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Big Tech and Big Law dominate Biden transition teams, tempering progressive hopes

Alexander Nazaryan
·National Correspondent
·13-min read

WASHINGTON — For six years, Brandon Belford worked as an economic policy adviser to President Barack Obama in the White House and federal agencies. He moved to the Bay Area when Donald Trump became president, part of a massive flight of Obama officials from Washington to Silicon Valley, Wall Street and Hollywood. He took high-ranking positions with Apple and then Lyft, where he is currently the ride-sharing company’s chief of staff.

Now Belford is back, as part of one of the “transition teams” named by President-elect Joe Biden to restock a federal government that has been battered after four years of Trump by hiring new officials and advising the incoming administration on what its first governing steps should be.

Those steps could be timid, judging by the composition of those teams, where Obama-era centrism prevails. That has some progressives worried that Biden represents nothing more than a return to normal, at a time when many of them believe the nation is ready to embrace policy ideas well to the left of center.

“The status quo is killing us,” says former Bernie Sanders press secretary Briahna Joy Gray, who now hosts a podcast called “Bad Faith.”

Belford is joined by dozens of other Democratic operatives who have spent the past four years working at prestigious law firms and think tanks. On these “agency review teams” are high-ranking executives from Amazon, partners at white-shoe law firms like Covington & Burling and enough experts from D.C. center-left think tanks — including six from the Brookings Institution alone — to fill a center-left think tank.

Progressives knew this was coming. “I am very concerned about the role Uber executives would play in this administration,” Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez D-N.Y., told Yahoo News. Even though she also effusively praised the appointment of Ron Klain as the incoming White House chief of staff, Ocasio-Cortez vowed that corporate America would not “pull the wool over our eyes” when it came to crafting the Biden presidency.

Some have put it less bluntly. “Biden’s transition team is full of wealthy corporate executives who are completely disconnected from the struggles of the working class,” complains left-leaning activist Ryan Knight, whose Twitter handle is @ProudSocialist.

App-based drivers from Uber and Lyft protest in a caravan in front of City Hall in Los Angeles on October 22, 2020 where elected leaders hold a conference urging voters to reject on the November 3 election, Proposition 22, that would classify app-based drivers as independent contractors and not employees or agents. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
App-based drivers from Uber and Lyft protest in a caravan in front of City Hall in Los Angeles on October 22, 2020 where elected leaders hold a conference urging voters to reject on the November 3 election, Proposition 22, that would classify app-based drivers as independent contractors and not employees or agents. (Photo by Frederic J. BROWN / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

He was presumably referring to the two dozen agency review team officials who come from law firms like Arnold & Porter. Or to the 40 or so members of the Biden transition who are current or recent lobbyists.

The agency review teams are not exactly settling into their cubicles just yet. For one, President Trump has not yet conceded the election, and the transition has been hindered in part by Republican operatives at the General Services Administration. And agency review is an enormously complex process, one that actually began months ago. The transition teams are supposed to ensure a “smooth transfer of power,” in large part by making sure that capable officials are ready to get to work in their respective agencies the moment Biden lifts his hand from the Lincoln Bible.

Speaking on the condition of anonymity, one member of the Biden campaign working on agency-related matters says teams were primarily tasked with surveying the landscape of the federal bureaucracy. She says that the transition teams would make some hiring recommendations, but only as a secondary function.

With a single exception, the agency review team members mentioned in this article did not respond to requests for comment.

One with a typically impressive biography is that of Aneesh Chopra, who served as the U.S. chief technology officer for Obama before starting his own medical data logistics company, CareJourney. Now he is on the transition team for the U.S. Postal Service, where he will presumably work to undo the alleged damage by another logistics maven: Trump appointee Louis DeJoy.

Of course, most progressives are glad that there’s a Biden transition to speak of, instead of a second Trump term. But they also recognize their own role in the Democratic candidate’s victory.

“Everyone fell into line and did everything they could to get Joe Biden elected,” says Max Berger, a progressive activist who worked for Elizabeth Warren’s presidential campaign and Justice Democrats, the group that helped elect Ocasio-Cortez to the House in 2018.

Democratic U.S. presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders do an elbow bump in place of a handshake as they greet other before the start of the 11th Democratic candidates debate of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, held in CNN's Washington studios without an audience because of the global coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, U.S. March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Democratic U.S. presidential candidates former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders do an elbow bump in place of a handshake as they greet other before the start of the 11th Democratic candidates debate of the 2020 U.S. presidential campaign, held in CNN's Washington studios without an audience because of the global coronavirus pandemic, in Washington, U.S. March 15, 2020. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Berger recognizes that progressives will be a “junior partner” to the establishment Democrats with whom Biden has been ideologically and temperamentally aligned for a good half-century. They want to be partners all the same, not just the loyal opposition.

Many are cheered by some of the agency review teams. For one, they are notably more diverse, a stark contrast to Trump’s reliance on white males for so much of his advice. On the transition team for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration is Jedidah Isler, the Dartmouth professor who in 2014 became the first Black woman to earn a doctorate in astrophysics from Yale. The transition team for the Small Business Administration includes Jorge Silva Puras, a political leader in Puerto Rico who also teaches entrepreneurship at a community college in the Bronx.

“The presence of labor officials throughout many of the groups is notable,” says David Dayen, executive editor of the American Prospect. In the Department of Education team, for example, are several executives from the American Federation of Teachers.

He called the Federal Reserve and Treasury teams “all-stars,” a sentiment shared by other progressives interviewed for this article. On the Treasury team is Mehrsa Baradaran, a progressive economist who has written on the racial wealth gap. She is also on the Federal Reserve team, along with Reena Aggarwal, a corporate governance expert.

Progressive strategist Elizabeth Spiers says the finance-related teams are not “not quite Elizabeth Warren levels of aggressiveness but also not stuffed with finance people.” Biden’s advisers appear to have learned the lessons of his former boss. During Obama’s first year, he relied on banking executives to help quell the financial crisis. They did so in ways that steered the new president away from progressive proposals, such as nationalizing those very same banks.

There is not a single current executive from Citibank or Goldman Sachs on any of the transition teams. Bank of America has also been shut out. JPMorgan can boast a single toehold in the agency review process: Lisa Sawyer of the Pentagon team. A spokesman for JPMorgan told Yahoo News that the bank was “following the appropriate election laws” and that Sawyer was “not on an agency review team that will touch any banking issues.”

U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with JPMorgan Chase & Co Chief Executive Jamie Dimon during a meeting of business leaders at a hotel in Washington March 12, 2009.   REUTERS/Jason Reed   (UNITED STATES POLITICS BUSINESS)
U.S. President Barack Obama shakes hands with JPMorgan Chase & Co Chief Executive Jamie Dimon during a meeting of business leaders at a hotel in Washington March 12, 2009. REUTERS/Jason Reed (UNITED STATES POLITICS BUSINESS)

“I think the Biden administration is going to be surprising to progressives in some ways and disappointing in others, and the agency review teams reflect that,” Dayen says. During the summer, the American Prospect published a lengthy exposé about Biden’s foreign policy advisers’ lucrative foray into corporate America. Many are set to return to the highest echelons of official Washington.

“I have to be cautiously optimistic,” says Waleed Shahid, communications director for the Justice Democrats.

Relatively young progressives like Shahid are less likely to wax romantic about the way things were in Washington. They are less interested in experience than conviction. But for many in Biden’s camp, a lack of experience was among the several fatal flaws of the Trump years.

“Everyone — right or left — has made the mistaken assumption for years that governing is easy,” says “The Death of Expertise” author Tom Nichols, who teaches at the Naval War College and is an ardently anti-Trump Republican.

“After having a bunch of nitwits and cronies loose in the government,” Nichols wrote in an email, “I think a lot of people on the left are really giving in to the assumption that as long as you’re not Trump, or not a complete idiot, anyone can do it.”

Given the title and theme of his book, Nicholas cautioned against that approach. “It’s a childish and silly approach to government, but it’s a bipartisan problem,” he told Yahoo News.

While progressive may not see their stars like Sens. Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren occupying the Treasury Department, they do very much hope that a Biden presidency amounts to more than a third Obama term. It was unaddressed economic inequality, they believe, that bred the populist resentment that gave Trump an opening in 2016. The coronavirus has only made that inequality worse. That will only increase populist resentment, they worry, to be exploited by a Trump acolyte — or perhaps Trump himself, again — in 2024.

Addressing that inequality, for now, falls to transition team officials like Mark Schwartz of Amazon and Ted Dean of Dropbox, as well as Arun Venkataraman of Visa and David Holmes of defense contractor Rebellion Defense, in which Eric Schmidt of Google is an investor. Many of these officials are veterans of the Obama administration or Democratic offices on the Hill.

“There is a lot of corporate influence there,” says Maurice Weeks, co-founder of the Action Center on Race and the Economy. “And that is troubling.” But he is encouraged by the presence of “hard-core progressives” like Sarah Miller, a former Treasury deputy who is both an anti-Facebook activist and the executive of the American Economic Liberties Project, which seeks to curb corporate power. She is now on the Treasury transition team.

In some ways, the difference is between former Obama officials who, like Miller, went on to become activists and those who moved on to become rich. The latter did only what many government officials had done before them. But at a time of mass unemployment, a stint at the corporate law firm Latham & Watkins (three transition team members) may not seem as impressive as it may have when Obama was president.

“We don’t just want to rewind the clock by four years,” Weeks says.

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) is joined by Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain (L) while he speaks with organization leaders that are responding to the Ebola crisis, while in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, November 13, 2014.        REUTERS/Larry Downing   (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH)
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) is joined by Ebola Response Coordinator Ron Klain (L) while he speaks with organization leaders that are responding to the Ebola crisis, while in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on the White House complex in Washington, November 13, 2014. REUTERS/Larry Downing (UNITED STATES - Tags: POLITICS HEALTH)

For many progressives, Trump was a singular threat to important institutions of the federal government, but rebuilding those institutions is simply not as important as rebuilding entire communities shattered by economic, social and racial inequalities.

It doesn’t help matters that, today, tech giants are distrusted by conservatives and progressives alike. Firms that were run out of Palo Alto garages now chafe at antitrust laws like the railroad companies of a century ago.

And like those companies, they know how to use their influence. In 2019 alone, two of the biggest and most influential technology firms — Amazon and Facebook — each spent $17 million on “government affairs,” better known as lobbying.

Ocasio-Cortez’s reference to Uber may have been a subtle warning to the incoming administration: The brother-in-law of Vice President-elect Kamala Harris is Tony West, who worked for the Department of Justice under President Bill Clinton and is now the chief counsel at Uber. Jake Sullivan, another top Biden adviser, also worked for Uber.

The company recently won a major victory in California with Proposition 22, a successful response to legal efforts to make Uber drivers and other “gig workers” employees, not contractors. That’s exactly the kind of labor policy, Ocasio-Cortez says, the Biden administration must avoid.

Many top Obama staffers went to Silicon Valley in 2017. They could be returning to Washington with a new appreciation for free market capitalism at a time when “socialism” is no longer a dirty word.

“Joe Biden’s transition is absolutely stacked with tech industry players,” noted Protocol, an online publication that covers technology.

That’s exactly what worries Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which tracks what Trump has called, without much affection, “the swamp.” He notes that the transition team for the Office of Management and Budget appears to have borrowed rather avidly from Silicon Valley, with team members hailing from Lyft, Airbnb and Amazon.

The budget office wields an “enormous amount of power,” says Hauser, including in both how congressionally appropriated money is doled out and how certain rules are implemented. Though it had a supporting role in Trump’s impeachment drama over foreign aid, OMB is otherwise obscure, making it a perfect site for covert exercises of federal power.

U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) greets audiences following a televised town hall event on the “Green New Deal” in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon   TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) greets audiences following a televised town hall event on the “Green New Deal” in the Bronx borough of New York City, New York, U.S., March 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jeenah Moon TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

Hauser also didn’t like the prevalence of Big Law talent on the Department of Justice team, which signaled to him that the Biden administration could go soft on corporate malefactors.

Watching the transition, Gray, the former Sanders adviser, recalled an old saying: “The fish rots from the head.” The head, in this case, is Joe Biden, of whom Gray has long been a skeptic.

“He’s a fundamentally conservative man,” Gray says. She reasons that if Biden was “unmoved by the largest protest movement in American history” to endorse Medicare for All, he can’t be trusted to do much for conservative causes like a $15 minimum wage and the Green New Deal.

Still, she believes that Biden can be made to hear the voices of progressives — if, Gray says, they are loud enough. She points out that there is widespread support for progressive legislation like the $15 minimum wage in Florida, even though Trump won the state.

Biden easily won Oregon, but a push to legalize small amounts of drugs, known as Measure 110, was even more popular than he was.

She sees that as evidence that progressive ideas are more popular than Biden himself. “Progressives should never stop screaming that reality from the rooftops,” Gray told Yahoo News. And she vowed to keep fighting, even with Trump gone and a Democratic president in the Oval Office once again.

“I don’t accept resignation,” she said.

Cover thumbnail photo: Jonathan Ernst/Reuters

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