WILMINGTON, Del. – President-elect Joe Biden is rapidly assembling a team of Washington hands with deep experience, projecting an image of cohesion in contrast to the savage infighting often at play around President Donald Trump.
But below the surface of his tightly scripted events, tensions simmer as factions within Biden’s decades-old orbit jockey for jobs and outside figures grow increasingly vocal in questioning some of the early choices for top positions within the administration.
Though the conflicts don’t break neatly along ideological lines, they underscore a broader challenge certain to become a defining theme of the next four years: whether the former vice president, a centrist, can bridge the divide with liberals and a younger generation of aides who got their start under President Barack Obama.
Self-described “progressives,” including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., have questioned centrist Democrats and longtime Biden allies whose names have been floated for jobs. Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., the highest-ranking Black lawmaker who played a pivotal role in helping the president-elect cement his path to victory, said he was disappointed more Black candidates hadn’t been selected for the Cabinet.
Derrick Johnson, head of the NAACP, noted that civil rights leaders have yet to meet with Biden to discuss appointments or the Georgia Senate runoff elections Jan. 5 that will determine control of the chamber and Biden’s agenda.
“Civil rights leaders in this country should be on par, if not more, than other constituency groups he has met with,” Johnson said, expecting that the historic advocacy group and others would receive that invitation soon.
‘The establishment candidate won’
At the center of the anxiety, several Democrats said, is who is line for which jobs and how transition officials are making those decisions. A half-dozen Democrats spoke to USA TODAY on the condition of anonymity to offer a frank assessment of the president-elect they support. Some are former Obama aides. Others work on Capitol Hill. Some hope to land jobs with the new administration and others will not.
“The establishment candidate won, and now the entire establishment is queuing up for all the plum jobs,” one Democrat said, and tension is exacerbated because many aren’t sure where they stand with the new administration. “It is genuinely hard to tell what is putting some over others.”
All presidential transitions face upheaval and jockeying from inside and outside forces, particularly when the incoming party has been out of power. Many of the Democrats who spoke to USA TODAY about internal tensions acknowledged it was not vastly different from what Obama dealt with in 2009.
T.J. Ducklo, a spokesman for the Biden transition, said the president-elect is assembling an administration to “unite the country,” which includes a broad and diverse range of candidates. Ducklo didn’t directly address the tensions, some of which have been on public display.
“As the president-elect often says, the Biden administration will look like America, and the process unfolding now includes input from leaders and organizations that are critical to creating a government that can effectively serve the American people in a time of unprecedented crisis,” he said.
A ‘normal’ transition
Biden, who ran for president in part on a promise to return a sense of “normalcy” to the White House, has ushered in the kind of transition Americans came to expect before 2016. He has managed to do so even as Trump has used his bully pulpit on a daily basis to level claims of fraud in the Nov. 3 election, unsupported by evidence.
Standing in a historic theater in his home state, Biden formally introduced his six-person economic team Tuesday – a series of appointments that highlighted the balancing act he faces as he seeks to keep the stakes up in a big tent party.
His nominee for Treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, was Obama’s pick to chair the Federal Reserve and won praise from liberals, moderates and even Trump’s former economic adviser, Gary Cohn. She would be the first woman to head the department. Wally Adeyemo, another former Obama senior aide, would become the first Black person to serve as deputy secretary of Treasury, assuming he wins Senate confirmation.
Biden’s team included longtime and loyal allies: Jared Bernstein served as chief economist to Biden when he was vice president and will be a member of his Council of Economic Advisers. Same for Heather Boushey, a left-leaning economist and longtime Biden adviser who has focused on the problem of economic inequality.
“This team is tested and experienced,” Biden said. “It includes groundbreaking Americans who come from different backgrounds but share…