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Will Biden Repeat Obama’s Mistakes?

Climate activists are worried—and mobilizing to steer the president-elect in a more ambitious direction.

Drew Angerer/Getty

Joe Biden, while running for president, suggested he was aiming for a Rooseveltian presidency. Progressives who voted for him now want to hold him to that and make sure he presides over a recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic and carries out his $2 trillion climate and economic stimulus plan. The circumstances for that aren’t ideal, given that Republicans will likely retain control of the Senate. And the signals his team has sent out so far on climate offer a blurry picture of how he hopes to spend his all-important first hundred days. 

The trajectory of a presidency is often set before it even starts: In 2008, as Barack Obama prepared to take office, deficit hawks—and incoming chief economic adviser Larry Summers, in particular—warned against the at least $1 trillion stimulus that other experts recommended. The stimulus that ended up getting passed was too small, and the recovery dragged on as a result. 

Reed Hundt, a former Federal Communications Commission chairman and member of the Clinton and Obama transition teams, wrote a book about the failures of the Obama years, A Crisis Wasted. He now warns against making the same pre-inaugural mistakes—in no small part to avoid repeating the catastrophic electoral losses Democrats suffered in 2010, 2014, and 2016. “There was a tremendous amount of concern about the deficit in 2008 and 2009. All of the economists now regret that they’d advised Obama to worry about it,” Hundt told me. He warns, as well, against sequencing priorities in the way Obama’s top advisers did early on, an approach that damned the administration’s top priorities before they took root. “Go big,” is Hundt’s advice, and fast. “First Obama would do this and then that in sequence,” namely a stimulus, a health care bill, climate legislation, and immigration reform. “The result of that is that the energy agenda never got implemented at all, because it was later in the sequence. You need to do everything that needs doing simultaneously out of the gate.”

Biden’s ability to actually set a legislative agenda—on climate or otherwise—will depend in large part on Georgia’s January 5 special election, in which both of its Senate seats are at stake. As establishment Democrats continue sniping at Squad members and their allies, progressives are already funneling money into statewide groups like the New Georgia Project and revamping some of their get-out-the-vote efforts to turn out voters for the runoff elections there on January 5. Kaniela Ing, who heads up climate justice work at People’s Action, says those on the party’s left “get unfairly criticized for letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. But Jon Ossoff literally says he’s against the Green New Deal and Medicare for All, and we’re still willing to throw down. We’re not self-righteous, and we understand the stakes. We just ask that as soon as it’s over there’s some reciprocity.”

While working uphill for wins down South, those who want to see Biden go big also know that means getting creative. If he really does want an FDR-size presidency, he can’t stumble out of the gate like in 2008—or be cowed by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell. Jeff Hauser, who heads the Revolving Door Project, a watchdog group tracking the transition, says Democrats should be ready to play hardball and turn to routinely utilized statues like the Vacancies Act and Recess Appointments Clause to maneuver around the GOP if it attempts to block Biden’s nominations to important agency positions. As affirmed in a recent Supreme Court ruling, the latter allows the president to make appointments during a congressional recess of at least 10 days. “It’s a technical statute, and possible that if you hire incompetent lawyers, you can run afoul of it,” Hauser told me. “It can be unwieldy, but it’s enormously powerful.” 

Another Obama-era mistake Biden should avoid is appointing the wrong people to positions of power. His elevation of Wall Street allies like Summers and Timothy Geithner has been denounced by liberals for what feels like a generation. After raising alarm bells about rumored Biden Cabinet picks for the last few months, the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats yesterday announced a list of 13 officials they’d like to see Biden appoint to top White House posts, along with several alternates. Among those on the list are Bernie Sanders for labor secretary, California Congresswoman Barbara Lee for secretary of state, economist Darrick Hamilton to head the Council of Economic Advisers, and Deb Haaland for secretary of interior. The New Mexico congresswoman, elected in 2018, would be the first Native American to head the agency, which includes the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Sunrise is also calling for the creation of a White House Office of Climate Mobilization, which would take on functions similar in scale to the World War II planning bodies of the 1940s. There’s hardly any part of the federal government that won’t be involved in the work of decarbonizing the economy and adapting to the climate impacts already happening. Sunrise is one of many groups that want those functions to have a permanent home in the executive branch with the authority to coordinate between administrators.  

“Regardless of what the Senate looks like, we are calling on Joe Biden to take his pledge seriously and use every tool in the tool belt to take action on his climate mandate,” said Garrett Blad, a spokesperson for the Sunrise Movement. “If we look back to the Obama administration, we see that personnel is policy, and in a scenario where the Senate is controlled by Mitch McConnell, it makes these positions even more critical for using every tool of the executive branch.”

While they can drive forward climate action, lesser-known departments could place serious constraints on it, too. Included within the Office of Management and Budget is the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Under Ronald Reagan, it became a battering ram for the right’s deregulatory agenda, leveling a check on new and existing rules in the name of stringent cost-benefit analysis—where polluters have been able to generate mountains of paperwork arguing that the costs of new environmental protections, for instance, far outweigh the less easily monetized benefits. Obama appointed cost-benefit-analysis zealot Cass Sunstein to head the OMB. And as a number of senators complained at the time, OIRA under Sunstein became a drag on efforts, among others, to use the full powers of the Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy toward furthering climate and environmental goals. However enterprising and progressive new appointees in other departments might be, that is, the wrong OMB director could weigh them down.

There seems to be a real risk of history repeating itself here. On Tuesday, the Biden transition team released the names on its agency review teams, bodies tasked with assessing the state of the departments new appointees take over come January. They also give a sense, however oblique, of how the Biden camp is thinking those agencies should be run. The OMB team is stacked to the gills with corporate interests from Amazon, Lyft, and Airbnb. Among its members is also OIRA veteran Bridget Dooling, of George Washington University’s Regulatory Studies Center. Funded generously by Charles Koch and the ExxonMobil Foundation, the center mostly churns out papers making the case for loosening rules on corporations. Between 2013 and 2018, 96 percent of comments on the stringency of particular regulations filed by RSC researchers to federal regulatory agencies recommended less regulation, a report by Public Citizen found. Dooling has written recently on the need to codify the cost-benefit state and expand OIRA’s mandate to the IRS. If the agency under Biden reflects her and tech companies’ views of what it should do, it could not only make implementing new rules difficult but pose a barrier to agencies looking to roll back Trump’s damage.

There was a lot for progressives to like elsewhere on the agency review teams, though. Law professor and The Color Of Money author Mehrsa Baradaran and AFL-CIO research director Damon Silvers both feature on the teams evaluating the Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve, banking, and securities regulators. The latter is headed by Gary Gensler, who cracked down on big banks as head of Obama’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission. Maggie Thomas, for example—who worked on climate policy with Jay Inslee’s and then Elizabeth Warren’s teams—will be involved in surveying the Department of Interior. Cecilia Martinez, of the Center for Earth, Energy and Democracy, will head up work looking into the Council on Environmental Quality. Some climate hawks were enthused to see people who’ve worked on climate issues on less directly green bodies, too, like the Center for American Progress’s Andy Green on Treasury, and the Roosevelt Institute’s Todd Tucker on Commerce.

How all this will translate into agency personnel remains to be seen. Ronald Klain, uncontroversially, has been tapped for chief of staff. Former Fed Chair Janet Yellen is said to be in the running for the secretary of treasury spot, according to the American Prospect. While unlikely to ruffle too many feathers on either side of the aisle, since leaving her post, Yellen has spoken out against the Green New Deal in favor of an ExxonMobil-funded carbon tax. She’s reiterated her support for that approach in recent weeks, too, though—like many economists and central bankers—seems less deficit-obsessed than she may have been a decade ago. More establishment and even Republican names have been circulated in the days since the election, too, including former Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz.  

The Revolving Door Project’s Hauser says it’s worth taking rumors with a grain of salt. “I have no reason to doubt that there are Biden world sources saying things that reporters are quoting. I’m confident they have actual sources,” he said. “Bidenworld contains multitudes. The transition contains multitudes, and I think the personalities that are most likely to leak are the corporate-friendly ones.”

Those keen to see the next administration move on climate are spending less time poring over the rumor mill than triaging the potential powers of the executive branch, including less obviously climate-related divisions like OMB, to curb emissions. A broad coalition of climate and environmental justice groups has compiled a list of 10 actions Joe Biden could take on day one. Those include declaring a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act, which could unlock statutory powers allowing the White House to reinstate the crude oil export ban, spur clean energy development, and more expeditiously reverse Trump’s environmental rollbacks. In the more centrist camp, a group of over 100 former government staffers under the banner Climate 21 just unveiled a set of guidance documents to “help the President hit the ground running and build the capacity of his administration to tackle the climate crisis quickly with the existing tools at hand,” aimed at an “all-of-government mobilization on climate change.”

Jamal Raad worked for Jay Inslee’s climate-focused primary campaign and is now part of Evergreen Action. Having consulted with the Biden campaign, Evergreen examined Biden’s climate plan this week for the 46 executive-level actions he’s already committed to, including letting California set its own auto efficiency standards and barring new fossil fuel extraction on federal lands. On appointments, Raad said he’s “especially excited to hear from non–climate nominees about how they’re planning to center climate in their work … to see how Treasury nominees and regulators articulate how they’re going to aggressively use their authorities to rein in climate risk.” Big picture, he told me, “I’m excited to see how this vision of a full-scale mobilization of the federal government to defeat the climate crisis develops.”