Inside Biden’s Struggle to Manage Factions in the Democratic Party
President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr. is confronting outbreaks of factionalism and fierce impatience within his own party, as the groups that make up the Democratic coalition see President Trump crumbling as an adversary and turn instead toward the battle to define the personnel and policies of a new administration.
With just five weeks left before he takes office, Mr. Biden and his allies and advisers acknowledge it may be a considerable challenge to convert the array of constituencies he rallied against Mr. Trump into a sturdier governing force. Already, the competition for senior offices has strained valuable political alliances, vexing some of Mr. Biden’s key supporters from the Democratic primary contest, as well as numerous minority and female lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
Mr. Biden has so far sought not to muffle Democratic dissension or impose a tightly focused message on the party, but rather to roll out a team focused on addressing the coronavirus crisis while placating various interest groups. It is a strategy that largely replicates the Biden campaign’s successful approach to the 2020 election: treating the pandemic as the overwhelming issue, taking modest steps to appease different Democratic factions and surrounding Mr. Biden with familiar faces that embody governing expertise.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Biden will attempt a more assertive approach once he takes office. Advocacy groups from across the Democratic coalition have been mobilizing to demand swift executive action on matters from student debt and police overhauls to union rights and climate change.
Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, a prominent progressive, said she hoped Mr. Biden would soon lay out the overarching themes of his administration, going beyond the week-by-week staff announcements.
“You have an individual appointment here, an individual appointment there,” Ms. Ocasio-Cortez said. “What is the overall message from the big picture in this entire cabinet put together?”
Marc Morial, the head of the National Urban League, who was among a group of civil rights leaders who met with Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris last week, said that the new administration faced a high bar for its early appointments and policy initiatives.
“There’s got to be a clear understanding that this is not 2008, this is not 1992, this is not 1976,” Mr. Morial said, alluding to other newly elected Democratic administrations. “Why is it not? Because we are coming behind the most corrosive, racist president and administration we’ve witnessed in modern times.”
Mr. Biden is plainly more sensitive to the delicate job of coalition maintenance than his predecessor, Mr. Trump, who stocked his administration with personal friends, business executives, television personalities and political cronies — with scant concern for diversity, electoral strategy, or financial and ethical conflicts.
Andrew Bates, a spokesman for the Biden transition effort, said the president-elect had put forward a slate of appointees “who have what it takes to overcome this moment of unprecedented crisis, deliver for American families, and bring our nation together,” and noted that many of them had received broad support.
But sensitivities abound. Some Democratic congressional leaders, including Representative Steny Hoyer, the House majority leader, are urging Mr. Biden not to pluck any more members from their House majority, which is already so fragile that Speaker Nancy Pelosi is likely to face an uncomfortably close vote next month to secure her job for another two years.
“Two is too many but three would be even more many,” said Mr. Hoyer, alluding to the pair of House Democrats whom Mr. Biden has already tapped for administration jobs.
But that could exacerbate tensions with a handful of female lawmakers, including Representative Deb Haaland of New Mexico, who is hoping to be named interior secretary and whose allies in Congress have expressed their frustration to senior Biden aides that she might be snubbed.
It is not only the House margin that has bedeviled Mr. Biden and his party as they prepare to govern.
Some lawmakers are also complaining that they have not been adequately consulted by Mr. Biden and his team on appointments, especially the selection of Lloyd J. Austin III, a retired general, for defense secretary, given that his recent military service will require Congress to grant him a special waiver.
Identity-based groups continue to lobby Mr. Biden to ensure racial and gender diversity at all levels of his administration. On Thursday, Hispanic lawmakers directly pressed Ms. Harris to ensure there would be at least two Latinas in prominent administration roles — a commitment she declined to make, according to people briefed on the meeting.
“She didn’t commit,” said Representative Vicente Gonzalez of Texas, “but she did commit to work with us regularly.”
That commitment was not enough, however: On Monday, a group of Latina Democrats in Congress issued a public demand that Mr. Biden nominate at least two Latinas to his cabinet.
Civil rights groups, meanwhile, are prodding Mr. Biden to name a Black attorney general, and to shun appointees with weak records on policing and criminal justice. Labor unions have helped block at least one cabinet appointment, a bid by Gov. Gina Raimondo of Rhode Island to become health secretary, because of her record on pension changes.
There is mounting angst among some of Mr. Biden’s allies that people who fought hard for him during the campaign have found themselves waiting in line for jobs — or have been offered obviously inferior positions — while Obama-era holdovers were quickly slotted into senior roles.
The tight-knit community of Black mayors has been upset by the absence of Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms of Atlanta, an early Biden supporter, from the upper ranks of the administration. Over the weekend, Ms. Bottoms and transition officials denied a report that she had been offered a foreign ambassadorship in lieu of a more prominent role, and a spokesman for the mayor said she had declined a senior appointment without specifying the post.
Rashad Taylor, an adviser to Ms. Bottoms, said on Monday that an ambassadorship had never been discussed.
But allies of Ms. Bottoms, who campaigned hard for Mr. Biden through the toughest days of the Democratic primary, remain frustrated that she did not receive one of the coveted jobs she was interested in, such as envoy to the United Nations.
Another top Biden supporter, former Mayor Pete Buttigieg of South Bend, Ind., was also passed over for the U.N. role, though he remains a contender for commerce or transportation secretary.
Some in the party believe Mr. Biden is still owed considerable deference as he assembles his administration, particularly given the scale of the coronavirus emergency he and his team will confront.
“I always tell everybody: Joe Biden is at the top now and this is what he wants,” said Representative Doris Matsui of California, adding with a chuckle, “I don’t think we’re going to have as much fighting as having different opinions.”
So far, the president-elect and his advisers have tried to manage conflict from something of a careful distance, holding listening sessions with various Democratic constituencies and then holding deliberations within Mr. Biden’s tight inner circle, eventually unveiling personnel decisions in batches aimed at pleasing several groups at once. Mr. Biden was known as a hands-on negotiator in the Senate and vice presidency, but he has been somewhat more aloof since starting his 2020 campaign, often deferring on policy matters to congressional leaders like Ms. Pelosi.
His selections of Neera Tanden for the Office of Management and Budget and Xavier Becerra to lead the Department of Health and Human Services have angered Republicans, who view them as overly partisan, and Mr. Becerra has faced criticism for lacking formidable public-health credentials.
Some prominent Democrats are increasingly skeptical that Ms. Tanden can be confirmed and believe she may eventually land in a White House post that does not require Senate confirmation. Transition officials, however, have insisted in public and private that they will fight for her.
Mr. Biden has irritated some Senate Democrats with his choice of General Austin to be secretary of defense. Many lawmakers in both parties — including Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the senior Democrat on the Armed Services Committee — are on record about their uneasiness with offering a waiver for the law that bars military veterans from serving as defense secretary if they have been retired from active duty for less than seven years.
A number of lawmakers said they did not want to do so again after giving James Mattis, a retired Marine general, a waiver to lead the Pentagon under Mr. Trump.
“I was surprised, especially given the statements of some of my colleagues who may have supported the waiver in the past but said it was the last time we’ll do it,” said Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, a member of the Armed Services Committee. “And I was not consulted, no reason I should be, but I was surprised.”
Mr. Biden’s choices stem from his determination to fulfill his promise of appointing a cabinet that reflects the diversity of the country. Mr. Austin would be the first Black defense secretary, and without him much of the national security apparatus Mr. Biden has put into place would be white. But Mr. Biden’s team did little to prepare Black lawmakers and leaders to advocate on behalf of Mr. Austin before announcing his selection, leaving them scrambling to catch up once the appointment was reported in the news media.
In perhaps the most awkward negotiation of the cabinet process so far, Mr. Becerra, who is Hispanic, was nominated for health and human services secretary after it became clear that, much to the dismay of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham of New Mexico would not receive the appointment.
A second candidate for the health position, Ms. Raimondo, faced resistance from labor leaders who clashed with her in her home state. At least two major unions, the public-sector giant Afscme and the American Federation of Teachers, expressed forceful opposition to Ms. Raimondo with the Biden transition team.
Mr. Biden turned to Mr. Becerra almost immediately after members of the Hispanic caucus upbraided top transition aides during a meeting this month about their treatment of Ms. Lujan Grisham, according to Democrats familiar with the timing, even though his public-health experience is more limited than that of the two governors.
Mr. Biden’s aides have privately been working to salve wounds by telling them there will be turnover in the top jobs soon enough.
“I keep saying: The second wave will be earlier than you think,” said one senior Biden official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity about private conversations with cabinet hopefuls. “Go deal with your city, your state for now.”
In the meantime, Democrats say, Mr. Biden may continue to receive help from a familiar source in his bid for party unity.
Representative Ro Khanna, a California progressive, said there was still enough “fear of Trump” in the Democratic coalition to offer Mr. Biden an ongoing “grace period.”
“Trump continuing to float that he’s a candidate in the future may be a blessing for Joe Biden,” Mr. Khanna said. “It may be what Joe Biden needs to keep the Democratic coalition together.”
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