Biden’s Big Test: Selecting a White House Chief of Staff

September 17, 2020

The American Prospect

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Vice President Joe Biden was angry. It was 2013, and Ron Klain, his trusted chief of staff, was leaving for the private sector. Biden needed someone dependable to replace him during the second term. But David Plouffe, President Obama’s campaign guru and top political adviser, kept shooting down his picks. First, he vetoed Kevin Sheekey, an adviser to then–New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, out of fear he’d be too loyal to the financier-oligarch. Biden conceded, and instead suggested Steve Ricchetti.

Ricchetti, a longtime political operative, was at the time the founder and chairman of the powerful lobbying firm Ricchetti, Inc. Though he hadn’t personally registered as a lobbyist in years, he did give the marching orders to a team of hired guns for the most powerful industries in America, including extensive ties to Big Pharma.

Plouffe didn’t budge. “The Ricchetti pick also was killed,” Glenn Thrush reported for Politico Magazine at the time, “in part because Plouffe said his background violated the president’s no-lobbyists pledge—but mostly because Ricchetti was deemed to be too chummy with the Clintons and too much of a ‘free agent’ who would look after Biden’s interests first.”

This enraged Biden. Who was Plouffe, a man 24 years his junior, to tell him what to do? “He [Biden] appealed directly to Obama, who initially deferred to Plouffe’s judgment,” Thrush reports. “Biden pressed Obama harder, arguing that he ‘needed to have his own people to do this job,’ as one aide briefed on the interaction put it. Obama finally assented—with the caveat that Biden had ‘to keep Steve from coloring outside of the lines.’”

Progressives need only to hear the name “Rahm Emanuel” to remember the stakes of this job. 

That fight was over seven years ago. Ricchetti kept the job as Biden’s chief of staff throughout the second term. In 2014, Plouffe, who was so wary of bad optics on corporate power, revolved out to lobby for Uber, and now represents Mark Zuckerberg. Today, Ricchetti co-chairs Biden’s presidential campaign, and is well positioned to resume his role as Biden’s chief of staff in the White House, should his boss vanquish Donald Trump in November. If this happens, a man who has always argued against Biden’s best instincts, and a lifelong enemy of the progressive movement, will be the chief gatekeeper to the president’s desk.

The White House chief of staff is the single most powerful non-Senate-confirmed job in the federal executive branch. It typically involves managing the president’s schedule, deciding which of his advisers get face time with him, and giving marching orders for any day-to-day work that the president doesn’t personally oversee.

Progressives need only to hear the name “Rahm Emanuel” to remember the stakes of this job. As Obama’s first chief of staff, Emanuel kneecapped efforts to even propose a federal stimulus that matched the scale of the Great Recession, and constantly pushed the administration to make up the difference by hurting the most vulnerable. (Anyone remember “Fuck the UAW”?)

Ricchetti may be subtler and smarter than “Rahmbo,” but he would be no less of a threat if placed in charge of the Biden White House. More than just cussing out organized labor, Ricchetti’s career highlight was deliberately undermining it: He led Bill Clinton’s effort to pass permanent normal trade relations (PNTR) with China in 2000, which economists predicted at the time would cause massive blue-collar job loss. Research since has concluded that PNTR directly led to the manufacturing collapse, and that the affected (largely union) workers were unable to re-skill in the way traditional trade theory suggests they would.

At the time, only 28 percent of the public supported normalized trade with China, while a staggering 56 percent opposed it. A separate poll found 79 percent of Americans felt the country should only normalize trade with China after it improved its human rights record and labor standards. None of this dissuaded Ricchetti from pushing PNTR through Congress by any means necessary.

As Biden rightly calls out Donald Trump’s contempt for democracy on the campaign trail, he should consider what it would mean to put someone so dismissive of the popular will in charge of his own White House. Moreover, his “Build Back Better” economic agenda hinges on revitalizing American manufacturing. Why would he trust the man who helped crush manufacturing in the first place to accomplish that?

Given the clients that both Ricchettis are willing to take on, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Steve has been the Biden campaign’s ace in the hole when it comes to high-dollar fundraising.

And then there are Ricchetti’s ties to the most hated industry in America, Big Pharma. Biden has pivoted to an aggressive plan for lowering prescription drug prices, a problem on which GOP voters, Nancy Pelosi, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are all united. He has vowed to repeal the law that prohibits negotiation with drug companies under Medicare, limit launch prices that set a high baseline for prescription drugs, confine price increases to the rate of inflation, and accelerate the development of generics. What message would it send about the seriousness of this plan for Biden’s right-hand man to have personally represented Novartis, Eli Lilly, and Sanofi?

Just last night, news broke that Ricchetti, Inc. has signed on to lobby on behalf of two pharmaceutical companies, Horizon Pharma and GlaxoSmithKline. This is on top of the firm’s longstanding relationship with Japanese pharmaceutical giant Eisai, whom Steve Ricchetti’s brother Jeff, co-founder of the lobbying firm, personally represents. Big Pharma clearly knows that their route into sabotaging Biden’s prescription-drug agenda runs through Steve Ricchetti. The right’s propaganda machine would have a field day with such a glaring conflict of interest. If Biden grants Ricchetti a senior job, he’d give Tucker Carlson a free attack line grounded in actually legitimate complaints.

Given the clients that both Ricchettis are willing to take on, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Steve has been the Biden campaign’s ace in the hole when it comes to high-dollar fundraising. Early on, he sold private conversations with himself as an incentive to wealthy donors, and has given backroom pitches to Wall Street executives. When Biden’s campaign was flailing in January, Ricchetti was personally “imploring bundlers to gather as much money as possible,” according to The New York Times.

Cleverly, Ricchetti has pushed Biden toward opposing support from super PACs, even as he cozies up to the wealthy donors who make super PACs so odious and gets them to donate to Biden directly. By spurning the best-known means of big-money corruption, but not big-money corruption per se, Ricchetti can create an appearance of concern for the public interest without meaningfully changing his tactics.

Ricchetti’s comfort around the ultra-wealthy is probably one of his biggest assets to the Biden campaign. Journalist George Packer writes that Biden used to denigrate his fundraising aide Jeff Connaughton because “Biden hated fund-raising, the drudgery and compromises it entailed. He resented any demands placed on him by the people who helped him raise money and the people who wrote checks, as if he couldn’t stand owing them.” (For his part, Connaughton went on to author the angry confessional The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, where he writes, “I came to D.C. a Democrat and left a plutocrat.”)

Biden bragged for decades about being one of the poorest men in Congress. His disdain for D.C. glad-handing meant that from day one, onlookers predicted Biden would struggle with funding a national presidential campaign—and sure enough, Biden for President, Inc., was running on fumes in January when Ricchetti told bundlers to dig deep.

Left to his own instincts, Biden seems likelier to chat with the shrimp cocktail waiter than the banker at a fancy fundraising event. Biden may have been a centrist standard-bearer over the decades, but he was never an ideological one—he just knows which way the wind is blowing.

That’s why the minders who shape the president’s thinking—and most especially, the chief of staff who controls their access to him—are so immensely powerful. They literally control which policies and ideas the president gets to see. Imagine how differently history might have gone if Obama had known Christina Romer’s estimate that the country needed $1.8 trillion of stimulus in 2009, information which his future chief of staff Rahm Emanuel pushed to restrict from his ears?

We now face an economic downturn that dwarfs the Great Recession, and it’s just one of a dozen interlinked crises. True, the Biden campaign is claiming that they’ve learned the lessons of history about a too-small stimulus. But it’s terrifying to think that a man who has spun through the revolving door between the White House and K Street three separate times might guide Biden through fights with his former benefactors in Big Pharma over a coronavirus vaccine, with Big Oil over a climate plan, and with corporate boardrooms around the world over rebuilding domestic industry.

Progressives may be able to persuade a President Biden on many issues if they can just sit down to talk with him, but they’ll need to get through the door first. That won’t be doable if Ricchetti is the doorman. Biden should do himself a favor and keep him out of the loop.

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