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Back to political news:
For the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, the Joe Biden presidential transition is what losing looks like. It is also, for better or for worse, what incremental progress looks like. Whether it’s enough to match the scale of the overlapping crises or to stave off a midterm wipeout remains to be seen, but a comparison to the transition of President Barack Obama reveals the distance the party has traveled over the past 12 years.
In October 2008, Michael Froman emailed John Podesta, who oversaw Obama’s transition, a list of Cabinet and personnel suggestions directly from his Citigroup email account. Froman, who led Obama’s transition in the winter of 2008-09, would go on to become Obama’s U.S. trade representative, and his October recommendations would prove far more prescient than his bank’s forecast on the subprime lending market; nearly all of them landed where he suggested.
Froman was part of the Rubinite wing of the Democratic Party — named for Bob Rubin, a longtime Goldman Sachs executive who served as President Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary, who groomed a generation of Wall Street operatives, including Froman as well as Rubin’s Treasury Department successor, Larry Summers. Rubin spent his post-government years at Citigroup, including as chair of the firm as it ran aground, destined for a bailout.
Biden’s version of the transition has raised howls for some of his picks, including Neera Tanden, the controversial head of the Center for American Progress, and Brian Deese, whose time at investment firm BlackRock has drawn opposition from some climate activists. But in almost every spot so far named, Biden has chosen a person more progressive and less entrenched with Wall Street than the official who held the same position in 2009 under Obama.
The comparison exercise may do more to reveal the weakness of the early Obama administration, and its reliance on the Rubin wing of the party, than to testify to the strength of Biden’s. And there are exceptions. On national security and foreign policy, Biden has hewed closer to Obama’s approach — and he has backtracked from Obama’s vow to bar lobbyists from his administration, putting an Apple lobbyist on his VP vetting committee. But Biden, when faced with choices so far, has at least made the least bad one on the table, especially when it comes to economic policy.
Start with chief of staff: swapping out Rahm Emanuel for Ron Klain isn’t close. Where Emanuel was outwardly hostile to the party’s progressive wing — “communists” who were “fucking retarded” — Klain, while not himself a fire-breathing Sanders supporter, has always been respectful to the party’s left flank. (He is also known for a heightened level of organizational competence, a rather important trait in a pandemic.) Biden’s alternative, his close adviser Steve Ricchetti, a longtime corporate lobbyist, was passed over for the job amid progressive opposition.
That Biden is staffing his White House with fewer ghouls than his former boss is a function of both internal and external factors. The party broadly has shifted left, with ideas like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal gaining serious traction. Biden, who has consistently positioned himself in the center of the party, whichever direction the party went, has moved with it, as evidenced by the progressive drift of his presidential platforms from 1988 to 2008 to 2020. But it also involved a long-running research and advocacy campaign that sprang up as a reaction to the failure of the left to influence Obama’s transition on personnel. The Revolving Door Project, helmed by Jeff Hauser, a former AFL-CIO official, was built to influence a Hillary Clinton administration and has worked in collaboration with the group Demand Progress, which has similarly focused on the importance of personnel as policy. Clinton’s loss gave the outfits an extra four years to continue compiling research documents on dozens of potential Democratic appointees. Just on Tuesday, RDP was featured in both the New York Times and Politico.