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Barbara Ransby & David Sirota Warn of Close Links Between Biden’s Cabinet Picks & Corporate Power

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President-elect Joe Biden declared “America is back” this week as he revealed some of the people who will staff his administration in key national security posts, vowing to roll back Donald Trump’s “America First” foreign policy and embrace multilateralism. Among his picks are longtime adviser Tony Blinken for secretary of state, diplomatic veteran Linda Thomas-Greenfield as ambassador to the United Nations, and former Secretary of State John Kerry for a new Cabinet post as climate czar. Historian, author and activist Barbara Ransby says Biden’s picks so far mostly come from the centrist establishment of the Democratic Party and lack progressive voices. “We need people who have compassion, who have accountability to the most vulnerable, who pledge to defend the planet, people who have a clear understanding and commitment to fighting white supremacy and police violence,” says Ransby. We also speak with investigative journalist David Sirota, who says Biden’s picks represent “an attempt to restore the old Washington.” Sirota served as an adviser and speechwriter for Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The Quarantine Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

We turn now to look at how progressive movements are responding to the Cabinet that President-elect Joe Biden is assembling, as he names a number of establishment figures to key posts. Biden named longtime adviser Tony Blinken as incoming secretary of state. Blinken previously served as deputy secretary of state for President Obama. He spoke Tuesday after his nomination was announced on the stage in Wilmington, Delaware, socially distanced from each of the other nominees, telling the story of how his stepfather was the only one of 900 children at his school in Bialystok, Poland, to survive the Holocaust at the end of the war.

ANTONY BLINKEN: At the end of the war, he made a break from a death march into the woods in Bavaria. From his hiding place, he heard a deep rumbling sound. It was a tank. But instead of the Iron Cross, he saw painted on its side a five-pointed white star. He ran to the tank. The hatch opened. An African American GI looked down at him. He got down on his knees and said the only three words that he knew in English, that his mother taught him before the war: “God bless America.”

AMY GOODMAN: Tony Blinken grew up both in New York and in Paris with his mother and stepfather. He speaks fluent French. That was Biden’s pick for secretary of state.

The president-elect has also named Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a 35-year veteran of the Foreign Service, as the new U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. Thomas-Greenfield was an ambassador to Liberia and assistant secretary of state for African affairs under Obama. She was fired days into the Trump administration. Linda Thomas-Greenfield’s last job was with Albright Stonebridge Group, which was co-founded by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. This is Thomas-Greenfield speaking Tuesday.

LINDA THOMAS-GREENFIELD: On this day, I’m thinking about the American people, my fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world. I want to say to you: America is back. Multilateralism is back. Diplomacy is back. Mr. President-elect, I’ve often heard you say how all politics is personal, and that’s how you build relationships of trust and bridge disagreements and find common ground. And in my 35 years in the Foreign Service across four continents, I put a Cajun spin on it: I called it “gumbo diplomacy.” Wherever I was posted around the world, I’d invite people of different backgrounds and beliefs to help me make a roux and chop onions for the Holy Trinity and make homemade gumbo. It was my way of breaking down barriers, connecting with people and starting to see each other on a human level.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Linda Thomas-Greenfield, President-elect Biden’s pick to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. She was born in Louisiana, as she talked about “gumbo” rather than “gunboat” diplomacy.

Former secretary of state and presidential candidate John Kerry will serve as Biden’s special climate envoy. He also spoke in Delaware yesterday.

JOHN KERRY: Mr. President-elect, you’ve put forward a bold, transformative climate plan, but you’ve also underscored that no country alone can solve this challenge. Even the United States, for all of our industrial strength, is responsible for only 13% of global emissions. To end this crisis, the whole world must come together. You’re right to rejoin Paris on day one. And you’re right to recognize that Paris alone is not enough.

AMY GOODMAN: John Kerry would serve on the National Security Council as the newly created position of climate envoy.

For more on President-elect Biden’s new team, we’re joined by two guests. Professor Barbara Ransby, historian, author and activist adviser to the Movement for Black Lives, professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago, she is joining us from Chicago. And in Denver, Colorado, David Sirota is with us, an investigative journalist, founder of the news website The Daily Poster. He served as an adviser and speechwriter for Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Ransby, let’s begin with you. So, you had that scene yesterday in Wilmington, Delaware. All of the nominees came out on the stage with President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. All were masked. All stood six feet from each other. And after each person spoke, someone came out and wiped down the podium. But, Barbara Ransby, the substance of who has been chosen, the beginning of the Cabinet, particularly on national security and foreign policy, your thoughts?

BARBARA RANSBY: Well, thank you again for having me, Amy, and for the good work that you do every day.

So, yeah, I saw that press conference, too, and I’m certainly glad that they’re following the CDC protocols for social distancing. But, as you say, it’s the substance of those appointments that really should concern us. And I think, listening to Medea Benjamin a few minutes ago talk about this WestExec Advisors that Blinken and Haines are a part of, or were a part of, you know, to look at the absence of some prominent progressives who could have filled some of these positions, people like, say, a Sara Nelson from the flight attendants’ union, strong advocate for labor and working people. People who have been international solidarity activists certainly could have filled the position of ambassador to the United Nations. So, it is of concern.

I think it’s an extension of what we’ve been hearing from some of this centrist Democrats about the left as being divisive, the need to reach across the aisle. Look, progressives, Black people helped to put Joe Biden in office. It certainly wasn’t his, you know, stellar record as a candidate or his eloquence or anything else. So that has to be taken into consideration. And, look, we need people who have competence, but we need people who have compassion, who have accountability to the most vulnerable, who pledge to defend the planet, people who have a clear understanding and commitment to fighting white supremacy and police violence and war. And so, I don’t see that in this group, and it concerns me.

And I’ll say this: What concerns me also is the presentation of this as a Cabinet of firsts. Jake Sullivan is the youngest. Avril Haines is the first woman in the position she’s appointed to, etc. You know, I don’t necessarily just want people that look like me. I want people who are really going to make a difference and who are accountable to the communities that I’m committed to, that I come from, that progressive organizers have been working to empower. So, you know, we’ve seen diversity. And diversity is fine. It’s necessary. I certainly don’t want to see an all-white-male Cabinet. But it is woefully insufficient. We see that time and again. We see it with Barack Obama’s administration. This kind of looks like Obama 2.0 in some respects. And we see it, you know, with Clarence Thomas in the Supreme Court and a whole list and litany of public officials who offer cosmetic change but not substantive change.

We are in a deep and disturbing set of crises, and we need people who are going to act to curb the greed of billionaires and provide relief to working people, but we also need people who are going to speak out and stand up against racism and the resurgence of white nationalism. I’m not confident that Biden is heading in that direction, which is why we need to continue to build a movement.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, Barbara Ransby, I wanted to ask you about one person who’s being talked about who has not yet been named but could be, someone that you — whose record you know well as a Chicagoan. That’s Rahm Emanuel, the former mayor of Chicago, who is being talked about, has been mentioned as a possible secretary of transportation. I’m wondering your thoughts on that and whether that would be a further mistake by the president-elect, and also that Rahm Emanuel, since he left office, has gone back into the corporate world in terms of advising companies on mergers and acquisitions.

BARBARA RANSBY: Right. Well, I think you probably know my answer to that, Juan. You know, Chicagoans, the Chicago movement would be in the street of Rahm Emanuel was nominated to a Cabinet position. Not only the commitment to corporate interests, but the cover-up, the inexcusable cover-up, of the Laquan McDonald murder, a young Black man murdered by police, and Rahm Emanuel, by all indications, participating in a cover-up of that murder; closing schools in Black and Brown neighborhoods; closing mental health centers; having a deaf ear to the demands of progressives in this city. So, no, I mean, you know, we wouldn’t support that. That would be a slap in the face to progressives not just in Chicago, but around this country.

So, you know, another Chicagoan who would be quite an alternative to Rahm Emanuel is Congressman Chuy García, who comes out of our movements, has a progressive record. So, his name has been floated for the transportation post, and certainly that would be a welcome divergence from a Rahm Emanuel-type appointment.

AMY GOODMAN: And, David Sirota, if you can weigh in on those who have been chosen? I mean, you have Alejandro Mayorkas, who would be the first Latinx head or secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. He talked about his family, he put it as, fleeing communism, fleeing Cuba, and coming to this country. You have, as Professor Ransby just talked about, among those, Avril Haines and the climate envoy, John Kerry, a new position that clearly President-elect Biden has chosen to say climate change will be front and center.

DAVID SIROTA: Well, look, the nominees, as a whole, I think, represent an effort at restoration, the idea being that we have to bring back familiar faces, Washington careerists, to restore the pre-Trump Washington status quo. And typically these are people with various corporate ties, ties to the establishment, ties to corporate power.

John Kerry is a good example. And it’s not to pick him out and say he’s particularly bad or particularly awful, but here’s a guy who was in government. When he was in government, he was very supportive of fossil fuel development, fracking in particular. He left office. He then got a top position at Bank of America, which is one of the largest financiers of fossil fuel development in the world. And then he comes back into government as Biden’s at least first climate pick. And it’s not to say that John Kerry is going to be terrible on climate, but it is to say, as one example of many, that we need to understand where these people come from. Joe Biden, on the campaign, on climate, on climate policy, his campaign very early on said it was seeking a, quote, “middle ground” on climate policy.

And so, I think what you see in all of these nominees — and you could go through all of them — is that it is an attempt to restore the old Washington. Ideologically, these are middle-ground picks. And what that says to me is that it’s going to be more important than ever for movements, activists, people all over this country to demand the kinds of policies that Joe Biden, at least rhetorically, promised on the campaign, that the personnel that Joe Biden is appointing so far are not people who are going to necessarily do the right thing on their own. They are not necessarily people who are going to offer a different kind of path, one that doesn’t appease corporate interests. They’re not going to do that alone, unless they are actually pushed and pressured. And that’s going to be the key.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David, I wanted to ask you about — you were a speechwriter for Bernie Sanders. Clearly, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren represented, to some degree, the more progressive wing of the Democratic Party. There’s still talk of Bernie Sanders as possible labor secretary, but, clearly, Elizabeth Warren is not going to get any kind of a major position, it appears, at this point, in the Biden administration. Your sense of how they might still be able to influence these choices, and also the argument that Biden may be trying to figure out who he can name that will get confirmation from a Senate that will — could be in Republican hands, but certainly will be very divided?

DAVID SIROTA: Well, look, I think we need to remember that lawmakers themselves can be independent power centers, that there was a time in this country when there were the so-called giants of the Senate. And I think people like Bernie Sanders, people like Elizabeth Warren, fit that archetype, or at least potentially do, in the sense that they have — they’re well known in the country. They have large mass movement followings among them, a very large, grassroots — a set of grassroots supporters. And they can choose to use that power in the Senate on legislation and on nominations.

I mean, the other way to look at nominations, if we’re just talking about Cabinet nominations, is the progressives in the Senate are also, or also could be, a voting bloc. If the Republicans are going to oppose Joe Biden nominees, then it means that a progressive bloc of Senate votes can be the difference between confirmation and not confirmation. And those progressive senators have the potential power to demand progressive Cabinet appointees. And we’ve seen this happen at certain points. In the second term, in Obama’s second term, you saw Elizabeth Warren oppose various Obama potential appointees on the grounds that they were too close to Wall Street. And ultimately, those nominees were not confirmed, because of that opposition.

And we’ve seen a new poll that’s come out that says about 68% of Americans — this is a poll from Demand Progress that just came out yesterday, that we reported on at The Daily Poster — 68% of Americans say that if Biden appoints corporate executives or lobbyists to top positions, that 68% of Americans want the Senate to vote those nominees down.

So, I would say that those progressives — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, others — in the Senate have serious leverage. But the question is always: Will they actually use that leverage? Not to pick on them. I think Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have at times used that leverage. But will the progressive movement and progressive legislators in the Congress use the leverage that they have? That’s the open question.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmembers Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib — you know, members of what’s known as “The Squad” — are the first sitting members of Congress to sign a petition launched by the Justice Democrats against a potential nomination of Joe Biden’s former chief of staff, Bruce Reed, as head of the Office of Management and Budget. Reed is considered a “deficit hawk,” has supported cuts to Social Security and Medicare. The petition calls for OMB to, quote, “be staffed with people who will prioritize working people, not Wall Street deficit scaremongers.” Let me put this question to Professor Ransby: In the midst of this serious pandemic-fueled recession, is it possible to build back better with Wall Street-friendly austerity politics? And what about these congressmembers speaking out and taking a stand, drawing a line in the sand, on Reed?

BARBARA RANSBY: Yeah, well, I think that’s a welcome and refreshing move by elected officials. Rashida Tlaib is somebody who is pretty uncompromising in speaking out, so I’m not surprised that she’s one of the signatories of the petition opposing Bruce Reed. I mean, we have to be very, very attentive to people being put in positions of power with regard to the economy. And on one hand, this is not surprising. On the other hand, we have to be vigilant. You know, somebody like Darrick Hamilton or Stephanie Kelton, people who have bold ideas that really would serve the economic interests of the majority of people, of poor and working people, rather than people who have consulted for corporations, who have been paid by corporations and financial institutions and Wall Street and so forth. So, obviously, we have to oppose a Reed nomination.

But I think, bigger than that, Amy — you know, I wanted to go back to something David Sirota said, which is about the importance of movements continuing to organize. I mean, we have all been so obsessed with this election, so fearful that this maniac and aspiring dictator would have retained power for four more years, that I don’t want us to lose sight of the importance of pressure from the street. We had literally tens of millions of people in the street after the murder of George Floyd. And it wasn’t just about the murder of George Floyd; it was about all the George Floyds who struggle in an economy that’s not in their interest, who struggle to make ends meet, who are vulnerable to police harassment on the street, partly because of their race and class vulnerabilities.

And so, we have to fight for people in these positions of power that are going to respond to our demands, but we also have to organize to make those demands as loudly, as persistently as possible. So, you know, the group The Frontline, which was a coalition to defeat Trump, has called for actions on Inauguration Day in Washington to do exactly that, to push for a progressive agenda. And so, we need to be supporting movements like that, as well. I mean, we can get a less bad appointment out of Joe Biden in some of these Cabinet positions, and that is important. I am all about, you know, increasing the margin of possibility in that arena, but also really about the importance of building a movement in this period and not forgetting the neoliberal politics of a Joe Biden — Joe Biden who took us into the war in Iraq and supported the crime bill and all of these things that helped to put us in the position we’re in now. So there’s a lot of work for movement organizers to do. Being attentive to these Cabinet posts is one of them, but certainly not the only.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, David Sirota, we only have about a minute or so left, but I wanted to ask you about the speculation on the Department of Justice that Biden could possibly name Preet Bharara, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York — before that, a staff member for Chuck Schumer — as possible head of DOJ or the Securities and Exchange Commission. I’m wondering your thoughts about that.

DAVID SIROTA: Well, Preet Bharara got a reputation as being supposedly tough on crime because he prosecuted some insider trading. He investigated part of the Cuomo administration in New York. But we have to remember the big thing about Preet Bharara. Preet Bharara was the head of the most powerful prosecutorial office in the United States during the financial crisis: the Southern District of New York, as you said, Juan. And in that time, there were no prosecutions of top executives at major banks in relation to the financial crisis. The idea of putting someone in power at the top of the Justice Department who played an active role — an active role — in making sure that Wall Street executives were not prosecuted after the financial crisis would be a complete abomination. It would be a disturbing promotion of the idea of a lack of accountability.

And I’ll just say the last thing about all of this, which is that we really are seeing, in a lot of ways, in this whole debate, an effort to pretend that the past crises that we face — the Iraq War, the financial crisis and the like — didn’t happen, or if they did happen, that the people who helped lead us into that, there will not be accountability for them. There will not even be career accountability or job accountability for them in terms of getting promoted later. So, the point about Preet Bharara is, if he is put in there, the implications for what we’re saying about whether Wall Street will ever be held accountable, whether for the financial crisis in the past or crises in the future, they would be deeply, deeply disturbing.

AMY GOODMAN: David Sirota, I want to thank you for being with us, award-winning investigative journalist, founder of the news website The Daily Poster, columnist for The Guardian, editor-at-large for Jacobin, serves as an adviser and speechwriter for Senator Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign. And I want to thank Barbara Ransby, historian, author and activist adviser to the Movement for Black Lives, professor of African American studies, gender and women’s studies and history at the University of Illinois, Chicago. Her latest book, Making All Black Lives Matter: Reimagining Freedom in the 21st Century.

This is Democracy Now! Next up, we look at the Indigenous-led fight against the Enbridge Line 3 pipeline in northern Minnesota. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has just granted a key permit, but protests continue. Stay with us.

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