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Corporation-free zone: Progressives press Biden to lock out big business

A coalition of groups on the left are planning to flood the transition with tweets, emails and calls.
Image: President-Elect Biden And VP-Elect Harris Deliver Remarks In Wilmington, DE
President-elect Joe Biden speaks as he addresses the media after a virtual meeting with the National Governors Association's executive committee at the Queen Theater on November 19, 2020 in Wilmington, Del.Joe Raedle / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Progressives are ramping up their public pressure on President-Elect Joe Biden to appoint progressives to key jobs in his incoming administration and keep out corporate executives, lobbyists and consultants.

A coalition of online liberal groups is launching a campaign Friday to direct calls, emails and tweets to Biden transition officials and senators with demands to "keep corporate insiders out of your administration." A related effort, also launching Friday, asks supporters to sign a petition urging Biden to put progressives in his Cabinet, even if it means using recess appointments to overcome GOP opposition.

It's a common tactic, but one liberal grassroots groups have less commonly used against Democrats, especially one who just won the presidency.

"Millions of people will receive emails about these two efforts urging them to take action. We expect hundreds of thousands of them will," said David Segal, the co-founder of the progressive group Demand Progress. "And Senate offices and members of the transition team can expect a groundswell of grassroots opposition to corporatist picks."

Demand Progress, along with other groups, launched the new website naming and shaming "some of the most concerning corporate insiders trying to get into the Biden administration," which includes former Obama administration officials and Biden allies who have worked as lobbyists in the past or espoused policies they view as anathema to the modern Democratic Party.

The petition effort, meanwhile, is led by Daily Kos, the blog that helped raise millions for Democratic candidates in the Trump era, along with the think tank Data for Progress, the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and about a dozen other groups.

"We have spent the last four years watching the Trump administration repeatedly put the interests of big businesses and corporate lobbyists over the well-being of everyday people, causing untold suffering — especially during the COVID-19 pandemic," said Daily Kos communications director Carolyn Fiddler. "That's why it is imperative that the Biden administration appoint a Cabinet that puts the American people's interests over corporate agendas."

In 2008, the progressive movement largely demobilized after helping Barack Obama get elected. In the interest of party unity, they mostly kept their concerns quiet as he passed over their suggestions for his Cabinet and hired some others they found unacceptable, a move many on the left came to later regret.

And they see executive branch personnel choices as critical to their policy agenda.

"Even if Democrats take back the Senate narrowly, executive-branch powers will be one of Biden's most powerful ways of tangibly improving Americans' lives," said Jeff Hauser, the founder of the Revolving Door Project. "He cannot defer to corporate America if he hopes to do that."

At a press conference outside the Democratic National Committee Thursday, progressive lawmakers said activists would have allies on the inside in confronting the new president.

"We have worked with the Biden administration to secure a $2 trillion climate plan," Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., told a group young climate activists with the Sunrise Movement, "but we're not going to stop there."

“We’re going to organize and demand that this administration — which I believe is decent and kind and honorable — keep their promise,” she continued. "Keeps its promise to young people. Keeps its promise to the movement for black lives. Keeps its promise to working-class people across the United States."

Standing by a sign that read "Biden: Be brave," the lawmakers included the four members of the "The Squad," bolstered by "reinforcements" including Reps.-elect Cori Bush, D-Mo., Jamaal Bowman, D-N.Y., and Mondaire Jones, D-N.Y. All three of the incoming lawmakers are young and black.

The group also included 74-year-old Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who has become an unexpected favorite of the young left after defeating a member of the Kennedy family in a primary challenge this year with a stridently progressive message.

"Young people rose up and young people voted in unprecedentedly high numbers and their number one issue was the climate crisis," Markey said. "We're just here to say that we want and we ask Joe Biden to be brave, to be big, to be bold."

They’re calling for Biden to create a new high-level position in the White House akin to a national security adviser to coordinate the government’s response to climate change and transition to a greener economy.

Other groups, like the Progressive Change Institute, an offshoot of the Elizabeth Warren-linked Progressive Change Campaign Committee, have put together lists of hundreds of suggested candidates for various government posts.

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Biden's transition team continues to have conversations with progressive activists and experts and has brought several into the fold in advisory roles, even as the movement revs up the public pressure, which makes for a sometimes awkward balancing act for the left as they try to push Biden while also not alienating themselves from his orbit.

"This isn't a form of protest," said Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a former co-chair of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign, on the sidewalk outside the DNC. "It's building public support."

Biden's camp declined to comment for the record.

Some in his transition team, though, are growing frustrated with what they view as antics, noting progressives have a seat at the table and that no faction will get everything they want all the time. They warn the efforts could backfire by getting activists tuned out.

The left has hailed some of the few appointments Biden has announced so far, such as White House chief of staff Ron Klain, but they slammed the selection of Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., to lead the White House Office of Public Engagement, arguing he has been too soft on energy companies, which have a large presence in his district.