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A Look At Biden's Cabinet Picks

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We're going to begin this hour thinking about President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet picks and the arguments within the Democratic Party over who should or should not be selected. Just days after the announcement of some key Cabinet positions, those divisions are becoming clear.

Progressives are pressuring Biden to avoid selecting people with ties to past policy positions or industries to which they object. For example, New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a rising progressive star with an enormous social media following, tweeted - it was shameful that former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a former Obama chief of staff and congressman, was reportedly on the short list for a Cabinet position. Emanuel has been much criticized for his handling of a police shooting of a teenager while serving as mayor.

Meanwhile, the president-elect must also live up to his commitment to assemble a diverse Cabinet that will not only unify his fractured party but also get confirmed by a bitterly divided Senate. So we wanted to talk more about all this, so we've called two people who've been thinking a lot about how personnel shapes policy and government.

Spencer Overton is the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That's a think tank that focuses on issues of particular concern to Black communities, and that includes a major project on staffing at all levels of government. He's also a professor of law at George Washington University.

Spencer Overton, welcome back to the program. Thanks for joining us.

SPENCER OVERTON: Thanks, Michel.

MARTIN: And David Sirota is the founder of The Daily Poster. That's a progressive online news publication. He's also a former speechwriter for the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign.

David Sirota, nice to have you back on the program as well.

DAVID SIROTA: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So, Spencer, I want to start with you because you served on the Obama transition in 2008. I wanted to get your take on some of the appointments that the president-elect has made so far, some of the nominations he's made so far.

He's selected, for example, Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be, if confirmed, the first Latino and the first person from an immigrant background to lead the Department of Homeland Security. He also tapped Representative Cedric Richmond to serve as an adviser and the director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. Richmond is a Democrat from Louisiana, and he's a former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. What do these selections say to you, Spencer?

OVERTON: You know, Representative Clyburn has mentioned this - the importance of ensuring some African American diversity on the Cabinet-level picks. So right now, we've just got Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who's been selected. Cedric Richmond - you mentioned him - he's going to have an important position, but it's not in the formal technical Cabinet. So we're glad that he is there. It's great in terms of homeland security, important. So, you know, racial diversity is important, and there is much more work to do.

I do want to point out, Michel, that these Cabinet officials are really just the tip of the iceberg. There are 4,000 presidential appointments. Only about a thousand of them are Senate-confirmed. These other important appointments are important as well.

MARTIN: David, what's your take on the appointments so far - the ones that have been announced?

SIROTA: Well, I think they represented an attempt to restore the pre-Trump "normal," quote-unquote - that what we're seeing is almost a third-term Obama Cabinet. And I think one thing that some folks are disappointed with is that we're in an era where the crises that we face - the economic crises, the climate crisis - are more intense in many ways than they were even at the beginning of the Obama era.

And I think that some of the questions that have come up are, are these appointments, while they are from the - almost a third term of the Obama - that kind of pick - are they up to the crises that we face? The Cedric Richmond appointment, for instance - it's a person who is going to be doing liaison with the climate movement who has very deep ties to the oil and gas industry. I'm just using that as one example. So I think that we're going to have to see whether these appointments can be pushed.

MARTIN: And - go ahead, Spencer.

OVERTON: Yeah, if I could just respond...

MARTIN: Yeah, go ahead.

OVERTON: ...This immediate attack by progressives on Congressman Richmond - he's our immediate past CBC chair. He was co-chair of the campaign. It really concerns me. Also, these arguments and litmus tests sometimes mean that people who have corporate experience, like Roger Ferguson of TIAA-CREF or Mellody Hobson or Ursula Burns, these strong African American candidates, could be disqualified here.

And so, you know, I think Cedric Richmond is going to be open to talking to various folks. And I think he really is going to impress and embrace progressive activists. You know, in the past, he has had to represent a district that was energy dependent in Louisiana, and he's done that in terms of jobs back home. He's in a different position now. So I'm concerned about potential conflicts between progressives and African Americans here.

MARTIN: David, can I ask you about that? Because I will say that this is something that former President Obama wrote about in his new book and that other Black elected officials have dealt with.

It's almost as if there's a certain segment of the kind of white conservative voting population that believes your race is always and forever dispositive. Like, unless you take these extreme kind of conservative positions and kind of prove yourself, you know, your being Black as a Black elected official - that is what is preeminent for many of these officials. Like, they deal with this constant sort of attack on their legitimacy.

And I wonder if for progressives, is it the other way? I mean, is it that progressives for - your last campaign contribution or your last job was dispositive and overrides any sense of moral agency that you might have from other experiences in your life...

SIROTA: Well, I...

MARTIN: ...David?

SIROTA: I reject this idea that you have to make that choice. I mean, there are a lot of people of color who have decided not to have close ties with the oil and gas industry. There are a lot of people of color who have decided to not sell out to corporate America. There are a lot of people of color who have taken jobs in the nonprofit sector, in the labor movement, as just examples.

So the idea that you can only find a diverse Cabinet by going to corporate America and plucking people out of Wall Street and putting them into jobs to do economic policy is insulting to lots and lots of people who have chosen a different career path. And I think what we're seeing is that the idea that you have to choose people out of corporate America and let them go through the revolving door back into government is an ideological decision to say, that's the kind of administration we specifically want.

MARTIN: Before we let each of you go, I did want to ask about this idea that President-elect Joe Biden should reach out to Republicans by intentionally appointing a Republican to the Cabinet or some other high-level position. Spencer, what do you think?

OVERTON: I think there could be some value in terms of engaging moderates to show good faith. I am not optimistic that an olive branch like that will engage or mean anything to Mitch McConnell. But the point is, you've got to get as much done as possible, so you need folks with good values. That's No. 1. But you also need people who have expertise and can get things done quickly.

MARTIN: David.

SIROTA: Joe Biden is under no obligation to appoint a Republican. I think that he has a mandate, a clear election mandate, to govern on the campaign platform that he pushed. The campaign platform that he pushed is a progressive-leaning platform. It is - and it is incumbent on him to put nominees in that will champion that agenda.

MARTIN: David Sirota is a former speechwriter for the 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. He's the founder of The Daily Poster. That is a progressive online news source. We also heard from Spencer Overton. He is the president of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies. That is a bipartisan think tank with a specific focus on issues of concern to African Americans.

Thank you both so much for talking to us once again.

SIROTA: Thank you.

OVERTON: Thanks, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.