Although progressives applauded the selection of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra – a proponent of “Medicare-for-all” – to lead the Health and Human Services Department, they’ve also openly bristled at some of Biden’s other nominees and have urged him to move further left when he fills the remaining positions.
The majority of Biden’s Cabinet picks so far have consisted mostly of establishment and Obama-era figures, such as former Federal Reserve Chairwoman Janet Yellen for treasury secretary, Hillary Clinton adviser Neena Tanden for Office of Management and Budget director, Tom Vilsack for agriculture secretary and Tony Blinken for secretary of state.
Biden has mostly succeeded in not angering progressives outright, but some – including Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y. – have expressed fears that the former vice president won’t assemble a Cabinet that includes anyone who shares their political views.
“The progressive movement deserves a number of seats – important seats – in the Biden administration. Have I seen that at this point? I have not,” Sanders told Axios last week.
The Vermont independent, a one-time rival of Biden during the Democratic presidential primary, said he has informed the president-elect’s team that the progressive movement accounts for at least 35% of the Democratic coalition in order to sway them to fill open seats with left-leaning individuals.
“Without a lot of other enormously hard work on the part of grassroots activists and progressives, Joe would not have won the election,” Sanders said.
Ocasio-Cortez also raised concerns that Biden’s advisers lacked a cohesive vision.
“We can wrestle about whether they are bold enough or ambitious enough, especially given the uncertainty and what kind of Senate we’re going to have,” Ocasio-Cortez told reporters last week. “But aside from that, I think one of the things I’m looking for, when I see all of these picks together, is: What is the agenda? What is the overall vision going to be? I think that’s a little hazy.”
At the same time, Biden is facing some blowback after he announced last week that he plans to tap Vilsack, the former Iowa governor and a veteran from the Obama Cabinet, to lead the Department of Agriculture. Vilsack previously led the department from 2009 to 2017.
South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn, along with many progressive Democrats, had pushed Biden to tap Ohio Rep. Marcia Fudge to fill the position, lobbying for her with two of the president-elect’s closest advisers. Clyburn has also discussed the matter with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif.
“I feel very strongly,” Clyburn told The New York Times. “It’s time for Democrats to treat the Department of Agriculture as the kind of department it purports to be.”
The South Carolina Democrat maintained the Agriculture Department has for too long seemed to “favor big farming interests” over less wealthy people, whether they be “little farmers in Clarendon County, S.C., or food stamp recipients in Cleveland, Ohio,” Fudge’s hometown.
Clyburn also pushed back against the idea that Biden may pick Vilsack, echoing complaints that the former vice president will represent a third Obama administration.
“I don’t know why we’ve got to be recycling,” Clyburn told the Times. “There’s a strong feeling that Black farmers didn’t get a fair shake” under Vilsack.
The fate of Biden’s Cabinet nominees ultimately depends on two Senate runoffs in Georgia on Jan. 5, which will determine whether Republicans maintain their majority in the upper chamber. If Democrats win both races, they would secure a 50-50 split in the upper chamber, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris then casting tie-breaking votes.