The Speaker
Saturday, 18 May 2024 – 12:08

The democratic donkey bringing an end to the D.C. circus

In the late 1800s, Thomas Nast – one of America’s great satirical cartoonists – penned and popularised many of the cutting caricatures that still represent American politics today. The original cartoonist behind Uncle Sam himself, Nast also scrawled the donkey and the elephant menagerie caricatures that remain the main cast for the D.C. circus. His Democratic donkey and Republican elephant appeared during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, but more accurately describe the presidency of Donald J. Trump, with the blond, fake-tanned, circus elephant presiding over an administration chock full of clowns. Yet it is his successor, soon to be 46th President of the United States, Joe Biden, that more perfectly embodies the circus act that Nast had intended for his party.

Whilst Trump made the perfect elephant – a large, clumsy creature, yet easily scared – Biden more perfectly exemplifies the donkey, though not the in the way Nast intended. In the 2020 election, Joe Biden presented himself to the American people as a ‘pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey’. For centrist voters that had twice voted for Barack Obama, they could pin the tail of civility and competence; for moderate Republicans, their yearning for decorum and compromise could be pinned to uncle Joe: he was a friend of John McCain after all. He even enlisted the help of Bernie Sanders to allow progressives to pin their ideological tail to his rear.

But, just as progressives thought that they had nailed progressive plank onto Biden’s platform, his early Cabinet nominees have suggested that progressives, blindfolded and asked to pin their hopes on the donkey, missed. Biden’s picks for Chief of Staff, Secretary of State and Treasury Secretary have been described as a ‘who’s who of Georgetown dinner parties’; packed with former-Obama moderates and Washington D.C. careerists, the exact sort that Trump called the ‘swamp’, and progressives called the ‘elite’.

This is not to say they are bad picks. They’re not. His choice for Chief of Staff is Ron Klain; a veteran of Obama’s time in office, serving as Biden’s VP Chief of Staff, before later becoming the White House Ebola ‘Tsar’. Klain is a positive indication that Biden will take the pandemic seriously – if his campaign rhetoric was not already enough – and suggests that he will hit the ground running to make up the time that has been lost.

His pick for Treasury Secretary – Janet Yellen – is also a strong choice. Besides being a respected and well-renowned economist – appointed by Obama as head of the Federal Reserve – she is a proud Keynesian; she favours fiscal intervention. Although the progressives held their hopes out for Elizabeth Warren (unreasonably so, as her replacement in the Senate cost the Democrats another valuable seat), Yellen is a clear interventionist that will work on fiscal stimuli to get the US economy kicking again.

His Secretary of State nominee, Tony Blinken, is also cut from the same Obama cloth. The career foreign policy advisor – with a greying combover and a Harvard education – is receiving a promotion from the Deputy Secretary of State position he had held until Trump’s inauguration, continuing the trend of Biden promoting Obama officials to the top jobs in 46’s administration.

Much of Biden’s campaigning was spent focusing on policies to undo the damage that four years of an elephant as the main act had caused the D.C. circus ring, Bliken – a strong NATO advocate –is a clear signal that Biden is taking that commitment seriously. A lack of confidence in American commitment from NATO partners, the disastrous pandemic response, and Trump’s ridiculous decisions on climate change are all top of the agenda for Biden’s first 100 days. His picks are how he fulfils that promise.

So, with this in mind, his climate change envoy pick is puzzling. Many had expected that Biden would pluck for an expert in climate change or a strong and well-known campaigner that would tackle the issue with the brevity his campaign rhetoric suggested he would. At the top of this list was Al Gore. Another former vice president who, since his failed bid for the presidency, in 2000, used his platform as an American statesman to build a coalition against climate change. Yet Gore was not his pick. It was another white, grey-haired, 70-odd-year-old failed Democratic presidential nominee. John Kerry.

Kerry was Obama’s second Secretary of State – replacing Hillary Clinton in 2012 when she left the White House for her own presidential run. Kerry is certainly no climate change denier, but he is the sort of uninspiring career politician (he served 28 years in the Senate before joining the White House) that many consider the catalyst for the Trump phenomenon. Instead of an inspiring campaigner or experienced fighter on the issue, he has picked an experienced career politician and a colleague that can competently, but uninspiringly, fill a lesser administration position. The exact sort of competence and boringness that many political writers believe led to Trump in the first place.

These picks suggest that Biden will be far from the experienced and paternal ringmaster, presiding over a broad tent of differing ideological acts; he will be the conventional and competent president. The Jenny Lind – legitimising the theatre of D.C. once again – after P.T. Barnum’s menagerie and museum of ‘freaks’.

Instead of Biden’s Cabinet representing a ‘government for all-America’, with different picks aimed at satisfying the different parts of the Biden electoral coalition, it is a third Obama term – after a four-year interval. His administration is not like the donkey, punctured by the many ideological tails pinned on, but one ideologically defined administration all pulling in one direction; watertight in its pursuit of Obama’s legacy.

The Biden campaign, surprisingly, was made up of relatively few Obama officials; 2008 and 2012 campaign chiefs David Axelrod and Jim Messina, were both left out of the fold. The former spent the election in a CNN studio taking on former Republican Senator Rick Santorum. Instead, his campaign was led by Jen O’Malley Dillon, a former campaign manager on Beto O’Rourke’s presidential run and now Biden’s Deputy Chief of Staff. Although she was a campaign veteran of Obama’s, serving as battleground states director in 2008 and deputy campaign director in 2012, she was not the administration insider that many of the other picks have been, having instead worked in the private sector between election cycles.

She is also one of the few Obama campaign veterans in senior positions within the campaign, with former Bernie Sanders communications director Symone D. Sanders (no relation) being brought into the fold, alongside many that had served Biden as vice president, rather than serving his boss.

It was these campaign figures – particularly that of Simone D. Sanders – that made progressives think that they had successfully pinned their tail on the donkey and that the career moderate and one-time opponent of civil rights reform would be the perfect foil for a progressive agenda. He may have looked like the white male candidates that had won 56/58 presidential elections in history (Obama the only non-white male to win), but he was self-aware enough to look in the mirror, recognise his flaws and lean on those with credentials other than being a white, male, former vice president. For many, he was the ‘acceptable’ and ‘electable’ white-male vehicle that could be the catalyst for progressive, feminist and civil rights reform. But this has not come to pass.

Although this is unfair. Whilst Biden’s appointments are not a coalition of ideologies, it is a diverse Cabinet, at least by American standards. Upon his election, Biden’s northern neighbour, Justin Trudeau, picked a 50% female Cabinet for his first term in office – “because it’s 2015” – and Biden seems to want to track a similar path. The broad tent that the donkey had promised America was perhaps only ever intended to be skin deep.

His Vice President, Kamala Harris, becomes the first woman, first African American and first Indian American to hold the post; Janet Yellen becomes the first woman to serve as Treasury Secretary. Alejandro Mayorkas will become the first Latino and first immigrant to be nominated for Secretary of Homeland Security – a big step when the Department for Homeland Security was set up in response to a fear of immigrants after 9/11. Avril Haines will become the first female Director of National Intelligence. A broad tent it is not, but a diverse and modern administration it might still prove to be.

Biden was the perfect Democratic donkey for voters. Blindfolded and spun until dizzy under four years of the circus elephant, they could pin all their hopes and dreams for their America onto him. Whilst many progressives and Republican never-Trumpers are disappointed by the assembling administration, Biden is still showing his commitment to being a president for all Americans.

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