President-elect Joe Biden is facing a tough balancing act in his final cabinet appointments, as leftwing Democrats and civil rights groups clamour for more progressives and minority-group members in his administration.
While progressives cheered the nomination of Xavier Becerra, the California attorney-general and former congressman, as Mr Biden’s health and human services secretary on Monday, they have been pushing the president-elect to go further as he fills out his team.
The pressure from the left comes ahead of senior appointments expected this week, including the next defence secretary and other members of Mr Biden’s “economic and domestic cabinet”, according to the transition.
So far, progressives have had to contend with a list of mainly left-of-centre nominees. Progressive rivals of Mr Biden, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren or Senator Bernie Sanders, are no longer being considered for cabinet roles — a decision the president-elect has justified by saying he needs all current Democratic lawmakers in a closely divided Senate.
“The progressives aren’t objecting, but they’re also not jumping up and down saying ‘yay’,” said Don Beyer, a Democratic congressman from Virginia.
The nomination of Mr Becerra, 62, the son of Mexican immigrants, came after intense pressure from Latino groups for greater representation in Mr Biden’s administration.
Civil rights groups including the NAACP have also been calling on Mr Biden to appoint more black nominees to cabinet roles, beyond the selection of Cecilia Rouse as chair of the White House council of economic advisers and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as US ambassador to the UN.
Retired General Lloyd Austin, who is African-American, has recently emerged as a top contender to lead the Pentagon, according to multiple US media reports.
Pete D’Alessandro, a longtime Iowa political operative and former adviser to Mr Sanders, said there was growing frustration in the progressive community that Mr Biden and his team were more concerned about making their appointments palatable to Republicans.
“[If you’re Biden] you want to be an inclusive president,” said Mr D’Alessandro. “That’s probably a noble goal. But at the end of the day, you know, how about reaching out and give us a little something, too?”
Waleed Shahid, communications director for the progressive group Justice Democrats, said there was some relief that Mr Biden had chosen former Fed chair Janet Yellen for treasury secretary over Lael Brainard, a Fed governor who has been painted as more of a centrist.
He said there was a similar reaction to Mr Biden’s selection of Neera Tanden of the Center for American Progress think-tank as budget director over Bruce Reed, the president-elect’s former chief of staff who has been criticised by progressive lawmakers as a deficit hawk.
“It’s not the progressive choice, but it’s better than the other option,” Mr Shahid said.
As Mr Biden prepares to announce the rest of his cabinet, progressives see their best hopes in his choices to head the departments of education, interior, labour, transportation and housing and urban development (HUD).
Two progressive African-American women who serve in the House of Representatives are high on their wish list. Marcia Fudge of Ohio has been under consideration for agriculture and HUD. Karen Bass of California — who was also considered as a potential vice-presidential running mate for Mr Biden — is up for the HUD position.
The debate over Mr Biden’s cabinet picks comes as Democratic leaders in Congress deal with accusations over who is to blame for last month’s down-ballot races, where Democrats lost more than half-a-dozen House seats they had flipped in 2018, and failed to retake the Senate.
Josh Gottheimer, a Democratic congressman from New Jersey and member of the bipartisan “problem solvers” caucus, said Mr Biden was contending with the reality that in order to pass legislation, “we’re going to have to bring both sides — Republican and Democratic — together”.
At the same time, he added: “Working across the aisle starts within your own party.”
A potential blueprint for how a Democratic House and Republican Senate might work together under the next administration has been seen in recent days as a bipartisan group of legislators has tried to craft a $908bn stimulus package.
However, some progressive Democratic lawmakers, including Mr Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, have suggested they will not support the plan, which, for now, does not include additional stimulus cheques.
Tim Ryan, a Democratic congressman from Ohio and former presidential candidate, said some progressive Democrats would need to come to terms with the fact that Mr Biden would need to cater to Republicans.
“Unless we win both these Senate seats in Georgia (runoff elections on January 5), Mitch McConnell is going to be the leader of the Senate, which means it’s going to move things towards the centre,” Mr Ryan said.
“We can make a lot of progress, but we also have to recognise that not everybody is going to get what they want.”
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