Want to Push Biden Left? Focus on These Appointments.

Appointments will have a major impact on whether a potential Biden administration delivers on progressive policies. Here’s what the Left should push for now.

Eleanor Eagan

Biden may not embrace progressive demands, but his cabinet could. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

When Sen. Bernie Sanders end­ed his pres­i­den­tial cam­paign in April, he assured his sup­port­ers that the strug­gle con­tin­ues.” And he’s right. In the com­ing weeks and months, the strug­gle will con­tin­ue in the streets (although per­haps in cars for the time being), at the bal­lot box, in work­places, and in our efforts to care for each oth­er in these bleak times. 

Depending on their priorities, appointees may help or hurt working people—and pad or undercut corporate profits.

Impor­tant­ly, although per­haps less obvi­ous­ly, in the near term the U.S. Left must also work to influ­ence the com­po­si­tion of a poten­tial Joe Biden admin­is­tra­tion. With Biden the pre­sump­tive Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee, the peo­ple he empow­ers will help to shape — for bet­ter or for worse — the con­di­tions under which the Left orga­nizes for struc­tur­al trans­for­ma­tion. With that real­i­ty in mind, in the com­ing months, shut­ting out worst-case appointees and ele­vat­ing best-case ones should — along with remov­ing Pres­i­dent Trump — be a top priority.

With Sanders out of the race, many pro­gres­sives are being forced to think through how, or if, Biden can be made a more palat­able can­di­date. If 2016 is any guide, there will be many efforts to move Biden left­wards on pol­i­cy by, for exam­ple, push­ing him to sup­port Medicare for All or the Green New Deal. 

Yet such efforts alone will not be enough to achieve the kind of bold change Sanders sup­port­ers are hop­ing to see. As pres­i­dent, Biden would have lim­it­ed pow­er to pass any leg­is­la­tion, cen­trist or oth­er­wise. Even if it’s pos­si­ble to push him to a yes” on Medicare for All — a change that does not appear like­ly — it would be easy for him to let that com­mit­ment fall by the way­side in the face of con­gres­sion­al intransigence. 

This is, of course, not to sug­gest the Left stop push­ing on health­care and oth­er issues, or oth­er­wise lim­it its ambi­tions. Those efforts are more like­ly to be suc­cess­ful, how­ev­er, if we tai­lor our demands to match our tar­gets’ actu­al powers. 

So as groups fight fero­cious­ly for leg­is­la­tors to sup­port poli­cies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, they should con­sid­er that pres­i­dents have lim­it­ed pow­er over the leg­isla­tive process. The exec­u­tive is, instead, tasked with car­ry­ing out the laws that Con­gress has writ­ten. While that may sound mun­dane, it offers sig­nif­i­cant lat­i­tude in both the domes­tic and inter­na­tion­al are­nas. Just look, for exam­ple, at what Pres­i­dent Trump has been able to accom­plish” — and in the case of his Hur­ri­cane Maria and COVID-19 respons­es, ruin — with­out legislation.

Help­ing the pres­i­dent with this task are thou­sands of polit­i­cal appointees sta­tioned across the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. These indi­vid­u­als inter­pret, admin­is­ter and enforce the law. And they do so with con­sid­er­able dis­cre­tion, as the pres­i­dent and inner cir­cle can­not pos­si­bly keep up with every key deci­sion. Depend­ing on their pri­or­i­ties, appointees may help or hurt work­ing peo­ple — and pad or under­cut cor­po­rate prof­its and wealthy people’s wallets. 

It should come as no sur­prise that recent admin­is­tra­tions have favored the lat­ter set of inter­ests. Pres­i­dents of both par­ties have tend­ed to sur­round them­selves with their friends and bene­fac­tors, often peo­ple with lit­tle to no under­stand­ing of work­ing people’s dai­ly strug­gles. Those fig­ures, through legal inter­pre­ta­tion and admin­is­tra­tion, have tend­ed to make imper­fect laws even worse in real­i­ty than they are on paper. 

Con­sid­er, for exam­ple, the Oba­ma administration’s dis­as­trous han­dling of the hous­ing cri­sis. Numer­ous gov­ern­ment bod­ies, includ­ing the Depart­ments of the Trea­sury, Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, and Jus­tice, plus the Nation­al Eco­nom­ic Coun­cil, were tasked with admin­is­ter­ing or over­see­ing var­i­ous aspects of hous­ing pol­i­cy. The fig­ures at the tops of those agen­cies—Tim­o­thy Gei­th­n­er, Shaun Dono­van, Eric Hold­er, and Lar­ry Sum­mers respec­tive­ly — could have used this pow­er to keep mil­lions more peo­ple in their homes. Instead, they turned the oth­er cheek or, in some cas­es, active­ly abet­ted Wall Street’s fur­ther takeover of our econ­o­my which result­ed in mil­lions fac­ing fore­clo­sure or eviction. 

Of course, even the most pub­lic-mind­ed appointees could not have ful­ly addressed the con­se­quences of the finan­cial cri­sis, nor fixed all the prob­lems that led to the melt­down in the first place. But bet­ter appointees could have improved people’s lives in impor­tant ways, first and fore­most by help­ing keep them in their homes and out of bankruptcy.

With­out out­side pres­sure, Biden seems like­ly to repeat these same mis­takes. His list of cam­paign fundrais­ers, advis­ers and donors is replete with cor­po­rate exec­u­tives and indi­vid­u­als in the phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal, ener­gy, pri­vate equi­ty, real estate, and bank­ing indus­tries (among many oth­ers). If ele­vat­ed to posi­tions of pow­er in the exec­u­tive branch, these fig­ures are sure to pri­or­i­tize pri­vate prof­it over the pub­lic good. The Left can­not cede such crit­i­cal ter­rain to these actors with­out a fight, even if such a vic­to­ry rep­re­sents only a small bat­tle in the broad­er fight for fun­da­men­tal change. 

This isn’t mere­ly a defen­sive play. Rather, pro­gres­sives should think seri­ous­ly about the good that the right peo­ple in the right posi­tions could do — and which fig­ures will be open and respon­sive to out­side advocacy. 

Think, for exam­ple, about what it would mean for the mil­lions of peo­ple who cur­rent­ly strug­gle with the bur­den of stu­dent loan debt to be freed of it. The next Sec­re­tary of Edu­ca­tion could make it hap­pen but would have to be will­ing to weath­er sig­nif­i­cant resis­tance. Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers Pres­i­dent Ran­di Wein­garten endorsed Eliz­a­beth Warren’s plan, which would can­cel up to $50,000 of debt for 95% of stu­dent loan bor­row­ers, and co could be a promis­ing can­di­date when it comes to that issue. 

And while it may pale in com­par­i­son to the ben­e­fits of Medicare for All, low­er­ing pre­scrip­tion drug prices would be a mean­ing­ful improve­ment for count­less Amer­i­cans in the near term. A moti­vat­ed Sec­re­tary of Health and Human Ser­vices who is com­mit­ted to advanc­ing the pub­lic inter­est, not grow­ing cor­po­rate prof­its, could set about max­i­mal­ly seiz­ing phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal patents to imme­di­ate­ly low­er prices. Some­one like, say, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, who ran for Michi­gan gov­er­nor in 2018 on a left plat­form, or Rep. Prami­la Jaya­pal (D‑WA). It is hard to imag­ine, how­ev­er, that top Biden advis­er and for­mer phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal lob­by­ist Steve Ric­chet­ti would avail him­self of these pow­ers if sim­i­lar­ly ele­vat­ed to the position. 

It’s not just domes­ti­cal­ly that Biden’s per­son­nel picks will mat­ter. Good appointees could help oppose the Blob’s incur­sions. A Defense Sec­re­tary Ro Khan­na would like­ly pri­or­i­tize an end to U.S. involve­ment in the war in Yemen and work to keep us out of oth­er armed engage­ments. And although he may not be real­is­tic pick for a Cab­i­net-lev­el posi­tion, Matt Duss would make for a strong ally in an under­sec­re­tary position.

There are many oth­er exam­ples. The right per­son at the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty might fight for a depor­ta­tion mora­to­ri­um (or be pushed to do so). A good CMS admin­is­tra­tor could pave the way for almost a mil­lion home­care work­ers to join unions. All of these things would make a dif­fer­ence in mil­lions of people’s lives in the very near term. 

Even more impor­tant­ly, how­ev­er, these pro­gres­sive fig­ures would pro­vide the space to demand even more. Peo­ple who no longer fear miss­ing a stu­dent loan pay­ment will be more like­ly to leave a bad job, or take the risk of orga­niz­ing their work­place. Peo­ple who no longer fear depor­ta­tion are more like­ly to make their voic­es heard, and on and on. 

Groups on the Left will engage with the Biden cam­paign dif­fer­ent­ly, but all should con­sid­er incor­po­rat­ing bet­ter per­son­nel among their goals. For those groups that are con­sid­er­ing an endorse­ment, mak­ing con­crete per­son­nel com­mit­ments a pre­con­di­tion for sup­port may be a way to max­i­mize pos­i­tive impact (and min­i­mize bad outcomes).

In a let­ter to Biden last week, for exam­ple, a num­ber of youth-led pro­gres­sive groups asked the now-nom­i­nee to com­mit to includ­ing staunch pro­gres­sives on his pres­i­den­tial tran­si­tion team and to exclud­ing exec­u­tives from Wall Street, the oil and gas indus­try, and oth­ers from his admin­is­tra­tion. Such con­di­tions pro­vide a clear met­ric by which groups can mea­sure Biden’s efforts to win their sup­port and that of the broad­er Left. 

Even groups that have no inten­tion of endors­ing, how­ev­er, have an impor­tant role to play in keep­ing detestable fig­ures out of a poten­tial Biden admin­is­tra­tion. Incom­ing admin­is­tra­tions like to min­i­mize dis­trac­tions and hoard polit­i­cal cap­i­tal, mak­ing con­tro­ver­sial appointees unap­peal­ing regard­less of ide­ol­o­gy. That means that by mere­ly draw­ing atten­tion to the worst aspects of a nominee’s record, pro­gres­sives can cause an incom­ing admin­is­tra­tion to listen. 

What­ev­er the par­tic­u­lar strat­e­gy, appoint­ments are a worth­while strug­gle for the Left in the near term. Biden may be the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­nee, but the shape of his admin­is­tra­tion is still very much in flux. That means there is an oppor­tu­ni­ty now to expand the space in which we orga­nize in the com­ing years. We shouldn’t pass it up. 

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