Enter the new team. President-elect Joe Biden picked a woman for treasury secretary (Janet L. Yellen); a woman of color for the director of Office of Management and Budget (Neera Tanden); an African American man for deputy treasury secretary (Adewale Adeyemo); an African American woman to head the CEA (Cecilia Rouse); and one woman (Heather Boushey) and one Whiteman (Jared Bernstein) as chief economists for the CEA. Biden’s choices may be noteworthy for their diversity, but more striking is that the Trump administration remained so White and male, a reflection of its political base.
Biden’s nominees, during a news briefing on Tuesday, spoke of working-class or middle-class backgrounds that brought home the reality of economic struggles and the utility of government. They were not chosen for their proclivity to get rich. There is not a billionaire in the bunch. Yellen, the child of Polish Jews, grew up in middle-class Brooklyn. As a child, Boushey experienced her father and her friends’ fathers getting laid off from Boeing. Tanden’s immigrant mother was poverty-stricken after a divorce; the family had to rely for a time on public housing vouchers and food stamps. Adeyemo was born in Nigeria and immigrated with his parents to the United States. The New York Times reports, “Mr. Adeyemo, 39, and his younger brother and sister grew up sharing a room in a two-bedroom apartment.” His family later suffered a foreclosure during the Great Recession. Bernstein grew up with a single mother.
These are people without a sense of entitlement, who are deeply appreciative of their parents’ work ethic and were exposed to others’ hardships. During the briefing, Yellen recounted moments when her father, a doctor with a practice in the basement of their home, would talk to her and her family about “what work meant to his patients — our friends and neighbors — especially if they lost a job. The financial problems. The family problems. The health problems. The loss of dignity and self-worth.”
Each appointee emphasized that their focus would be on ordinary Americans and giving them more opportunity, job security and financial stability. Tanden explained that “it’s my honor to help shape . . . budgets and programs to keep lifting Americans up, to pull families back from the brink. To give everybody the fair chance my mother got, and that everyone deserves.” She added, "I believe so strongly that our government is meant to serve all the American people — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike, all of whom deserve to know that their government has their back.” Jobs and families were front and center; there was no talk about the stock market or “incentives to invest” (tax cuts for the rich and for corporations). Adeyemo spoke about what public service means to him: “Giving people a fair shot when they need it most, offering hope through the dark times, and making sure that our economy works not just for the wealthy, but for the hard-working people who make it run.”
There has been much talk about right-wing populism over the last four years, but the current administration has directed that energy almost exclusively toward race and social issues. In its personnel and its policies, it has been plutocratic: Eliminate Obamacare, roll back worker protections, tax cuts for the rich and proposed cuts to entitlements were front and center. Income inequality? Pshaw! Endemic racial inequality? Denial.
By contrast, Yellen spoke about “stagnant wages, especially for workers who lack a college education. Communities that have seen industry disappear, with no good jobs replacing lost ones. Racial disparities in pay, job opportunities, housing, food security, and small business lending that deny wealth building to so many communities of color. Gender disparities that keep women out of the workforce and keep our economy from running at full force.”
We are witnessing perhaps the greatest shift from one administration to the next, both in outlook and in policy. Whether the Biden team succeeds remains to be seen. We can be grateful, however, that they at least understand the plight of average Americans and intend to focus on them. Elections matter.
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