Progressives should be heartened by a Biden cabinet

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It is no secret that many progressives are not exactly enthusiastic about supporting Joe Biden in the upcoming election. To be sure, Biden has staked out a position firmly on the party’s moderate wing during his almost 50 years of public service. However, often overlooked by both the media and voters alike during the frenzied circus that is an American presidential election is the importance of presidential appointees in shaping the administration’s agenda. 

In fact, Cabinet members and other executive branch appointees often exert substantial influence over executive branch policies. One need only observe the chaos wrought by Trump-appointed Postmaster General Louis DeJoy to understand the power wielded even by less prominent appointees. But just as Trump has the ability to appoint dangerous and unqualified sycophants to the executive branch, a President Biden would be able to right many of the dangerous actions taken by Trump Cabinet members.

Fortunately for progressives, if history is any guide, many of Biden’s Cabinet appointees will be substantially more left-wing than the candidate himself. Neither of the party’s past two presidents, Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, were exactly darlings of the left. However, despite hailing from the party’s moderate wing, both appointed influential progressive figures to key Cabinet positions.

Bill Clinton was the figurehead of the “New Democrats,” a centrist faction of the Democratic Party that sought to move the party in a more moderate direction. Despite this, many of Clinton’s Cabinet appointees were significantly to his left. One example was Robert Reich, the Secretary of Labor during Clinton’s first term. Reich was an early advocate of a universal basic income, and successfully pushed for a raise to the federal minimum wage while in office. Since leaving office he has been a voice for progressive labor reform and (surprise!) endorsed Bernie Sanders for president in 2016 and 2020.

Another progressive Clinton administration official was Carol Browner, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator for the entirety of his eight years in office. She was a strong advocate for reducing air pollution, and “almost single-handedly” fought against opposition from Congress and White House economic advisors to convince Clinton to significantly tighten restrictions on permissible levels of ground-level ozone. For this achievement, which led to dramatically reduced smog levels in U.S. cities, she was dubbed the “Queen of Clean Air” by Time Magazine. She was also the first EPA director to take direct action to reduce carbon emissions and has been a vocal proponent of the Green New Deal.

The Obama administration also contained prominent progressives, the most notable being Julian Castro, the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). While at HUD, Castro took significant steps to finally fully implement the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which prevents discrimination in the sale or rental of homes, and made ending homelessness a top priority. Castro later ran for president on a bold progressive platform emphasizing comprehensive immigration reform before eventually endorsing Elizabeth Warren.

So, what will a Biden Cabinet look like? It will certainly contain its fair share of moderates. But if Bill Clinton’s administration contained progressives at a time when they made up a much smaller portion of his constituency, they will likely be even more heavily represented in Biden’s Cabinet. This is evidenced by Biden’s transition team itself, which includes Julie Siegal, a senior Elizabeth Warren advisor, and Gautam Raghavan, chief of staff to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus.

Senator Warren herself, a leader of the progressive wing of the party, has been described as a virtual lock for a Cabinet position if she wants one. Her potential selection as Treasury Secretary would give her significant influence in the White House, with Biden “likely delegating to her primary responsibility for financial and economic policy,” according to one research firm. While this would be cause for consternation on Wall Street, it would be a welcome change for many progressives who have been calling for increased financial regulation for years.

Other potential administration officials could do much to advance the policy goals of the progressive movement without either of its preferred candidates at the top of the ticket. Washington Governor Jay Inslee, who made climate change the central issue of his 2020 presidential campaign, would be a breath of fresh air after the current EPA Administrator, Andrew Wheeler, who was a coal lobbyist before taking office. Appointing an Attorney General like Vanita Gupta, the former head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and staff attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), would be a similarly welcome departure from the demagoguery of William Barr and show the Biden Justice Department’s commitment to voting rights reform and upholding civil liberties. 

In sum, there is much for progressives to look forward to in a potential Biden administration. Indeed, these potential picks are evidence of the success of working within the Democratic party to achieve progressive goals rather than rejecting the party. The successful presidential bids of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren allowed them and their staffs to influence the future Biden administration precisely because they proved they represented a substantial portion of the party’s voter base. A progressive Cabinet member will be in a substantially better position to influence policy than a failed third-party candidate. And, until Democrats nominate a progressive candidate, it will give the movement something to get excited about: a voice.

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