WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Warren is not going to be treasury secretary. Bernie Sanders seems unlikely to lead the Labor Department. And progressives have so far failed to persuade President-elect Joe Biden to put their favored candidates in top jobs for his administration.
But they appear to have succeeded in making enough noise to keep out their biggest foes, at least for now.
“On the domestic side, the worst of the worst have so far been blocked,” said David Segal, the executive director of the group Demand Progress, which has been outspoken in its criticism of some Biden appointees.
"There might not be knock-down drag-out public fights where activists and senators try to take down particular nominees — but if that’s the case, it will have been the threat of those fights that will have made them unnecessary,” he said.
Biden has been performing the delicate balancing act of selecting people who not only would be “accepted by all elements of the Democratic Party,” as he recently put it, but who also stand a reasonable chance of getting confirmed by a Senate that will be in GOP hands if Democrats don’t win next month’s Georgia runoffs.
He has faced increasing calls for more diversity. And there are still numerous Cabinet positions to be filled, including many foreign policy positions that progressives are worried about, but Biden has thus far passed over ideologues from both sides of his party’s divide.
“They’re putting forward more weather vanes and operatives than ideologues,” said Waleed Shahid of the left-wing group Justice Democrats. “The kinds of people Obama appointed who were most ideologically hostile to the left wing of the party are not being appointed this time.”
Shahid pointed to figures from former President Barack Obama’s first term who not only were moderates but also sometimes seemed to relish brawling with the left, such as Obama’s former top economic adviser Larry Summers and chief of staff Rahm Emanuel.
The strategy is in keeping with Biden’s political philosophy of building consensus and trying to hold together a big-tent coalition, even after he defeated more progressive candidates in the Democratic primaries.
“I don’t think they want to have any third-rail people,” said Jeff Hauser, who runs the aggressive progressive government watchdog Revolving Door Project.
“Basically, the people from the Obama-Biden world who thought of themselves as progressives are doing well, even if Bernie or Warren supporters might not buy the self-application of ‘progressive’ by a lot of these people,” Hauser said.
Tellingly, no public warning shots have been fired across Biden’s bow from progressive senators who will ultimately have a say over who gets confirmed, which is notable because Warren, in particular, was willing to sink Obama appointments.
Progressives still hope to see a real champion appointed to one of the many positions Biden needs to fill, but they’re also focused on trying to block people like Emanuel, who went on to become the mayor of Chicago and is said to be under consideration to lead the Transportation Department, although many discount his prospects.
Many on the left suspect that Biden’s team has floated trial balloons it knows they would hate to make the final picks look better by comparison.
And they were buoyed by the announcement Thursday that Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, who has sparred with unions in her state, would not be Biden’s health and human services secretary, and they were pleased with his selection, instead, of California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.
Ady Barkan, the liberal health care activist confined to a wheelchair by terminal ALS, praised Becerra on Twitter as as an "excellent pick" who "believes deeply that health care is a human right."
“Biden does coalition politics and figures out who are the people who will offend the least number of coalition interest groups,” said Sean McElwee, co-founder of the left-wing think tank Data for Progress.
The left has been far more aggressive with Biden than it was when Obama came into office, and McElwee said it should so far be pretty happy with the results, considering its candidates lost the Democratic primaries.
“I think Obama actually got a lot of passes on the Cabinet, because he had that progressive sheen, but Biden is getting the opposite treatment, because he was rhetorically opposed to the left in the primary,” McElwee said.
Biden is said to be considering a teachers union official to lead the Education Department, for instance, while Obama selected a champion of charter schools whom the nation’s largest teachers union later called on to resign.
To be sure, progressives have vocally criticized Biden's appointments they do not like and push for people they think would be better.
Last week, they slammed the selection of Obama economic adviser Brian Deese to lead the National Economic Council over his work for the financial giant BlackRock. And they grumbled about the selection of Center for American Progress President Neera Tanden, a onetime Sanders critic, to run the Office of Management and Budget. But neither appointment is a hill the left wants to die on.
And they see a silver lining in the way Biden’s team rolled out the nominations. Tanden emphasized how government welfare programs helped her family and should help more, while Deese was tasked with making climate change an economic priority for the new administration.
“We are not necessarily seeing our people in the highest positions of power yet, although we’re still hopeful,” said Evan Weber, a co-founder of the youth climate activist group Sunrise Movement. “But in many ways we’re helping to set the direction and agenda of the party, even if we’re not the ones in the driver seat or in control ourselves.”