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In 2008, the left wing of the Democratic Party felt shut out of the Obama transition effort.
Amid an historic financial crisis, Barack Obama filled key jobs with holdovers of the moderate Clinton economic team like Larry Summers and Tim Geithner, who liberals felt were more focused on rescuing big banks than the people losing their homes.
“The progressive approach to the transition in 2008 was not organized,” said Jeff Hauser, the director of The Revolving Door Project, which he founded in 2015 to dig deep on executive branch appointees in anticipation of the next Democratic administration. “It was a defeat.”
So for the last decade, Hauser and a small group of liberal activists have been quietly organizing in the wonky world of transition politics to prevent a repeat of 2008. Their goal in 2020: make a prospective Biden administration look more like a Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren administration. And they see an opportunity to get some of their agenda enacted through the 4,000-plus appointees Biden would need to pick should he win.
The left-wing's cri de coeur — “personnel is policy” — takes a page from the Reaganites of the early 1980s, who pushed aside more moderate Rockefeller Republicans in favor of conservative firebrands. “Those who truly want Washington to change must look beyond the rhetoric to the Rolodex,” Scot Faulkner, director of personnel for Reagan’s 1980 campaign, later wrote.
In addition to Hauser, the progressive effort is being led by David Segal of the left-wing group Demand Progress and the Roosevelt Institute — a think tank with close ties to Sen. Warren that is dedicated to pushing the party left on economic policy — along with its 501c4 advocacy group, Roosevelt Forward.
The tactics include doing opposition research on potential nominees with more moderate politics, which they are then circulating via left-wing publications like The American Prospect. They are also vetting more progressive voices to put forward for consideration — like former Deputy Treasury Secretary Sarah Raskin and Raphael Bostic, the current president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta — and lobbying the Biden transition team publicly and privately.
The Biden transition so far has been trying to give all elements of the party a seat at the table. Left-wing allies like Julie Margetta Morgan and Joelle Gamble, two former top Roosevelt Institute officials, are on the transition's full-time domestic economic team, which reviews the alphabet soup of executive branch agencies to see how they can be used to implement the Biden policy agenda.
Felicia Wong, the president of the Roosevelt Institute, sits on the transition's just-created advisory board. Former aides to Warren and Rep. Pramila Jayapal — Gautam Raghavan and Julie Siegel — are also on the full-time staff.
The transition also includes moderate elements, however, including technocrats from the Obama administration and more business-friendly Democrats who recently lobbied or worked for places like Apple, Facebook, and Twitter. Some Biden advisers are pushing him to adopt the Green New Deal, while others think it's a political nonstarter. The team, much like the broader Democratic party, is currently united in their desire to defeat Trump but could become unwieldy after November.
Biden aides have sought to reassure the progressives still disappointed about his primary victory by promising that he would be more liberal on economic policy than Obama or any other recent Democratic president.
"I think the Biden agenda is kind of Exhibit A in terms of the positive influence of the shift in the role that progressives have played in party and platform politics," said longtime Biden economic adviser Jared Bernstein. "This is the most progressive policy agenda I've been part of and it's one that was consistently guided by Biden, himself."
Some progressives remain skeptical that the Biden efforts will lead to meaningful appointments after November and fear a Biden administration will ultimately closely resemble the Obama administration.
But transition and Biden allies said they are sincere in their commitment to collaborate with the left wing of the party. "I think that the Obama restoration concern is misguided," said Bernstein.
Wong echoed that point in an interview. "I have every expectation that you're going to see bold solutions when it comes to both the people who are appointed and the kinds of policies that ultimately are adopted in governance," she said. "There’s a lot that we now understand based on the lessons of 2008 about the dangers of austerity and not doing enough at the federal level to forestall recessions."
Many progressives also count Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime aide who is heading the transition, as an ally. During the financial crisis, Kaufman succeeded Biden in the Senate and was a surprisingly tough critic of Geithner and the Obama team’s economic policy. He ultimately took over for Warren on the panel overseeing the bank bailout package, TARP.
The Biden transition's embrace of some of these progressive figures lends credence to Republicans’ argument that a Biden presidency would be further to the left than his more moderate track record would suggest.
The progressive organizers, however, are pushing for more — the appointment of people like Raskin or Bostic for the Federal Reserve or Treasury secretary and former longtime Warren aide Bharat Ramamurti for the SEC or FDIC. The progressive group Data For Progress even released a "Progressive Cabinet Project" with their ideal choices for cabinet posts.
They have simultaneously been firing warning shots toward some more moderate officials who could have high positions in a Biden administration. “How Biden’s Foreign Policy Team Got Rich,” read one recent headline in the American Prospect — which partners with the Revolving Door Project. The article took aim at Michèle Flournoy, a possible secretary of Defense, and Tony Blinken, a potential secretary of State, and their private sector work. This past week, the Prospect published another piece that dug into the past work of Steve Ricchetti, Biden’s chief of staff as vice president from 2013 to 2017, arguing he should not become chief of staff in a Biden White House.
Some on the left acknowledge that their lists are aspirational. There is also the risk of being so aggressive that the Biden team tunes them out, entirely. But they hope the more organized roster of people will pay dividends and prohibit an Obama redux.
While Obama remains largely popular with Democrats, many of the activists dedicated to transition work believe many in his administration were too cozy with the finance industry and too concerned with Republican attacks about the ballooning deficit at a time of economic crisis. They believe those decisions led to insufficient urgency in dealing with the foreclosure crisis and not spending enough on the recovery.
Progressive frustration built through the Obama years and exploded into the open when Obama weighed keeping his promise to Summers to nominate him to be chairman of the Federal Reserve and then again as he tried to ratify the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
In many ways, these left-wing groups are picking up where they left off in 2016. The Revolving Door Project and many of The Roosevelt Institute’s efforts were made in anticipation of a Hillary Clinton administration. Warren was also heavily involved with a barrage of personal appeals to the Clinton transition team and campaign chairman John Podesta.
They were successful in getting appointments to the obscure but consequential agency landing teams and the transition hiring Warren ally Rohit Chopra, who is now an FTC commissioner. Asked if she was directly lobbying Biden’s transition as well, a Warren spokesperson did not respond.
“There was a lot of this in 2016 and so this is just an extension of that,” said David Dayen, executive editor of The American Prospect. “There is now an infrastructure around personnel.”