Can Joe Biden's transition team become a progressive administration?

Progressive frustration with some of the president-elect’s appointments is premature, but the incoming administration must do more than avoid the worst excesses of the outgoing one.

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President-elect Joe Biden is not yet in office, but his choice of team is already garnering both compliments and condemnation.

Biden and his vice-president-elect, Kamala Harris, have released details of who will staff the transition. These are the people with whom Biden and Harris are working to ensure a smooth start once they take office in January (a process being hampered by Trump administration officials’ refusal to cooperate). The list includes seasoned diplomats, professors and experienced ex-officials – experts in matters of governance, in other words, which many noted was a welcome change from the Trump administration. 

Further announcements this week about who will hold which high-profile positions have had a similar effect of restoring confidence in the competence of appointed officials. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, for example, will, if confirmed, be Biden's ambassador to the United Nations, having previously served as President Barack Obama's second-term assistant secretary of state for Africa, in a move expected to delight career officials. John Kerry, formerly Massachusetts senator and secretary of state, will be the special presidential envoy for climate and will sit on the National Security Council, which means Biden administration will mark the first time an official dedicated to the climate crisis has sat on the Council.

But the list did also include some names that raised eyebrows. That the transition team included senior staff from Lyft and from Uber, and two people from AirBnB, brought criticism that the Biden administration would be too corporate. That it included someone from WestExec Advisors – a strategic advisory firm that reportedly counts a major defence contractor among its clients and whose co-founder, Michele Flournoy, is rumoured to be nominated to be the next Secretary of Defense – sparked concerns that the Biden administration will be too tight with the military-industrial contacts. Antony Blinken, another of WestExec's co-founders, will, if confirmed, be Biden's secretary of state. He was Biden's national security adviser in the first term of the Obama administration and went on to be Obama's deputy national security adviser and then deputy secretary of state in Obama's second term.

Critics also accuse Jake Sullivan, a former security aide of Biden’s who will be joining the next administration as national security adviser, of cashing in between his spells in government: he joined Macro Advisory Partners, a geopolitical risk firm, after working on Hillary Clinton's campaign in 2016. Whispers that Rahm Emanuel, the wildly unpopular ex-mayor of Chicago who took a hard line against immigration reform during the Obama administration, is being considered for transportation secretary were met with disgust. And so some on the left are perhaps unsurprisingly already frustrated with, if not already writing off, the incoming Biden administration. 

On the other hand, centrist Democrats complain that the left is putting pressure on the wrong people. When the Sunrise Movement tweeted that it was protesting in front of Biden's campaign office to demand he fulfil his climate commitments, many replied asked why they weren’t instead applying pressure to Mitch McConnell, the Republican Senate majority leader who is likely to be antagonistic to any sweeping climate legislation.

It's not that either side is wrong, exactly (though there is something intentionally obtuse about the idea that a group shouldn't protest the side more likely to listen to them). It's that the those agitating for overdue reforms are being too impatient with an administration that hasn’t even started, and with their own ability to influence it, while those in the centre-ground are expecting too much patience.

Leftists taking the agency review teams as proof that the Biden administration can’t be pushed in a more progressive direction are counting themselves out too early. Biden is not himself a progressive. That he is not surrounding himself with progressives is not a surprise. To say that it's pointless to exert pressure from the left because he's put people from Uber and Lyft in his transition team is to not give progressives, who have moved the “Overton window” on everything from Middle East policy to student debt, enough credit.

Those who would have the left criticise only the right – McConnell, not Biden – meanwhile, are missing the point, which is that being "better than Trump" is an insulting standard to which to hold an elected official. If Biden, in office, does not scar us with tweets propagating disinformation and inciting violence that will not make him a successful president. Many on the left who turned out on 3 November were more concerned to depose Trump than to elect Biden, but it is not unreasonable for them to demand that Biden use his position to do more than not be Trump.

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor. 

She co-hosts our weekly global affairs podcast, World Review

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