When either party is out of power, it maintains what you might call an administration-in-waiting, spread out over Capitol Hill, think tanks, advocacy groups and lobbying firms. Every new president has around 4,000 political appointments to make across the executive branch — and for Democrats, who actually care about governing competently, it’s important to fill those jobs with people who know what they’re doing.

But personnel, as the saying goes, is policy. And progressives want to make sure Joe Biden doesn’t forget it:

Left-wing House members including Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Katie Porter, Ayanna Pressley, Raúl Grijalva and candidate Jamaal Bowman along with 39 progressive groups signed a letter, obtained by POLITICO, arguing that no C-suite level corporate executives or corporate lobbyists ought to have Senate-confirmed positions in a Biden administration. […]
The letter, which was delivered to Senate leaders Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell on Friday morning, called on both parties to adopt this standard, but organizers told POLITICO it was also intended to send a message to Joe Biden’s transition team as it vets potential candidates.

The desire on the left that the next administration not be staffed with those who traverse the revolving door will not be news to Biden and his team. Which is why a letter like this one is about public relations more than anything. And that’s perfectly appropriate: If they’re going to achieve their goals, they need both an inside and an outside strategy.

In other words, they need to not only communicate their feelings to Biden and his inner circle, but also let them know there will be a public cost if Biden becomes president and, say, stocks the Treasury Department with a bunch of Wall Street executives.

There are two important things to know about Biden when it comes to this question. The first is that, as I’ve argued, he’s extremely pliable, and not necessarily in a bad way. He doesn’t have specific policy ideas that he will always refuse to budge from; he wants to make deals and get wins. Which means that he’s potentially open to influence from all sides.

For progressives, that’s good news: While Biden may have moderate instincts, if they’re smart and organized they can influence him to move in their direction.

The second important thing to know about Biden is that, like many longtime politicians, he carries with him a large cadre of aides, confidantes and supporters — from his time in both the Senate and the Obama administration — most of whom are expecting to get positions in his administration. Some of them are more liberal than others, and many of them have indeed been corporate lobbyists.

At the same time, Biden has gone out of his way to bring progressives, many of them supporters of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) or Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), into his fold. He seems to sincerely want the entire party to be represented in his administration.

And, like previous presidents, we can expect him to impose ethics rules about who can serve in his executive branch. But as these things usually go, those rules might be fuzzier than they appear at first, and exceptions will be made.

For instance, the Biden team banned registered lobbyists from serving on the working groups that are helping him formulate policies — but there are former corporate lobbyists working on many of them. His transition team’s official overseeing ethics used to do what they call “government relations” for Facebook.

You may recall that Obama banned lobbyists from moving into his administration, but ended up issuing a bunch of waivers, and the effect on the revolving door was minor at best. Even the lobbyist designation itself is slippery, because there are plenty of former officials (including lots of former members of Congress) who aren’t officially registered as lobbyists but are paid by corporations as “advisers” or “strategists” as they try to shape legislation and regulations to their benefit.

The argument you often hear during a Democratic administration is that, yes, we want as few people as possible who have been paid by corporations to work on the issues they’ll handle in government, but it just so happens that this guy is really terrific and knows how things work, so it’s important that he be the deputy secretary of whatever.

And here’s the reality: There will be some corporate tools working in a Biden administration. The question isn’t whether there will be any at all, but how many of them there are, what positions they occupy, and to what degree they’re balanced by progressives who are interested in more significant change and aren’t looking forward to returning to their seven-figure salaries when their public service is over.

The tug of war over the character of the Biden administration has already begun, but there will be no final resolution. If the left wants to keep that administration from veering right, it will have to fight over personnel — from both the inside and outside — as long as he’s president.

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