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Is Joe Biden Just Being Stubborn?

A theory about his strangest nominees and appointments

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

If the staggered unveiling of President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet has done little to enthuse the (broadly defined) left, it has also not yet been quite as disastrous as some predicted (and that will remain true so long as Rahm Emanuel remains outside the administration). What it has been, so far, is very puzzling.

Take what happened to Marcia Fudge. The Ohio representative was openly lobbying to be made secretary of agriculture, in order to focus the department’s attention on hunger and food security. She believed she had the relevant experience for the job and had even gone to the press with plans for what she wanted to do if selected: Her goal, as she explained in an interview last month, was to change the perception that the department only exists to help rural whites.

“As this country becomes more and more diverse, we’re going to have to stop looking at only certain agencies as those that people like me fit in,” she told Politico. “You know, it’s always ‘we want to put the Black person in labor or HUD.’”

Then Joe Biden’s team put Marcia Fudge in HUD and announced that former Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack would be getting his old job back.

Fudge is not a terrible choice for Housing and Urban Development, but the country has plenty of people with more experience on housing issues than she has—and, crucially, more interest in the job, who probably would have entered the administration with some deeply considered ideas about what they wished to accomplish and how to do it.

Vilsack, meanwhile, probably is a bad choice, and it’s one the Biden team has already had to defend to civil rights leaders angry about Vilsack’s treatment of Shirley Sherrod, whom he fired from her position as Georgia state director of rural development following the release of a deceptively edited video. As Alexander Sammon pointed out in The American Prospect, not even the kind of “rural white people” Biden seems to be trying to placate actually like the former agriculture secretary, meaning it’s a move that looks like it will turn off both white and Black voters.

So: two Cabinet picks that pleased almost no one and made various important allies unnecessarily mad. And this isn’t even the first time Biden’s team has pulled off that impressively self-defeating feat.

At Discourse Blog, Paul Blest has a good rundown of other times that Biden has ended up alienating his allies without managing to please anyone. New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham lobbied for Health and Human Services. Biden’s team offered her Interior instead, despite tribal groups and Democrats strongly pushing Representative Deb Haaland for the job. Biden advisers privately trashed Haaland to the press while floating a candidate who seemed to come out of left field, former Deputy Interior Secretary Michael Connor. Meanwhile, despite well-documented Democratic support for Grisham at HHS, Biden’s team went, again, with a candidate who hadn’t been on anyone’s shortlist (as far as I can tell): California Attorney General Xavier Becerra.

Becerra, an on-the-record supporter of Medicare for All, is a fine pick, at least by the standards of what we can expect from a Joe Biden Cabinet. But no one had been pushing for him to get the job, and his appointment therefore didn’t net Biden the goodwill he might have gotten had he picked one of the candidates for whom various Democratic groups had actually been lobbying.

Following the Fudge debacle, David Dayen (whose American Prospect has been essential reading as Biden has rolled out his Cabinet picks) wrote that the selection process was “veering off course.”

Here’s what he concludes is going wrong:

But the process seems broken. Records have taken a back seat to friendships and paybacks and diversity goals. People are not being set up to succeed. Impressions are being given that HUD and Interior are not important federal agencies but political chits to be handed out. And it augurs very poorly for governing in the Biden era, if it’s characterized by a lack of pre-planning and dashed-off ideas.

I think he is basically right about what is happening. But there’s one additional element that could explain the incoherence of Biden’s choices: his team’s sheer stubbornness.

As far as I can tell, the Biden administration makes appointments in two ways. One is, very obviously, to pick guys Joe Biden has known forever, such as Vilsack, Denis McDonough for Veterans Affairs, Lloyd J. Austin III at Defense, or Tony Blinken at State.

The other, for positions they don’t care as much about, is to pointedly ignore whichever candidates have been designated by the press as favorites of “the left,” along with candidates various Democratic interest groups are pushing. Then they pick people at random, seemingly simply because they just don’t want to be told what to do. It helps if they can convince themselves that their critics ought to be happy with the eventual pick, even if he or she wasn’t their first choice.

This theory would explain why people no one seems to have lobbied for keep getting important jobs, as Fudge did at HUD. “We don’t know much about her thoughts on any of the relevant housing issues of the day,” Maurice BP-Weeks from the HUD-focused Action Center on Race and the Economy told Dayen. “Everyone’s at a loss.”

His bewilderment gets at the heart of the question: The Action Center on Race and the Economy, one of many left-aligned policy groups hoping to have some influence over the incoming administration, was not going to be allowed to choose the next HUD secretary. But—and this is where the cynical “diversity” checklists Dayen bemoans come into play—the Biden people presumably thought that someone like Maurice BP-Weeks couldn’t be publicly upset about Fudge’s selection because, after all, she is Black and surely more or less on his side on housing issues. That’s how you end up with Biden rejecting Grisham but picking a Different Latino, and criticizing Haaland but floating a Different Native person.

If you buy the theory that the Biden campaign is specifically rejecting people for whom liberal, civil rights, and interest groups are lobbying, you can see why the incoming administration has so far not appointed a single one of the dozens of potential Cabinet members identified and pushed for in the “Progressive Cabinet Project,” a package of potential hires for the next Democratic administration created by the left-leaning think tank Data for Progress this summer. (An updated version of the Progressive Cabinet Project endorses Fudge at HUD and Biden’s pick for trade secretary, Katherine Tai, but, as Left Twitter gadfly Carl Beijer reports, neither of those endorsements were in the original document.)

This is, very plainly, a bad strategy, and not just for ideological reasons. Rejecting the Online Left might have turned out to be a good electoral strategy (at least, Biden’s team believes it worked for them this year), but they literally already tried Tom Vilsack as agriculture secretary and no one (besides Big Ag) was satisfied. The Biden team also happens to be carrying out this strategy ineptly. No one had Neera Tanden on the shortlist for the Office of Management and Budget—but the Biden administration reportedly thought (according to Eoin Higgins) the pick would excite “progressive groups,” because she is “a movement leader”!

This entire bizarre cycle indicates that for all the “we believe science” rhetoric about responsible adults being in charge again, important decisions that will shape the government for the next four years are still being made based on petty, personal, and deeply cynical reasons. If Biden’s appeal relied in large part on nostalgia, well, welcome back to having the Democrats in charge.