How Progressives Are Building Power in the Biden White House
“Progressives are a big part of our party and making sure their voices are heard here at the White House is a big part of my job,” Chief of Staff Ron Klain told The Daily Beast.
In order to understand just how open the lines of communication are between the progressive left and President Joe Biden, look no further than White House chief of staff Ron Klain’s call log.
Klain speaks to Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) “quite often,” recently talked to freshman Rep. Jamaal Bowman (D-NY), a newly minted Squad member, and has conversations with many “less famous” individuals in the Democratic Party’s left wing on a regular basis, he told The Daily Beast in an interview. Almost always, those chats are conducted over the phone.
“Progressives are a big part of our party and making sure their voices are heard here at the White House is a big part of my job,” said Klain. On Friday, he confirmed that several progressive hires for new roles within the White House will soon be made public.
Klain’s frequent communication with top leaders on the left is part of a critical, emerging infrastructure within the White House. The goal, described by three White House officials, including the chief of staff, is not only to elevate their ideas and concerns, but to make them a permanent part of the policy making process.
Famously known for teetering on the periphery of power within their own party, progressives now have direct access to the administration, jettisoning an initial assumption that the activist class would merely be tolerated in Bidenworld. The escalating dynamic—a mix of phone calls, briefing invitations, and broader mutual courtship—represents a notable shift from how progressives conducted business under former President Barack Obama, when many felt alienated and sidelined, and how some expected to carry on early into the Biden era. Together, it captures the key alliances forming behind the scenes between the White House and passionate liberals on the outside.
When Biden announced Klain, an amiable loyalist and seasoned operator, as his first appointment last November, many Democrats across the party’s spectrum praised his selection. He’s since become a point of rapid response for many on the left who are angling to get within earshot of the president.
But the progressive pursuit is not up to Klain alone.
“One of our key goals… is to ensure that we’re engaging partners, that we’re mobilizing partners and leaders around the president’s agenda,” a second White House official told The Daily Beast, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal communications. “What I say to people is: ‘Set yourself loose. If you have these relationships, we’re all here to serve this broad coalition.’”
Climate activists are among those building some of the strongest bonds within the White House. During the transition, Biden and Sanders allies created a special task force to address goals like a Green New Deal and reducing the country’s fossil fuel reliance. In his inauguration address, the president called the global catastrophe “a climate in crisis.”
Evan Weber, co-founder and political director of the Sunrise Movement, has since muscled his way into discussions about their aggressive agenda. So much so that when he needs to contact John Kerry, the former secretary of state and newly appointed climate czar, the two find time to chat. Weber speaks to Kerry, Gina McCarthy, the White House’s national climate adviser, and other officials “on a weekly basis, if not a daily basis,” according to a source with knowledge of the talks.
Yasmine Taeb has experienced a similarly warm reception from the White House. In late December, Taeb, a human rights lawyer, was among a group of activists who compiled and sent a book of 100 progressive foreign policy practitioners to incoming administration officials hoping to influence important staffing decisions. Just a few months later, she said officials had consulted the list and made “several” hires from the recommendations, with others currently in the process of being interviewed.
“The White House referred to it as a ‘fantastic resource’ and I’ve been in touch with them regularly about it,” said Taeb, sharing details of a positive email she received from an administration contact. “I’m trying to work to ensure that we get as many of the candidates that we recommended into the administration as possible,” she said. “They are in fact using it for staffing purposes.”
On the inside, other officials echoed that desire to engage regularly. “This is very much in line with who he is,” said a third White House official about Biden’s pledge to unify ideologically divergent groups. “He wants to make sure that there’s open communication, open lines. He wants to make sure he doesn’t leave anyone out. He wants to hear from folks.”
After the hard-fought Democratic primary and general election concluded, Biden promised to assemble a “broad coalition” to defeat former President Donald Trump. In doing so, many progressives temporarily withheld their usual criticisms, mindful of that end goal. As the first few days of Biden’s term came together, he rolled out staff that alleviated concerns that he might put a hawkish foreign policy fixture or overt career corporatist, for example, as key department heads. When Tony Blinken and Janet Yellen were announced as secretaries of state and treasury, respectively, progressives exhaled.
In the following weeks, activists took note of other figures who could potentially become allies on the inside. On the Council of Economic Advisers, Jared Bernstein, formerly of the Economic Policy Institute, and Heather Boushey, who co-founded the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, are viewed as formidable forces to promote their shared worldview. Sharon Block, a veteran of Obamaworld and Harvard Law School who joined the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs as its associate administrator, is considered a friendly voice for the left. Klain said more high-profile regulatory hires are in the works.
“Progressives are eager to know the right point of contact for outside groups, especially those who want to help shape and sell the policy agenda,” said Tom Perriello, the executive director of the Open Society Foundations. “They want a relationship more like a governing partnership than a posture of constant pressure, and so far that seems to be working.”
That appears to be consistent among several policy concentrations. Julie Chávez Rodriguez, a former senior official during the latter half of Biden’s campaign, now leads the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs; Cristóbal Alex, who served as president of Latino Victory Fund, is now deputy cabinet secretary within the White House; and Gautam Raghavan, who was chief of staff to Rep. Pramilya Jayapal (D-WA), a key negotiator on Capitol Hill, is currently deputy director of the White House Presidential Personnel Office. Arguably even more than other highly visible members, Jayapal is seen as an influential dealmaker across the party divide, particularly on the COVID-19 relief package.
Nearly a year into the pandemic, where issues around unemployment reached crisis levels, progressives were slotted into top positions within Biden’s Labor Department. The president ultimately tapped Marty Walsh, the former mayor of Boston, to lead the agency—but only after having a discussion with Sanders, who was also under consideration. Two former campaign advisers to Sanders, Analilia Mejia and Josh Orton, now hold prominent roles within the agency; Orton is Walsh’s senior policy adviser and Mejia is deputy director of the women’s bureau. Previously entrenched in both the politics and policies central to making Sandersworld tick, Orton, in particular, has developed alliances on the left that allow him to relay information directly to Walsh. In other areas, Biden has tapped top talent from Warren’s roster, including nominating Rohit Chopra, a close policy hand, to lead the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.
“We’ll go to them,” the first White House official said about their strategy. “Of course we want people to come to us, but we will do anything and everything to build these partnerships. In some cases it’s joining their meetings and joining their coalition convenings, in other cases it’s them joining ours.”
Elaborating on the internal play-by-play of the developing relationships, the official said that they have privately walked progressives through details of the president’s most pressing priorities and implementation plans through invitation-only briefings, including around his immigration agenda and the American Rescue Plan.
“I always say, [if there’s] somebody on this list that needs to be on it that you don’t see, send it to me and we’ll add them,” the official said, specifically referencing solicitations to left-wing Democrats through email invitations.
Not every announcement, however, has been equally embraced. Last month, Biden appointed Susan Rice, Obama’s national security adviser whom some progressives view skeptically, to lead the Domestic Policy Council. Rice previously ran the National Security Council, an inter-agency job by definition. He also appointed former Rep. Cedric Richmond (D-LA), another moderate Democrat, to run the Office of Public Engagement. Both jobs typically involve heavy outreach to outside organizations.
At the center of the intra-party debate, for now, is Neera Tanden, Biden’s choice to lead the Office of Management and Budget. Tanden is known for being unsympathetic and even antagonistic toward progressives, often through her personal Twitter account. While Tanden apologized profusely to both Republicans and Democrats during her Senate confirmation hearings, her words did not assuage the concerns of at least one member in her own party. Moderate Democrat Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) said he would not vote to confirm her, a revelation that possibly throws her entire nomination into jeopardy.
Outside the White House, other progressives are discreetly increasing their activities. On Wednesday, more than 100 community leaders and activists who supported Sanders convened a private Zoom meeting to discuss their chief policy concerns. Some individuals on the call, which was accessed by The Daily Beast, were delegates for his two presidential bids; others are closely tied to the senator and are in regular contact with top leaders in Congress.
During one impassioned moment of the roughly 90-minute conversation, a prominent activist inveighed against Manchin and fellow centrist Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). “We’ve got two senators… that are going to have to be pushed on everything,” the source said before rattling off a handful of others, including Sens. John Hickenlooper (D-CO) and Jon Tester (D-MT) as possibly stifling progressive legislation.
Still, the bulk of the conversation focused on Congress, not the White House. “No more happy talk!” the activist said loudly. “It’s Democrats over there this time, it’s not Mitch McConnell,” the source continued, predicting that there’s “nothing” progressives care about in “any deep way” that will garner Republican support.
“That’s delusional,” the source exclaimed. “We don’t live in that world!”
The nighttime Zoom call was a microcosm of what the White House may face from more fervent activists as differences of scale on certain policies begin to expose party-wide fissures. Two priorities currently being discussed on the left, raising the minimum wage to $15 per hour and forgiving $50,000 of federal student loan debt, have the potential to do that.
Klain says he is well aware that some progressives aren’t too fond of traditional Democrats. He also understands that they won’t always bend.
“I absolutely know that,” he said. Instead, his approach relies on having “regular conversations”—as opposed to needlessly adversarial ones—with those who are willing to come to the table.
“People call with their suggestions, I listen, try to be respectful,” he added. “Sometimes people are happy, sometimes people aren’t, but we keep the dialogue going either way.”
Asked if he considers himself as some kind of a left whisperer, capable of corralling the critical from within the administration, he demurred.
“I’m not sure I consider myself a ‘left whisperer,’” Klain said. “Whatever that is.”