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Joe Biden has now announced his transition team and a number of his cabinet appointees, giving us some idea of how he can be expected to govern. It’s very much true that “personnel is policy” and that the records of the people he chooses for key roles can indicate what kind of president he intends to be.
How are the picks so far? Well, the bad news for progressives is that there has not yet been a single person announced that the left can be enthusiastic about. The best that can be said of the nominees is that they are generally “not as bad as we might have feared”. Some of the choices are deeply concerning. Others border on the unobjectionable. Most are relatively predictable, as Biden is making it clear he intends to hew as closely as possible to the Democratic politics of the Obama years. Here are a few worthy of note.
Antony Blinken, Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, is one of the Obama veterans, having previously served as deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state. Blinken is a card-carrying member of what is sometimes called the “Blob”, the DC foreign policy establishment, which has a consensus set of beliefs that the US must remain a dominant global power, and a willingness to use military force to maintain that power.
Blinken previously broke with Biden to support the (disastrous) armed intervention in Libya and has argued that Israel should keep receiving colossal amounts of US military aid even if it refuses to honor international agreements. (He also suggested that the US would never publicly criticize the Israeli government.) Blinken’s statement that diplomacy needs to be “supplemented by deterrence” is a sign that he will have little interest in reining in the sprawling US global military empire, and his statements about “undermining” and “isolating” Russia suggest we could see an increase in the cold war-type rhetoric that has been gaining such an alarming foothold in the Democratic party.
In fact, at a recent Aspen Security Forum discussion, Blinken favorably quoted from the cold warrior George F Kennan, who argued that the Soviet Union was inherently expansionist and needed to be dealt with through “containment”. Blinken said Kennan’s worldview was “eerily up to the moment”, though Kennan’s views escalated the tensions that nearly led to nuclear war with the Soviet Union. Blinken’s appointment is taken as a sign that “internationalism is back” in the White House, but it’s an internationalism that divides the world into America’s allies and its rivals.
Janet Yellen as treasury secretary offers little to complain about, though it is notable that Biden did not heed calls to put a trust-buster like Elizabeth Warren in the role. Yellen is a highly respected academic economist and former Federal Reserve chair who is relatively apolitical, and her appointment has excited other Democratic economists including Lawrence Summers and Paul Krugman. Even the socialist economic analyst Doug Henwood says Biden “could have done a lot worse” than Yellen. The good news about Yellen is that she is not an advocate of austerity policies and has spoken of the need for the government to extend “extraordinary fiscal support” during the pandemic.
The appointment of John Kerry as special envoy for climate is perhaps Biden’s way of signaling that he takes climate change seriously – as Democrats up until now tragically have not. I say it’s “Biden’s way” because it’s not necessarily a good way to show a commitment to taking serious action on climate – Kerry has “stature” and “experience”, and, thank God, actually does believe in the reality of climate change (unlike the present administration). But he is also known as a man long on words and short on actions. Even worse, Kerry favors an approach to dealing with climate change that rests on commodifying and selling nature rather than preserving it as our common inheritance.
He recently published an op-ed explaining “how to better tackle climate change” which focused entirely on nudging the free market into putting a price on carbon. Nothing about how to deal with the equity effects of carbon pricing (ie making sure the financial burden doesn’t end up falling on the poor). Nothing about the federal government taking action to convert the electric grid, shutting down fossil fuel-reliant power stations, and investing in renewable energy. Nothing about a Green New Deal. And given Kerry’s record of defending the expansion of US fossil fuel production under Obama, he’s very unlikely to get tough on the companies most responsible for the problem. Climate activists should be incredibly concerned by the appointment of Kerry, who may acknowledge that the problem exists, but will almost certainly attempt phony business-friendly “solutions” and half-measures. It will require a huge fight to get the Biden administration to take real action.
Also deeply concerning is the selection of Avril Haines for director of national intelligence. Haines is a former deputy CIA chief from the Obama years, and while much news coverage has dwelled on her quirky life history – she rebuilt a plane! She’s a brown belt! She owned a bookstore! – she also played a key role in overseeing the drone strike program under Obama. This should be completely disqualifying, because Obama’s use of drones was a national disgrace.
There has been very little accountability or acknowledgment of how bad it was. Anyone involved with the program should have been prosecuted. Instead they’re being rewarded. Haines was involved with an initiative to supposedly make the drone program more responsible – and less likely to turn Yemeni weddings into funerals – but the ACLU pointed out that the fixes were completely inadequate and Human Rights Watch notes that Obama paved the way for Trump to deploy similarly lawless killing powers.
That’s not all. As Spencer Ackerman reported for the Daily Beast in July, Haines was involved in the sham “accountability” process that shielded CIA officials from being punished for their involvement with torture. Haines also supported Gina Haspel’s nomination as CIA director, despite Haspel’s direct supervision of the torture program. If Haines couldn’t even oppose the appointment of a torturer as CIA director, how can she be expected to rein in American intelligence agencies’ abuses of power?
Alejandro Mayorkas, Biden’s nominee to lead the Department of Homeland security, is considered likely to roll back some of the Trump administration’s cruelest immigration policies. Mayorkas was one of the original architects of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (Daca) and is considered a positive choice by advocates for immigrant rights. But it’s very unclear whether Mayorkas is committed to the equitable treatment of immigrants. When he previously served at the department, an inspector general’s report found that he had personally intervened to help rich people, including Hollywood producers, Vegas casino owners, and the former Democratic National Committee chair and Virginia governor Terry McAuliffe, get around the usual immigration rules. The report was deeply damning, even quoting a witness who said Mayorkas explicitly prioritized “people with money” and bullied anyone on his staff who questioned the wisdom of his decisions.
What about the broader transition team? Well, it does contain executives from companies like Lyft, Airbnb, Amazon, Capital One, Booz Allen, Uber, Visa and JPMorgan, suggesting that Biden’s administration has no intention of challenging the country’s most powerful corporations and instead sees them as partners in governance. But the team is a mixed bag. The education team, for instance, contains several teachers’ union officials, which may signal a willingness to move away from the Obama administration’s controversial pro-charter approach. It looks as if Biden is trying to draw from many different parts of the party, including the nonprofit world and the elite law firm world.
It’s true, as the neoconservative turned Democrat Max Boot wrote in the Washington Post, that Biden’s team lacks obvious “grifters, trolls and fanatics”. The Trump administration has been full of so many incompetent and ghoulish ideologues that that bar for Biden’s selections is uncommonly low. But we cannot afford to celebrate this return to “experienced” establishment politics, because the Washington from which these people come is a morally corroded place. As Andrew Bacevich, a critic of American imperial aggression, puts it, Biden’s “team has a belief in American supremacy which could lead them to recklessness in their use of American military power”. They may not be thieves or rightwing hardliners, and the Biden administration is sure to be a huge improvement on its disastrous predecessor. But progressives need to watch out: on immigration, the climate crisis and foreign policy, the administration needs to be subjected to ceaseless public pressure, its inevitable serious failings called out and exposed.