Moderate Democrats believe Biden needs appointees with the experience and inclination to build coalitions for his ideas that include Republicans and business groups beyond the party base.
“Joe Biden … won the Democratic nomination and the presidency because he was a moderate and, frankly, because he could work with the other side,” says Jim Kessler, executive vice president for policy at Third Way, a centrist Democratic group. “That wasn’t a bug, that was a feature, and I expect that the majority of the people in his Cabinet are going to be those who can work with the other side.”
“Democrats will face a fork in the road when it comes to the issue of bipartisanship,” says Adam Green, co-founder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee. “On many issues, a majority of Republican voters support a position that zero Republican politicians in Washington are willing to vote for. At that moment does bipartisanship mean cutting an unpopular deal with corrupt out-of-touch politicians like [Senate Majority Leader] Mitch McConnell? Another option is rally the public and … we hope that’s where [Biden] goes.”
Objections from the left
In many ways, these arguments merely extend familiar ideological disputes from the Clinton and Obama administrations. Many liberals thought that Clinton, with his promise of finding a “third way,” conceded too much to conservative arguments, even before Republicans seized control of both congressional chambers in 1994. If anything, liberal disappointment with Obama may have been more intense because their expectations for him had been so much higher: after generally running to Hillary Clinton’s left during their epic 2008 primary battle, he surrounded himself with many centrist appointees, including Emanuel and an economic team (from Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner to White House economic adviser Larry Summers) with close ties to Wall Street.
“When it comes to who we are opposing [now] there is a lot of trauma that progressives have from 2008 and 2009,” says Waleed Shahid, communications director for Justice Democrats.
But the arguments over potential centrist appointments such as Emanuel, Reed or Heitkamp don’t only look back toward positions they took in the past. They also encompass a much more immediate dispute over how Biden should proceed now.
Compromise — or polarize?
The left has now branded the bipartisan deals Clinton reached in the 1990s as serial capitulations to Republicans. But while incorporating ideas important to conservatives, each of those agreements also advanced substantial liberal goals: the 1994 crime bill (negotiated primarily by Reed, Emanuel and Biden’s incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain) banned assault weapons, devoted billions of dollars to new prevention programs and grants meant to encourage communities to adopt community policing, and included the landmark Violence Against Women Act.
The welfare overhaul bill provided unprecedented new resources for job training and child care, and the balanced budget deal Clinton reached in 1997 expanded tax credits for families with children and created the widely praised Children’s Health Insurance Program, which provides health insurance to children in working-poor families. Reed played a central role in all those negotiations.
Embedded in these personnel fights is the strategic question of whether such Clinton- and Obama-style agreements provide a good template for Biden, who centered his campaign on a promise to unify the country and restore bipartisan cooperation in Washington. Given the narrow partisan balance of power that he will inherit, most centrist Democrats believe he needs appointees with the proven capacity to work with Republicans and other groups outside the Democratic coalition.
“Welcome to the future,” Kessler says of the bipartisan Covid proposal. “This is what the next two years is going to look like, and if we’re fortunate there are going to be lots of these.”
If Biden is indeed hoping to replicate such agreements, Emanuel in the Cabinet and/or Reed in a top White House policy post could be important assets to do so.
But the liberal groups agitating against Biden’s potential centrist nominees believe he’s doomed to failure if he tries to advance his priorities by peeling away a handful of Republican legislators, as Obama tried to do on his stimulus (which ultimately won just three Senate Republican votes after substantial concessions) and health care plans (which no Republicans supported).
“I think that view of politics is just impractical,” says Shahid. “In 2009, you couldn’t get a single Republican to vote for the ACA, and in 2021, Congress is even more polarized than it was in 2009. I am afraid of Joe Biden and the people around him pursuing a political strategy developed in the 1980s and 1990s that doesn’t fit the nature of our polarized Congress today.”
To activists on the left, a strategy built on seeking agreements with Senate Republicans ensures months of delay that ultimately end in failure and flagging momentum. Rather than negotiating at length with McConnell and other Senate Republicans, these groups want Biden to stick to his ambitious campaign proposals on issues such as health care and climate and build public pressure on Congress to endorse them.
Mixed signals so far
Biden has offered somewhat mixed signals on his strategy toward congressional Republicans. At times, he’s acknowledged that compromise may be more difficult than it was during his Senate career — a likelihood underscored by the refusal of almost all congressional Republicans even to acknowledge that he won the election. But more often, he’s stressed his commitment to rebuilding bridges to the GOP and highlighted (sometimes exaggerating) cases where he did reach agreements with McConnell for Obama.
Those around Biden seem certain that he’ll start his presidency offering an open hand to McConnell, rather than the updated version of Truman’s 1948 attacks on the “do-nothing Congress” that some on the left are urging.
“You can’t run Harry Truman’s strategy from day one of your presidency for four years and think that’s going to change things,” said one Biden adviser who asked for anonymity to discuss internal discussions.
For all the agitation against potential nominees, so far Biden’s actual appointments have successfully bridged the party’s tightrope; his team to date hasn’t provoked a serious backlash from either the center or the left.
“Thirty thousand foot zoom out, things feel extremely different now than they did even at the start of the Obama administration,” says Green.
Yet this consensus will be tested very quickly once Biden takes office and faces the daunting task of winning congressional approval for his agenda — starting with an ambitious Covid relief package that Senate Republicans have blocked for months. Biden’s personnel choices have satisfied such a broad range of Democrats partly because they haven’t tipped his hand on how he will approach that puzzle.
The real test will begin soon after the inauguration, when Biden’s actions reveal more about whether he’ll center his dealings with Republicans on conciliation or confrontation.