before stints as the deputy White House budget office director and Obama’s top climate adviser.
In a Sunday tweet, Jason Furman, who chaired the White House Council of Economic Advisers under Obama, called Deese a “brilliant leader” who “gets the best out of everyone he works with” with kindness and generosity.
But while Deese boasts deep support among Obama alumni and moderate Democrats, progressive groups and industry skeptics have been critical of his pending appointment.
Deese’s decision to join investment megafirm BlackRock as a managing director is a serious red flag for progressives who’ve warned Biden against staffing his administration from the financial industry. While Deese was responsible for making BlackRock’s operations more climate friendly, environmentalists say the firm hasn’t done enough to fight climate change and divest from the fossil fuel and mining industries.
Deese’s support during the Obama administration for deficit reduction and entitlement reform has also alarmed progressives who want Biden to go big on coronavirus relief and defy Republican fiscal hawks.
“Deese won’t treat progressives like pieces of shit,” said Jeff Hauser, director of the Revolving Door Project. But he argued Deese “has conflicted himself on addressing issues that we would very much want to see the director of the National Economic Council address.”
The Biden transition team did not respond to a request for comment. Deese could not be reached for comment.
Deese, 42, was among the youngest and most influential members of Obama’s economic team across several policy fronts. After helping the White House craft the Obama administration’s auto industry revival plan, he served as deputy National Economic Council director and later helped negotiate the Paris climate agreement as Obama’s top climate adviser.
Deese’s stint with Obama won him praise among the Democratic economic policy establishment but rankled some left-leaning lawmakers and staffers who preferred a more progressive approach to financial regulations and deficits.
“It’s a bit surprising that President Elect Biden would pick someone who was so visibly tied to both the most controversial economic policies from the Obama years and the world’s largest asset manager,” wrote Tyler Gellasch in an email. Gellasch worked with Deese as a senior aide to former Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and now runs investor advocacy group Healthy Markets.
Concerns about Deese’s liberal bona fides were amplified when he joined BlackRock as a managing partner, helping the largest nonbank asset manager navigate intense pressure over its energy-related investments. Democrats have also grown increasingly concerned that companies like BlackRock have outsized influence over the economy and financial markets while facing much less regulatory scrutiny than banks of similar size and scale.
“We think it’s generally difficult for people who’ve worked in industry to immediately view that industry or a specific corporation with the level of skepticism that would permit restructuring when warranted,” Hauser said.
“You’re just predisposed to not finding the business model that used to pay you a few months ago to be inherently problematic.”
Progressives have pushed for Biden to not hire Wall Street executives, as well as corporate lobbyists, to a potential administration since before Election Day. Deese’s BlackRock title puts him in that category.
In October, Democratic lawmakers including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.), Raúl Grijalva (Ariz.), Barbara Lee (Calif.) and Katie Porter (Calif.), called on Senate leadership to oppose the confirmation of any nominee to an executive branch position who is a lobbyist or former lobbyist for any corporate client or who is a C-suite officer for a private corporation.
Even so, the progressive response to Deese’s likely nomination has been tame.
Ocasio-Cortez’s, Grijalva’s, Lee’s and Porter’s offices did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.
Eight progressive groups wrote a letter to Biden in April, asking him to vow not to appoint any “current or former Wall Street executives or corporate lobbyists, or people affiliated with the fossil fuel, health insurance or private prison corporations” to his transition team, Cabinet or as top aides.
But Deese’s work making BlackRock’s operations more climate friendly makes him an acceptable choice for one group that signed onto the letter: NextGen America.
“The Biden administration has to work to introduce its appointees to young people and ensure that they will be leaders on the issues we care about. Deese’s climate advocacy suggests he can be one of those leaders,” a spokesman for NextGen America said.
Other groups on the letter did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment on Biden picking Deese.
Gellasch is similarly hopeful that Deese can prove himself to be a positive advocate for progressive issues inside the White House.
“Brian has worked very hard for many years on many of the exact same issues that are relevant now,” Gellasch said. “I just hope he’s learned from some of the past mistakes.”