When President-elect Joe Biden announced Ron Klain to be the White House chief of staff in his forthcoming administration, a rush of leading voices in the Democratic Party’s left wing publicly applauded the move.
Those too were met with nods of approval from some of the most vociferous forces on the left.
As the the Biden transition picks up steam, what started as early sighs of relief with Klain’s appointment has ballooned into a pronounced endorsement of Biden’s initial selections to lead some of the highest-profile positions in government, with progressives giving the president-elect a hat tip on the delicate balancing act of appealing to both wings early on.
“The Biden team made a really genuine effort to reach out to the left on a whole range of issues, including on foreign policy,” Matt Duss, who serves as foreign policy adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), told The Daily Beast in an interview. “They understood this helped them to win and now I think they understand that it can help them govern.”
Top progressives close to Sanders and others in the party’s left flank, as they tell it, are not praising Biden’s first personnel installments because they expect them to enact grassroots-oriented changes in the way Sanders would hope to. By nature of being closely aligned with Biden, they are largely institutionalists, too.
But the fact that the future president has curated a slate of names that, so far, have not incited or alienated the left is considered a positive development among those who often eagerly convey grievances about Democratic officials’ policy positions and personal biographies alike.
Tactically, Klain is one of Biden’s closest advisers who had a central role in molding his successful campaign against President Donald Trump. On policy, Blinken has been Biden’s right-hand on foreign affairs for over a decade, helping him craft responses to pressing geopolitical issues. And Yellen is perceived among Democrats as a capable and respected former chair of the Federal Reserve appointed by Biden’s old boss, President Barack Obama.
Sanders advisers and aides agree that Blinken has a history of meeting minds with progressives. Duss, who fashioned the senator’s foreign policy platform for his second presidential campaign, said that Blinken and others regularly engaged with left-leaning foreign policy groups during the general election, a strategic decision that he said has now helped create a natural bridge between the two sides. Entering a new administration with that type of dialogue within the community is essentially unprecedented, he said.
“Having those relationships going in and having those avenues of communication with a secretary of state is new for a secretary and for the progressive left,” Duss said.
Ari Rabin-Havt, who was recently Sanders’ deputy campaign manager, agreed that top fixtures on the left are ready to engage in a productive manner with nominees announced by Biden’s transition.
“What this shows is progressive leaders on individual issues are very willing to hear out the Biden administration and give honest assessments,” said Rabin-Havt. “I think if you saw a different set of people rolled out, you would see different assessments.”
Among the more notable names unveiled this week, Biden’s choice of Kerry as climate envoy, who will also sit on the National Security Council, was met with a positive reception among top activists.
Kerry was one of Biden’s main endorsers who also doubled as a surrogate during the campaign. During some of the more trying junctures of his bid—including in the first two primaries—Kerry loyally stumped for him, often to little fanfare, in anticipation of more fortuitous days to come.
Despite Biden’s decision not to adopt the signature “Green New Deal” proposal favored adamantly by those within the movement, some pointed to Kerry’s willingness to work with progressive activists recently as one bullet point indicating momentum.
Varshini Prakash, the Sunrise Movement’s executive director, said she linked up with Kerry on the Biden-Sanders taskforce, one of several areas where Biden and Sanders allies collaborated in anticipation of a post-Trump era. “He really does care about stopping climate change. That’s something we can work with,” Prakash wrote on Twitter.
Biden is expected to name additional posts in the coming weeks. And some possibilities have already been met with objections. Those conversations are largely focused around Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of Staff under Obama and former Chicago mayor, and longtime Biden hand Bruce Reed. Incoming freshman Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) wrote a lengthy thread detailing his strong disapproval of Emanuel, which was subsequently echoed by like-minded members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY).
Other names floated such as former Obama-era Deputy Central Intelligence Agency Director Mike Morell, who is under consideration to head up the agency, have been met with some Democratic skepticism about getting a leading defender of torture tactics confirmed in the Senate.
But for now, the outrage is the exception. Some Democrats view that as a reflection of Biden’s ability to walk a line among professionals who are, essentially, getting moved up a career notch, as well as his desire to avoid snubbing a substantial portion of the party who proactively helped him defeat Trump.
“What’s very interesting about the picks that have been made so far is you can basically describe them as job promotions for people who have been in the job just underneath that for a number of years,” said Joel Rubin, who was Sanders’ Jewish outreach director during his 2020 campaign and a senior State Department official under Obama (and periodic Daily Beast contributor).
“There’s no jaggedness or newness in the spheres that they will be responsible for in the sense of a new human who comes in and is just totally distinct from anything that was there beforehand. In many ways, there’s a familiarity that enables more confidence from the get go.”
That sense of preparedness is clear with Yellen. While not considered a steadfast Biden loyalist like Klain and Blinken, her steering of the federal reserve has long excited some Hill progressives, including in particular Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). Warren publicly applauded Yellen on Monday, along with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, a group that supports her policies.
“Progressives lost the primary so are not going to pick the cabinet obviously,” said Sean McElwee, who founded Data for Progress, which also boosts Warren’s agenda. “But there’s a difference between entirely shutting out what progressives want and taking it into consideration.”
“In terms of the band of possible options that became possible after Super Tuesday, these are on the most optimistic end of that for progressives.”