Progressives praise early Biden picks, but worry his team is stacked with “corporatists”

Left has been surprisingly supportive of Biden's choices so far — but some appointments seen as "betrayal"

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published November 24, 2020 6:00AM (EST)

Tony Blinken, Joe Biden and Cedric Richmond (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Tony Blinken, Joe Biden and Cedric Richmond (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Progressives have had a mixed reaction to President-elect Joe Biden's early administration announcements as they seek to gain influence in the coming Democratic administration.

Biden sought to ally himself with the likes of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., after a contentious primary fight and formed a task force to forge a more progressive platform for his administration. Sanders and Warren are not expected to receive administration appointments, however, both due to concerns that Republican senators would derail their nominations and that Republican governors in their states would then appoint GOP replacements.

Biden's early West Wing hires and Cabinet nominees have been greeted by progressives with a mix of praise and consternation about their corporate ties. Some leftists express concern that the Biden administration, like the Obama administration, would be guided by "corporatists" who prioritize business interests. But they've also stressed that there is no question Biden's team is light years ahead of President Trump's administration, which has featured a revolving door of lobbyists and executives who undermined their agencies and sought to funnel taxpayer money to their corporate pals.

"Trump's government — run by the corporate lobbyists, for the corporate lobbyists — has devastated programs and rules that help working people," Warren said earlier this month. "Americans have made it clear: the last thing they want is for Washington to again hand over the keys to giant corporations and lobbyists."

Biden's selections have prioritized experience, diversity and coalition-building, a far cry from the Trump administration's war against the very agencies it leads.

Biden's team on Monday announced that he would name Antony Blinken, his former national security adviser and deputy secretary of state, as his secretary of state. Matt Duss, Sanders' foreign policy adviser, said Blinken was a "good choice" and praised Biden for selecting a diplomat who has "regularly engaged with progressive grassroots." Former Sanders adviser Faiz Shakir agreed that Blinken was a "solid choice."

But Blinken's corporate ties have drawn some handwringing from the left. Blinken, along with Michèle Flournoy, a former top Pentagon official and defense contractor executive, who is rumored to be the frontrunner to become Biden's defense secretary, founded WestExec Advisors after their time in the Obama administration. That consulting firm, which includes numerous Obama alums, aims to help companies win Pentagon contracts and has extensive ties to a variety of defense contractors, The American Prospect reported. WestExec has also helped a number of Silicon Valley firms pitch the Pentagon for defense contracts, according to The Intercept.

Little else is known about the clients of the firm, which keeps its client roster secret and does not have to disclose their names as lobbying firm would. Watchdog groups have raised concerns over potential conflicts of interest arising from the firm's secret client list.

"It's a company that sells influence and connections," Mandy Smithberger of the nonpartisan Project on Government Oversight told ABC News. "Particularly for those who are going to go through the confirmation process, it's important to know who they were working for and the kind of work they were doing."

Biden also tapped Jake Sullivan, an ex-adviser to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as his national security adviser. Sullivan has been praised as "brilliant" and an "all-star" but has his own corporate ties. Since 2017, Sullivan has worked for Macro Advisory Partners, a consulting firm that works with mining companies and sovereign wealth funds, among others, according to the American Prospect. Earlier this year, Sullivan worked with Uber to try to restrict contract workers from being entitled to benefits, according to the report.

Biden's team on Monday announced that Avril Haines, the former deputy national security adviser and deputy CIA director under Obama, would be his director of national intelligence. She has also served in the State Department and worked for Biden when he was the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. A Cuban-American immigrant, Haines would be the first woman to serve in the position.

Haines also previously worked as a consultant for the controversial data-mining firm Palantir, a fact that was scrapped from her bio when she joined the Biden campaign, according to The Intercept. "Co-founded by a far-right, Trump-supporting tech billionaire, Palantir, whose business has benefited from a slew of government contracts, has been accused of aiding in the Trump administration's immigration detention programs in the U.S. and helping the Trump administration build out its surveillance state," the Intercept reported.

Biden has picked former Deputy Homeland Security Secretary and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services director Alejandro Mayorkas as his nominee to be secretary of Homeland Security. Former HUD Secretary Julián Castro praised Mayorkas, who would be the first Latino to lead DHS, as a "historic and experienced choice." A former federal prosecutor, Mayorkas has also worked as a private attorney representing Fortune 100 clients and other high-profile companies. He was investigated in 2015 for intervening in visa cases on behalf of companies owned by Clinton's brother Anthony Rodham and longtime Clinton ally Terry McAuliffe, the former governor of Virginia.

Biden also tapped Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the longtime former top diplomat to Africa and head of the U.S. Foreign Service, as his ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield has been widely praised for her experience and commitment to the Foreign Service, though The New York Times' Ken Vogel noted that she also served as senior vice president of a firm "that represented embattled Swiss-based mining giant Glencore," which is facing allegations of corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Biden's early selections also include former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has served as an adviser to Bank of America, as a climate czar; longtime aide Ron Klain, a venture capital executive, as White House chief of staff; longtime health care lobbyist Steve Ricchetti as a senior counselor; Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., a top recipient of oil and gas money, as senior adviser; and former campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon, the co-founder of Precision Strategies, which represents pharmaceutical and private equity firms, as deputy chief of staff.

Klain has largely drawn praise from progressives like Warren and Rep. Ilhan Omar, D-Minn., but progressive groups have called Richmond's selection a "betrayal" and "really disappointing."  Jeff Hauser, the executive director of the Revolving Door Project, told The New York Times that Ricchetti was "a figure so paradigmatically swampy that the writers of 'House of Cards' might reject his biography as overly stereotypical."

Progressives have also warned Biden against selecting "divisive" former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel to his Cabinet and have expressed concerns about Biden's transition team, which includes executives from Amazon, Lyft, Facebook and other tech firms. A variety of progressive groups, including Demos, MoveOn, Our Revolution, Sunrise Movement and the Working Families Party, sent a letter to Biden calling for him to avoid nominating "corporate executives, lobbyists, and prominent corporate consultants" to top positions. Many others have called for Biden to bar officials from working on issues on which they had lobbied in the past two years, as Obama did. Biden has not been nearly as averse to lobbyists as Obama, and has resisted calls for a lobbyist ban.

Some House Democrats have also pressed the party leadership to push back on corporate influence within the coming Biden administration.

"If the C.E.O. of a fossil fuel corporation should not be put in charge of U.S. diplomacy or an oil lobbyist should not be put in charge of the Interior Department under a Republican administration, there is no reason to believe that an officer or lobbyist at a major bank or financial firm should be put in charge of financial policy under a Democratic administration," a group of Democrats, including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., Barbara Lee, D-Calif., and Katie Porter, D-Calif., said in a letter to Senate leaders.

Other progressives have cautioned against litmus tests for administration picks.

"I understand the desire to have people that are ideologically aligned," Meredith McGehee, the head of IssueOne, a group seeking to limit money in politics, told The New York Times. "But when you start doing litmus tests on appointees it can backfire. You need to have appointees in the administration who can work with a range of people in Congress or you are not likely to get much done."

Moderate Democratic groups have also argued that a litmus test "makes it harder to get the diverse Cabinet" Biden and progressives want.

Others have argued that competency and experience are more important traits in administration appointments than ideological purity, particularly after Trump spent years crippling federal agencies.

"I need a team ready on Day 1 to help me reclaim America's seat at the head of the table, rally the world to meet the biggest challenges we face and advance our security, prosperity and values," Biden said in a statement on Monday after announcing his national security team. "These individuals are equally as experienced and crisis-tested as they are innovative and imaginative. Their accomplishments in diplomacy are unmatched, but they also reflect the idea that we cannot meet the profound challenges of this new moment with old thinking and unchanged habits — or without diversity of background and perspective. It's why I've selected them."

As the left debates how much — or how little — to push the incoming administration, Washington lobbying firms are celebrating a return to normal after the Trump administration limited influence to a small number of well-connected firms, according to The New York Times. Some firms have hired officials close to Biden while others stand to benefit from longstanding connections to the administration.

Amid the battle between the left and the more corporate-friendly wing of the Democratic Party, progressives have vowed to continue organizing to push the Biden administration to keep its campaign promises.

"We're going to organize and demand that this administration — which I believe is decent and kind and honorable — keep their promise," Ocasio-Cortez told a group of activists last week. "Keeps its promise to young people. Keeps its promise to the movement for Black lives. Keeps its promise to working-class people across the United States."

By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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