California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, who has run the Justice Department for America’s largest state since 2017, seemed like a logical candidate for a top job in the Biden administration. His name cropped up in connection to one job in particular: U.S. Attorney General. And in the days before and right after the election, media speculation about who Biden would tap to run the Department of Justice almost always included Becerra.
But over the last week, Becerra seemingly emerged out of nowhere as a potential candidate to run the Department of Health and Human Services. Then, in one of the more interesting and surprising choices for a top appointment made so far by President-elect Joe Biden and his team, Biden ultimately did choose Becerra as his nominee for secretary of HHS. It’s one of Biden’s most important choices — Becerra will be running a department heavily involved in helping to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, including hopefully getting millions of Americans vaccinated over the next year.
Why did down-ballot Democrats have such a mediocre showing?
How did Becerra end up at HHS? The gist, according to published reports, is that Biden was considering New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Latina, for the HHS job, but opted against her for reasons that aren’t totally clear. Biden and his team then considered Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, but progressives in the party criticized that potential choice, as they view Raimondo as too conservative. And Latino Democratic leaders would probably have been annoyed if Biden not only didn’t choose Lujan Grisham, who they were pushing hard for HHS, but then chose Raimondo, who is white. So Becerra, who is Mexican American and had a fairly progressive record both during his days as a California congressman and as the state A.G., emerged as an alternative that all sides could live with.
Ideological, racial and ethnic considerations and tensions are normal in the presidential transition and appointment process, particularly for Democrats, who are a much more racially diverse party than the GOP. But the Biden team’s choices in navigating them tell us a lot about the current distribution of power within the party — or at least how Biden and his top advisers see it. So far, based on Biden’s choices, three trends are clear.
- Both the Black establishment and the Latino establishment within the Democratic Party have real clout, able to essentially force Biden to pick some Black and Latino appointees for key posts and to block some people they don’t want.
- The progressive wing of the party doesn’t seem to have enough clout to get its people key jobs, but does have enough power to prevent Biden from picking people they strenuously oppose.
- And other blocs in the Democratic Party, most notably anti-Trump Republicans or former Republicans who backed Biden, don’t have a lot of clout in the appointment process, at least so far. (We should note that this article refers often to stories first broken by The American Prospect and Politico in particular, as both outlets have done stellar reporting on Biden’s transition process.)
Let me unpack those ideas a bit more, starting with the power of the Black and Latino establishments.
I chose those words carefully. It is not clear that rank-and-file Black or Latino voters particularly care who Biden chooses for these top administration roles, or play a big role in this process. It is also fairly clear that the people Biden and his team are really trying to placate are more center-left establishment Black and Latino elites in the party, such as Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina, rather than more left-wing Democrats who are also people of color, such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York.
So how is this playing out? Well, Biden was reportedly hesitant to name former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, who is white, as his agriculture secretary, because the Congressional Black Caucus was pushing for its longtime member Rep. Marcia Fudge of Ohio. (Fudge reportedly will be the nominee to run the Department of Housing and Urban Development.) After naming white people as his nominees for two of what are considered the four most important Cabinet positions — Antony Blinken at State and Janet Yellen at Treasury — Biden was pushed strongly to choose a Black person to run either the DOJ or the Pentagon. Biden eventually chose retired Gen. Lloyd Austin, who is Black, to run the Defense Department.
Similar dynamics are evident among Latino Democrats. Biden had already named Cuban-born Alejandro Mayorkas as his nominee for secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, and his aides were suggesting that DHS will play as important a role as the traditional “big four” (Defense, Justice, State, Treasury). But Latino leaders in the party were not placated by Mayorkas’s appointment alone, helping lead to the Becerra choice.
Again, there’s nothing new or wrong or improper about racial and ethnic considerations playing a role in Cabinet appointments. About 40 percent of Democratic and Democratic-leaning voters are people of color — mostly Black (around 20 percent) and Latino (13 percent). So it’s perfectly natural that those groups would want to be represented in the administration, since they played a big role in electing Biden. Secondly, because Biden is white, and so are many in his political circle, it appears that his initial choices for key jobs are often other white people. (We can’t be totally sure, since much of this process is happening behind closed doors.) So while it looked like the CBC and Fudge were racializing the debate over the Department of Agriculture job, the racializing could have happened earlier, with Biden and his team initially viewing a fellow white person — Heitkamp — as the most logical person for the post and eventually settling on one-time Obama administration Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who is also white. In fact, you could argue that many selection processes in America, in and outside of politics, are and have always been racialized but this is not acknowledged because picking white people is considered normal and disconnected from racial considerations.
In terms of the progressive left, virtually no one who was a prominent supporter of Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren during the primaries has been appointed to a top job yet. This suggests that the party’s progressive wing isn’t powerful enough to force Biden to choose its people, even though something like one-third of Democratic voters align with Sanders or Warren.
That said, people who progressives have urged Biden not to appoint, such as Raimondo, also aren’t getting major jobs. So progressives have enough clout to exercise something like a veto.
The best examples of this progressive veto are two people who served in senior roles in both the Clinton and Obama administrations, have been included in speculation for top Biden posts, but have yet to be chosen for anything: Rahm Emanuel and Bruce Reed. Reed served as Biden’s chief of staff in the Obama administration and a top adviser on his 2020 campaign. I am sure the former vice president will eventually appoint him to some role. But Reed was a major architect of the Democratic Party’s rightward shift in the 1980s and 90s — a shift that many on the left think was a mistake. So the party’s left wing didn’t want Reed in a big job like chief of staff or head of the Office of Budget and Management, and Biden didn’t appoint him to either.
The electoral problems facing Republicans | FiveThirtyEight Politics Podcast
Emanuel also doesn’t seem likely to land a big-time role, despite having strong credentials on paper. (He was a senior White House adviser under Clinton; a Democratic congressman on the leadership team in the 2000s; White House chief of staff under Obama; and mayor of Chicago.) But he is drawing criticism from both progressives and Black leaders. He was involved in the party’s Clinton-era move right, and his administration in Chicago made unpopular decisions such as closing dozens of majority-Black public schools in the city and at first refusing to release the video of the police killing of a Black 17-year-old named Laquan McDonald.1
What about other blocs in the party? Some Asian Americans have been tapped for key jobs, most notably Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget) and Dr. Vivek Murthy (surgeon general). Both are Indian American. But Asian-American Democrats, Jewish Democrats, lesbian, gay and transgender Democrats, Muslim Democrats and other fairly small blocs in the party haven’t mobilized to try to stop anyone from getting a key job thus far, so we don’t know if they have the clout to veto someone.
We are, however, about to see a test of the power of Native American Democrats. They are urging Biden to name Rep. Deb Haaland of New Mexico his nominee for secretary of the interior, which could make her the first-ever Native American Cabinet secretary. Haaland is not a shoo-in for the job, in part because Biden’s team is wary of appointing current Democratic members of Congress to the administration, since both chambers are so closely divided between the two parties.
But Biden has chosen Rep. Cedric Richmond of Louisiana, who is Black, as a senior White House adviser and Fudge to run HUD. So this is not a hard-and-fast rule. Biden’s decision on Haaland will in some ways be a test of how willing he is to annoy Native American activists in the party. And Haaland endorsed Warren during the Democratic primaries, so bypassing her for the Interior slot would likely be interpreted by the progressives as another slight at them.
Biden doesn’t seem to be that concerned about appointing former or current Republicans to top posts, and the “Never Trump” bloc in the party isn’t pushing him too hard for such appointments. For example, both Clinton (William Cohen) and Obama (Robert Gates, Chuck Hagel) appointed people who had previously been aligned with the GOP to run the Defense Department at some point in their presidencies. But it’s clear that Biden was much more focused on finding a Black person to run the Pentagon than a Republican. Anti-Trump Republicans aren’t as big a bloc in the party as Black people, Latinos or progressives (they are around 10 percent, at most). They don’t seem that organized to fight over Cabinet appointments. And because the Senate is so closely divided and Biden may need Republicans to back some of his picks to get them confirmed, Biden is choosing more moderate figures for his cabinet anyway, so the “Never Trump” bloc is getting what it wants without really asking for it — a not-too-progressive Biden administration.
I think it is still very likely that Biden appoints a prominent conservative or two to some post — keep an eye on California businesswoman Meg Whitman, for example — but it’s not likely to be a very powerful one.
Biden’s choices for these positions are not determinative — Biden, not his staff, will make the most important decisions. But these appointments reflect how the Democratic Party is shifting. In the 1992-93 transition, there was a big debate about whether enough Black people were getting top jobs in the Clinton administration. In the 2008-09 transition, with Obama newly elected, Black representation wasn’t as big of a sticking point, but there was some debate about whether there were enough women in top roles.
Compared to 1992-93 and even 2008-09, Latino and progressive Democrats have significantly more influence in the party, so they are making demands that they didn’t in previous transitions. Black Democrats were arguably more instrumental in boosting Biden during the Democratic primaries than Obama in 2008, so they have outsized clout. Meanwhile, white moderate women are firmly enmeshed in the party establishment, so Biden can and has already picked a number of white moderate women for key roles, so women’s groups in the party aren’t having to mobilize to get more women in key posts.
None of this is too surprising. Remember, even before the election Biden had made a choice that illustrated how he saw power in the party: picking Sen. Kamala Harris as his running mate. Black and Latino Democrats would have criticized an all-white ticket; women would have slammed an all-male ticket; progressives would have been really mad if someone like the centrist Sen. Amy Klobuchar was chosen; and Biden himself probably would have been uncomfortable with a very liberal person like Warren. Harris was a consensus choice in an ideologically and racially diverse party. And Xavier Becerra is a similar one.