Biden has played his hand in the dead centre of the political spectrum. And it should trouble you.
The election of Joe Biden to the office of US President is said to have signalled a shift away from right-wing reactionary politics to a more grounded, sensible, down-the-aisle attitude, reversing the maelstrom of Trump’s White House occupation. But is Biden bringing change, or a mere return to the conditions which allowed Trump to gain a popular foothold in the first place? According to Salon, Biden assured a room of moneyed donors that nothing would fundamentally change if he were elected, and his Cabinet appointments certainly show that he intends to follow through on this promise.
Biden’s Cabinet, in its centrism and its corporate roster, is redolent of the Obama administration’s conduct in government, which is unsurprising given that Biden was Obama’s Vice-President. The problems with this soon become clear, as the resumption of normality is not enough to deal with the issues troubling America. Climate change and systemic discrimination cannot be effectively managed by an imitation of Obama, even if it is leagues ahead of Trumpian reality-show politics.
Bear in mind, as TargetSmart research reveals, the huge Democratic voter registration spike during the 2020 George Floyd protests, providing a correlation between an endorsement of radical ideas and heightened popular participation in politics. Progressive policies that call for real, tangible change do win elections, after all. Biden ought to recognise that and organise his Cabinet along those lines.
Biden’s defenders are quick to point out, though, that the vein of moderation in his Cabinet appointments is a proactive response to potential Republican obstructionism. This is not an entirely baseless view: GOP senators like Ted Cruz are notorious for their filibustering and the Republican caucus in the Senate currently outnumbers the Democratic caucus 53 to 47.
But these selections do not just reflect a canny recognition of changing political circumstance. They are also symptomatic of Biden’s overall political orientation as a corporate Democrat who consistently fails to assess what the real problems are and how to solve them.
Biden’s Cabinet follows this inadequacy of ambition in its continuity of private-sector appointees and corporate interests.
The nominated Secretary of Defence, Lloyd Austin, previously worked at a weapons manufacturing conglomerate, Raytheon, an obvious conflict of interest. The nominee for the Secretary of Veterans’ Affairs, Denis McDonough, has sustained pushback from veterans’ unions who wished to see one of their own at the helm. The appointment of Avril Haines as National Intelligence Director is also highly problematic for her previous role in CIA surveillance scandals and her assistance in Trump’s migrant detentions when she was employed by Palantir Technologies.
Then there’s the nominated Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg – a windsock swaying to the will of his donors. Rhodes Scholar and former consultant at the profit-seeking McKinsey & Co., Buttigieg was and is inextricably involved in the association between business and government. According to The New York Times, McKinsey – along with Biden’s NID tap, Haines, and her previous employer – helped President Trump in his militarisation of ICE as part of a remorseless immigration policy. It also aided in the Enron accounting scandal of 2001 by enabling top executives to doctor balance sheets, The Independent reports; and has also, according to The New Yorker, abetted Saudi Arabia in its illiberal crackdown on political dissent.
It is also more than likely that Buttigieg will clash heads with transport labour unions for his time as a McKinsey consultant. The International President of the Transport Workers Union (TWU), John Samuelsen, has expressed concern over the tapping of a DOT candidate who is in favour of privatisation, as Buttigieg is. The TWU, as a member of the AFL-CIO and the most recognised transport union in the US, is paradigmatic of major union response to his nomination.
It is also worth noting that, like Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, Buttigieg has troubling industry connections through his donors. FEC data shows that Google, Apple, Amazon, and – yes – Raytheon gave in total over $80,000 to his 2020 campaign for the Democratic primary nomination. While this is just a fraction of money raised, these connections are nonetheless troubling because, according to public disclosures, these four companies persistently lobbied the Department of Transportation in 2019.
Biden is a red Democrat, a Cinton-type neoliberal with an awkward 40-year past as a Democratic senator passing Republican-style bills, like his 1994 crime bill. His Cabinet clearly echoes this affiliation.
By no means, however, is this the worst Cabinet ever formed: derision of Trump’s presidency is as commonplace as a blue sky for a reason. But being better than Trump is a low bar to cross, and the message to the Biden team should be clear. It’s simply not enough.