Team of retreads

Can Joe Biden's team of D.C. lifers meet the moment?

Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

The shape of a future Biden administration is slowly coming into view along with a few of the president-elect's Cabinet picks. Thus far, the selections are exactly what one might have expected from a D.C. lifer like Biden — namely, other D.C. lifers. We have former chair of the Federal Reserve Janet Yellen at the Treasury Department, former Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken to be the nation's top diplomat, Biden's previous chief of staff Ron Klain returning to the same job (only for the president this time), and former deputy secretary at Department of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas now up to run that department. All are longtime Democratic Party insiders, most close associates of Biden himself — and just like him, fresh off a turn of the revolving door.

Already the conflict between the left and moderate wings of the Democratic coalition, which had slowed down for obvious reasons during the general election, has broken out again. Lefties and centrists are sniping at each other over several picks — on the left over the appalling policy records and Wall Street connections of various selections, and on the moderate side over the left not being team players.

Because Biden will be president, at the end of the day he will have the Cabinet he wants. But so far there is little sign that his administration will satisfy a more elemental requirement — namely, the kind of ferocious determination and energetic vision that is a necessary precondition to repairing this shattered country.

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Take a look around: America is in dire shape. The economy is turning south thanks to the resurgent coronavirus pandemic and the long-expired CARES Act rescue being spent down. Mass foreclosures and evictions at a scale unseen since the 1930s are looming on the horizon if another rescue is not passed. We will apparently have a coronavirus vaccine soon, but Congress isn't even spending the relative pittance to make sure it can be distributed as quickly as possible. Meanwhile, Republicans are poised to gerrymander themselves an even bigger advantage in the House of Representatives and in multiple state legislatures. To even have a prayer of passing anything through the Senate, Democrats will need to sweep both runoff elections in Georgia in January. If they don't, then the Biden administration will have to lean on every legal authority in the U.S. Code to be able to do anything — and even then face the possibility that those actions will still be struck down by partisan hacks on the Supreme Court.

Does Team Biden look up to this challenge? Yellen is reasonably progressive, but as Fed chair during the Obama administration, she voted for a number of interest rate hikes that — as I and many others pointed out at the time — were very obviously premature, conservatively guarding against inflation instead of aggressively pursuing full employment and higher wages, and indeed may have slowed the economy enough to hand the 2016 election to Trump. What's more, there are disturbing numbers of Wall Street insiders being handed deputy spots at Treasury, which may hem in even Yellen's mild progressivism. (A rare straightforward bright spot is Jared Bernstein, a smart and gregarious lefty economist selected for the Council of Economic Advisers, who has been on the right side of nearly all the important economic questions for the last decade.)

Meanwhile, as Jonathan Guyer writes at The American Prospect, most of Biden's foreign policy team got rich openly peddling its connections to government over the last four years. Since the Trump administration was not much in favor of handing contracting gigs to firms full of professional Democrats, it's likely a safe bet that much of the money came from interested parties looking to essentially bribe future administration insiders. More broadly, people who have profited handsomely from status quo forces sending this country to the devil — endless pointless imperialism, legalized corruption, extreme policy timidity unless Wall Street is threatened — are not likely to countenance the sweeping action necessary to fix that status quo.

Perhaps most telling is the selection of the President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, Neera Tanden, to run the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). This is a sort of regulatory clearinghouse for the executive branch, and develops the administration's budget each year (which has no legal force but signals priorities and ideas). It's an ideal position for a quiet, competent, loyal manager — someone who will get the administration's business done efficiently without any fuss. But that description hardly fits Tanden's record.

Tanden's politics, despite previous endorsements of austerity and stealing Libya's oil to pay for imperialist wars of aggression, are probably still to the left of Bruce Reed, who was reportedly previously under consideration for the OMB job and is best known for decreasing the income of the poorest single mothers with welfare reform in 1996. However, Tanden is also infamously quarrelsome. Articles which mention her routinely result in her complaining to editors in the middle of the night (full disclosure: myself included), and she is regularly found fighting with complete nobodies on Twitter (full disclosure: myself included). Nor is she well known for running a tight ship organizationally — according to The New York Times, she once literally punched a subordinate for asking Hillary Clinton about the Iraq War (though she says she only pushed him). She also clumsily outed the identity of a sexual harassment victim in an all-staff meeting, and under her leadership CAP disbanded its unionized journalism project ThinkProgress, then attempted to replace the staff with scabs, only to back down after a huge backlash. Whatever Biden wants to achieve, be it progressive, moderate, or otherwise, Tanden is a mystifying choice to put in arguably the most important administrative position.

At any rate, this suggests a coalescing administration that is not exactly champing at the bit to clean up this smoking ruin of a country. It seems more like a collection of mostly bog-standard moderate liberals, some fairly earnest, some plainly just looking to pad out their resume for a few years before they go back to their buckraking private sector careers, and some in between — people who, on average, will not want to rock the boat too much, much less take the kind of extreme, norm-bending action that might upset future offerers of consulting contracts.

Now, nobody would be happier than myself if Yellen turns out to be the second coming of FDR adviser Rexford Tugwell, or if Tanden turns OMB into a well-oiled machine. At least Biden has not hired any actual Republicans as Obama did, and so far his team thankfully does not appear to be worried about the national debt. But it is hard indeed to imagine this administration rising to the challenge of a country in worse shape than at any year since 1932.

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Ryan Cooper

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.