They may not be in the White House, but that doesn’t matter. While Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks dominated headlines this past week, the truth is that most Washington policymaking happens behind the scenes long before it lands in front of the federal agencies or on the Resolute Desk. Today we explore the Biden power brokers who may not be obvious from the outside but will play crucial roles across the country — and the world — for the incoming president.
Nick Fouriezos, Senior Politics Reporter
known names, new roles
1. The Obamas
The cachet they have, both with the Black community and Democrats in general, will be key in mollifying the base even as Biden potentially faces a struggle to get legislation passed through a closely divided Congress — whether or not Democrats nab the Senate with a Georgia double.
Similarly, the former senior adviser to Barack Obamawill be key to giving an imprimatur on Biden’s appointments and decisions, an action she already took by praising Biden incoming chief of staff Ron Klain on The Carlos Watson Show.
The AFL-CIO president and son of a Pennsylvania coal miner is pushing the Biden administration to back pro-labor Cabinet picks and will certainly have sway with the union-friendly president-elect. In fact, Trumka has already joined Biden and incoming Vice President Kamala Harris for a conversation about how to help get Americans back to work safely during COVID-19. He came bearing recommendations for manufacturing more respirators and PPE, plus retrofitting workplaces and installing a new, full-time director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a Department of Labor regulatory agency that hasn’t had one for years.
As far as couples go, Hillary and Bill have more experience operating at the pinnacle of U.S. politics than any others in the country’s history. And while both shied a bit from the limelight since the former’s bitter presidential election loss, it would seem a waste for Biden not to continue seeking the counsel of the Clintons. Particularly Hillary, given her experience as secretary of state and the fact that much of the Biden administration’s early work could emphasize foreign policy accomplishments while trying to restore faith in America abroad.
The reality TV star and businesswoman does not have (to our knowledge) any long-standing connection to Biden or his inner circle. However, she proved a deft political player as a criminal justice reform advocate by helping convince President Donald Trump to pass the First Step Act and free a number of Black inmates serving life sentences without parole. After revealing she has been apprenticing at a law firm and plans to take the bar in 2022, Kardashian West has shown this is no passing interest — in fact, she spent Monday visiting death-row inmate Julius Jones at the Oklahoma State Penitentiary. Expect to see more of the 40-year-old as criminal justice reform remains one of the few issues with bipartisan support.
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One of a handful of key Trump global allies who have yet to congratulate Biden, Brazil’s populist strongman has his own concerns ahead of a 2022 reelection bid. Perhaps that’s why pro-Bolsonaro Twitter trolls are stirring up misinformation in the U.S. and trying to delegitimize Biden’s victory. Unlike some of the Chinese, Russian and Iranian meddlers, Brazil’s bots aren’t even trying to hide their national origins.
The Armenian physicist turned president cornered Biden about running for president in 2019, and now faces a potential conflict that could rival the Syrian civil war if he can’t rally support from international allies — perhaps most importantly, the United States.
The Greek prime minister was the very first world leader to congratulate President Biden even as Trump cast doubt on the election results, and for good reason: After summer conflicts almost led Turkey to war with Greece, Athens is desperate for the U.S. to take a tougher stance against Ankara’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
4. Volodymyr Zelensky
This past election was no laughing matter for the former Ukrainian comedian, who found his administration involved in two scandals involving the American contenders for president — Trump’s impeachment and Biden’s son’s business dealings. Better a Biden presidency than a Trump one for Ukraine, given that Biden is more likely to stand up against any signs of Russian aggression in the former Soviet state.
The European Commission president promised to work with the Biden administration on addressing the pandemic, tackling climate change, promoting a new digital economy that includes everybody and strengthening security, after years of Trump’s combative relationship with the EU. But Biden may use the leverage granted by Trump’s tough stances to ask for some favors from old allies before he reverses the previous administration’s policies.
The motorcycle-riding former Florida police chief impressed Biden in his vice presidential search and won reelection, making her a key ally in Congress … and a potential point person on any police reform bills that will need buy-in from both reformers and the cop community.
Stacey Abrams is getting all the accolades for her work in boosting turnout by voters of color in Georgia — who matched a Trump surge and helped put Biden over the top there. But there’s plenty of credit to go around, and with Georgia now ground zero for control of the Senate, a flood of activists are trying to pave the way to a much more Biden-friendly Congress. While the focus will be on the Atlanta area, keep an eye on Brown’s Black Voters Matter initiative, which is doing innovative work to identify and turn out rural Black voters, an oft-forgotten constituency.
Declared dead in the water as she trailed in the polls, the moderate Republican senator from Maine won a surprising victory with the help of tens of thousands of ticket-splitting Biden voters. Along with Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski, she’ll resume her role as a critical swing vote on most everything — meaning she’ll be getting a lot of phone calls from Biden.
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the policy pros
1. Ezekiel Emanuel
The University of Pennsylvania bioethicist was a key designer of the Affordable Care Act and has been named to Biden’s coronavirus task force. He will continue to be a go-to name on health care policy — and the 63-year-old isn’t afraid to be controversial, given his declaration that he would “hope to die at 75” in The Atlantic six years ago.
The CEO of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, which ties addressing inequality with creating economic growth, served as an unofficial Biden campaign adviser — who helped pull his pandemic plan to the left. She will continue to be influential from the outside, even without an official White House title, though she is reportedly in the mix for a top economic policy post.
The former South Carolina representative is founder of the conservative environmental group republicEn and could be key to helping Biden pass a climate bill that would incorporate free market principles that may appeal to conservatives, a necessary middle ground in a closely divided Congress
The stalwart left-leaning policy shop for Democrats, founded by John Podesta in 2003 and led by Neera Tanden since 2011, has been in overdrive since Biden became the clear victor, rolling out policy prescriptions online, weighing in on everything from reforming the Justice Department to addressing COVID-19, systemic inequality, police reform, clean energy and even religious freedom — suggesting the new president should organize a global gathering of religious leaders with Pope Francis. CAP will be at the center of any legislative efforts under a Biden administration.
2. Bully Pulpit Interactive
Founded by Obama digital marketing strategist Andrew Bleeker, the D.C.-based firm has been taking a victory lap since Biden’s win — particularly touting “Parry,” a product they say was critical in not just monitoring campaign chatter online but also actively combating disinformation about the Democratic candidate. Using a “Harm Index” to determine where to best spend resources fighting fake news, BPI is already working to promote its Biden experience as a product available to corporate clients and is sure to benefit from its proximity to the new White House.
Despite their very public flub having helped fund the Shadow app used in the Iowa caucus debacle, Tara McGowan and her team have dominated the digital money game for the Democrats and will likely continue to … although they may have to prove they can be as effective online without the Trump boogeyman in the Oval Office. They also remain influential in the political advertising realm with their popular, must-read For What It’s Worth newsletters, which tracked online political spends so other Washingtonians didn’t have to.
Within a week of Biden being declared president-elect by most media outlets, the New York–based international watchdog laid out a global policy road map to address systemic racism, climate change and health care access. Pointedly, it also declared that the next president should stand with human rights defenders, “not abusive leaders,” compiling a laundry list of Trump-era executive orders that needed to be rescinded. On a basic level, the NGO will have a lot more to do with a president who cares about human rights violations in a way Trump, with his anti-interventionist instincts, rarely did.
resurrecting the fallen
These Dems may have lost their races, but their influence will remain.
1. Cheri Beasley
The first Black woman to become chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court (and the first Black woman ever elected statewide), Beasley was aggressive in responding to the pandemic — suspending jury trials and a number of court operations. The decision may have cost her politically, with conservative justice Paul Newby, who has promised to cede more control to local authorities, likely to replace her as he holds an advantage of about 400 voters with a recount nearly complete. If her defeat holds, at just 54 years old, Beasley could be a Biden administration pick for a federal judgeship or DOJ post.
2. Jaime Harrison
The South Carolinian raised a record quarterly amount for any U.S. Senate candidate, pulling in $57 million in the third quarter of this year, only to lose his race against Lindsey Graham by 10 percentage points. Despite his stinging loss, Harrison — who ran for DNC chair against Tom Perez and others in 2017 — will surely play a kingmaking role in Democratic politics going forward. Not least because he was a longtime congressional aide to Jim Clyburn, who you may remember is owed a favor or two from Biden.
She’sanother U.S. Senate candidate who raised gobs of money, only the Marine fighter pilot from Kentucky got clobbered by 20 points — in a state that elected a Democratic governor in 2019. McGrath is likely locked out of winning statewide offices in Kentucky for a bit, but at just 45, with an impressive résumé and now plenty of name recognition, it’s hard to imagine she’ll be content just sitting on the sidelines. Which means she may push hard for an outside-the-Beltway-type leadership role, á la Pete Buttigieg’s run for Democratic National Committee chair or a Jason Kander-esque decision to lead a political nonprofit.
4. Xochitl Torres Small
Biden’s comments on oil and gas in the third presidential debate may have cost the first-term New Mexico congresswoman her reelection bid. But as a 36-year-old of Native American descent — with experience as a water rights lawyer, an increasingly pressing issue both nationwide and particularly in the American Southwest — she’s likely to remain a force in national politics.
5. Doug Jones
The Alabama senator lost his race, but the civil rights lawyer — famous for his prosecution of two Ku Klux Klan members responsible for the 1963 Birmingham church bombings — had already moved many Democrats with his unlikely win in 2017. Even if he isn’t named attorney general, expect him to play a role in the Yellowhammer State going forward.
The former Mississippi congressman rebounded from a scandal that ended his tenure as secretary of agriculture under Bill Clinton nearly three decades ago to run for Senate twice, in 2018 and 2020. While he lost both races in the deep-red state, Espy was able to salvage his reputation and create a new one as a warrior for racial equality in the Black Lives Matter era — playing on his past as both the first African American to hold that Cabinet post and the first to represent Mississippi on the federal level since Reconstruction. And given his past inclinations for creatively pitching himself to those in power, it wouldn’t be surprising for Espy to take on a national political role going forward.
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The four-star general (and the first Black commander of U.S. Central Command) is one of the respected foreign policy experts Biden tapped for security briefings while the Trump administration delayed the formal transition. Expect the retired Austin to be dusted off the shelf from time to time for his valued perspective.
2. William Burns
Now president of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Burns was the deputy secretary of state under Obama and is well respected by Biden. His experience as an ambassador to Russia from 2005 to 2008, coinciding with the end of Vladimir Putin’s first stint as president, will be especially valuable.
3. Carrie Cordero
A former career attorney at the Department of Justice and the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Cordero has an influential policy voice at the Center for a New American Security — and a media platform on CNN. An adviser to John Kasich in 2016, she co-founded an anti-Trump group of conservative and libertarian attorneys. She’s also a prominent advocate for tougher oversight of intelligence agencies and the Department of Homeland Security. Will she and other conservatives in the security community evolve into full Biden backers?