Biden's Cabinet: A Nightmare or Victory for Progressives?

Brian Carpenter | April 2021

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(From left) Attorney General Merrick Garland, Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland


hortly after his election, President Joe Biden promised to build a cabinet that “looks like America.” This promise of increased diversity came as welcome news to Democrats. On his final day in office, President Trump’s cabinet was composed of almost entirely white men with the lone exception being Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson. As Biden began rolling out his cabinet nominations, however, many progressive Democrats felt snubbed. 


To many centrist voters, it might come as a surprise that progressives are frustrated by some of Biden’s picks. Given Biden’s frequent campaign calls that he would be a “return to normalcy” after four years of Donald Trump, many expected this to mean a more centrist administration. Biden’s campaign platform, however, far from appearing to be a third Obama term, strayed from past Obama policies on immigration and placing a higher priority on climate change, among other issues. 


Obama Ties


The critique that Biden’s cabinet is filled with former Obama staffers and does not represent the changing demographics of the Democratic party is not without merit. Biden’s Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack served in the same role for all of Obama’s eight years in office and was the first Biden nominee to lack universal Democratic support. Leading progressive Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) broke with the Democratic coalition on Vilsack, citing the need for an Agriculture Secretary “who is vigorously prepared to take on corporate power. However, it must be noted that Vilsack did receive overwhelming bipartisan support, with 92 senators voting for his confirmation. Sanders broke ranks knowing it would not have an impact on the outcome of the confirmation, serving more as a warning to Vilsack than formidable opposition. 


Other notable Obama appointees are scattered throughout the Biden administration. President Biden nominated former Obama Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen to be the Secretary of the Treasury; a role progressives had hoped Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) would fill. Elizabeth Warren also reportedly desired to serve in the role. President Biden’s choice not to nominate Warren can be attributed to the fact that her serving in the role would relinquish her Senate seat to the choice of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican, causing a power swing in the Senate. It is difficult to imagine that even the most staunch progressives would have pushed for Warren to be the Secretary of Treasury if it meant conceding Senate control to Republicans.


In addition to Yellen, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Denis McDonough previously served as Chief of Staff during Obama’s presidency. Attorney General Merrick Garland was previously nominated to the Supreme Court by President Obama in 2016, before historic Senate action to deny him a confirmation hearing. Secretary of Homeland Security Alejandro Mayorkas had previously served as the Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security in the Obama administration. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland previously worked on Barack Obama’s re-election campaign in 2012. 


For those tallying, that is six of Biden’s 15 confirmed cabinet members with direct ties to the Obama administration whether it be through nomination, administrative, or campaign roles. When we factor in Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm, who twice made the short list for Supreme Court nominations under Obama and was briefly considered for the Secretary of Energy position, the number of Biden cabinet members with Obama ties grows to seven. When we add the fact that Barack Obama wanted to see Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra as the U.S. Trade Representative, the number of confirmed Biden officials with Obama ties is pushed up over 50 percent. 


The heavy ties to the Obama administration are far from the only reasons that the far left has been critical of Biden’s cabinet picks. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) said she desires a “more cohesive vision” from Biden’s cabinet and that the culmination of picks left her with a belief that the cabinet possessed “a hazy vision.” Biden’s aging set of cabinet members, possessing an average age of 60, is also something difficult for young progressives to be excited about, as Pete Buttigieg and Miguel Cardona are the only two confirmed cabinet members thus far under the age of 49.


Reasons for Progressive Optimism


While there is certainly a heavy dose of Obama-era officials in Biden’s cabinet, there is also reason for satisfaction among progressives hoping that Biden would not simply be the second coming of Obama. Despite her ties to Obama, Jennifer Granholm represents a departure from the viewpoints of Obama Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and an improvement for progressives prioritizing climate change. Moniz was an outspoken advocate for fracking and had ties to the Keystone Pipeline. Granholm has been an outspoken critic of the Keystone Pipeline and has offered a less pro-fracking stance. 


Education Secretary Miguel Cardona represents a win for progressives with his public education background and as a young voice in the party. Greater access to and more affordable higher education has been a hot button issue amongst progressives, something Cardona has expressed support for, specifically at the community college level.


Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, another Biden Cabinet member with Obama ties, also received acclaim among progressives given her past history as a climate defender. Haaland cooked meals for individuals protesting an oil pipeline in North Dakota,was a co-sponsor of the Green New Deal, and possesses a strong anti-fracking stance. Haaland’s nomination also received acclaim from progressive congressional representatives such as Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.


Given the partisan division in Congress, it makes sense that Biden did not fill his cabinet with progressive favorites, as some of them might not have been able to receive the necessary support for confirmation. When we couple this with the fact that Biden was the most moderate of the final three Democratic primary candidates, it is logical that progressives are not totally satisfied with his choices. Their satisfaction with some of them, including Haaland, should constitute reason for rejoice as it indicates their influence in the party is growing. Progressive frustration should not come from Biden’s cabinet picks, but rather from the fact that Senator Sanders fell short once again in attempting to gain the Democratic nomination. 


In Conclusion

Only a small percentage of individuals in the United States have the expertise to qualify for a cabinet role. Oftentimes, that experience and expertise is honed through past work in the executive branch. And Biden’s cabinet is no exception: a handful of officials in the Obama cabinet had previous ties to the Clinton administration. Biden happened to serve in the Obama administration; simply because he is reincorporating a sizable share of his cabinet from Obama’s does not indicate a “third term” of Obama policies. The Biden cabinet picks should not be lamented by progressives: they should be celebrated, as they indicate that this administration, though bearing traits of the past, has raised its eyes to the future.

Brian Carpenter is a junior at the University of Michigan majoring in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics. His writing interests include international trade, monetary policy, and domestic politics. Outside of MC, Brian enjoys skiing, watching basketball, and playing Euchre with his friends.