Progressives push for Warren as Treasury secretary, signaling bigger ideological battle if Biden wins

Alex Seitz-Wald
·6 min read

WASHINGTON -- Progressives are pushing hard to see Elizabeth Warren lead the Treasury Department in an opening salvo of an ideological struggle for control of key government posts if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

Donors, activists and leaders on the left want Warren, the Democratic senator from Massachusetts, as Treasury secretary, more than a half-dozen of them said. And people Warren has spoken to are under the impression that she wants the job if she is offered it.

"There's a huge gap between Sen. Warren and any other likely candidate," said Larry Cohen, former president of the Communications Workers of America union and a close ally of Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt. "She, first of all, understands finance capital and second of all is prepared to wrangle with it. Some of the other candidates I've heard about are not prepared to wrangle with it."

While Biden's campaign is staying focused on the election, his transition team has already begun preparing to staff a new government, a standard practice for presidential candidates given the immensity of the task. "The Biden-Harris transition team is not making any personnel decisions pre-election," said a spokesperson for the transition team.

The team is led by longtime Biden advisers, but it has been consulting with a wide range of left-of-center experts. Progressives generally say it is more responsive than Hillary Clinton's transition effort was four years ago.

"Sen. Warren offers a trifecta of policy depth, progressive pro-Scranton values and a proven track record of managing a federal agency to benefit working Americans," said former Rep. Tom Perriello, D-Va. "Nominating her for [attorney general] or Treasury certainly has compelling upsides for a potential transition eager to be ready for making positive impacts on Day One."

If Biden wins, the left will break its election-season truce with him almost immediately to get people it wants in important Cabinet and other government roles and keep out people it views as too cozy with corporate interests.

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Activists on the left are focused on the officials who will be making economic policy in places like the Treasury Department and the Council of Economic Advisers, but the Justice Department is also a top priority, while foreign policy and defense are of less interest.

"We want to make sure the Biden administration, if he gets into office, realizes that it's there because of the intense energy and resources of the grassroots," said Vasudha Desikan, political director of the Action Center on Race and the Economy. "We want to make sure he is not betraying us."

"Someone like Elizabeth Warren would be a natural choice for so many reasons," she added.

Biden has promised to appoint a diverse Cabinet that "will look like the country," but Rashad Robinson, president of the racial justice group Color of Change, said, "Black faces in high places alone is not enough.

"It has to be combined with the connection to moving the needle and delivering what the base wants. We can have both," Robinson said. "I think that Elizabeth Warren would be an inspired choice for Treasury secretary. She used her time on the national campaign to talk about racial justice in a very clear way."

A Warren spokesperson declined to comment.

Appointing Warren might allow Massachusetts' Republican governor to temporarily fill her vacant Senate seat, but Warren allies say the Democratic supermajority in the state Legislature could ensure that the seat would not stay in Republican hands for long, if at all.

Presidents of both parties have often selected private-sector executives with experience in the financial sector to run the government's finances. But progressives say that would be unacceptable, especially now, because the position would be at the helm of the economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, potentially overseeing trillions in new stimulus dollars.

"The way to truly restore our democracy post-Trump will be through a just economic recovery," said Leah Hunt-Hendrix, a co-founder of the progressive donor network Way to Win. "The secretary of Treasury will have enormous power over this. It is clear that Elizabeth Warren would be the best person for the job."

Way to Win commissioned a poll by the left-wing think tank Data for Progress, which found that 81 percent of Democratic respondents either strongly or somewhat supported the idea of Warren as Treasury secretary.

The Democracy Alliance, another collection of deep-pocketed liberal mega-donors, has been holding a series of briefing calls about its post-election priorities, including with Warren herself, although the group has no official position on particular hypothetical Biden Cabinet picks.

"Traditionally, even in Democratic administrations, presidents have been most concerned in picking a Treasury secretary about reassuring markets," said Gara LaMarche, president of the Democracy Alliance. "This time, with so much at stake and inequality exposed and heightened by the Covid crisis, we need to have a Treasury secretary who puts working people first."

The left wants to avoid a repeat of President Barack Obama's response to the Great Recession, led by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, which they say exacerbated economic inequality by prioritizing bank and corporate rescues over help for struggling families.

"2009 was a huge missed opportunity," said Evan Weber, a co-founder and political director of the Sunrise Movement, a climate group that backed Sanders in the Democratic presidential primaries but has been meeting with Biden's team since then.

"We take Biden at his word that he wants to have a Rooseveltian presidency and build back better and not just return to what we had before," Weber added, referring to President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal policies during the Great Depression.

Warren "definitely would be our top choice," Weber said.

The Sunrise Movement and others on the left want climate change and a transition to a greener economy to be a central part of economic policy across a potential Biden administration.

"You need a Treasury secretary who is thinking big picture and is thinking beyond the traditional portfolio," said Jeff Hauser, who runs the Revolving Door Project, a progressive group focused on government appointees. "The history of good businesspeople going into the Treasury is catastrophic."

The left knows Warren would face immense opposition from Republicans and even from some Democrats, and activists on the left also like the idea of former Federal Reserve Governor Sarah Bloom Raskin, Atlanta Fed President Raphael Bostic or AFL-CIO Chief Economist William Spriggs, among others, in the top Treasury job.

Progressives are not excited about one potential front-runner for the job, Lael Brainard, who they argue has not been aggressive enough in her role as the only Democratic appointee on the Federal Reserve's Board of Governors.