What we can tell about Biden’s administration based on his transition team

Joe Biden with a mask over his mouth, holding a white folder
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As the post-Election Day dust settles, attention has turned the coming Biden-Harris administration’s plans to lay the groundwork for the next four years. There’s plenty of ongoing speculation about President-elect Joe Biden’s Cabinet picks, but in the meantime, his team has been naming key members of the administration’s transition team — and not everyone is happy with his choices.

A president-elect’s transition team operates with its own staff and budget, functions separately from his campaign team, and includes hundreds of people. Candidates sometimes get the ball unofficially rolling before Election Day, but the bulk of the official transition process takes place from the time the election outcome is confirmed to Inauguration Day on Jan. 20. Those 11 weeks are spent doing administrative things like finalizing White House staff, Cabinet picks, and other official appointments, running background checks, and helping to coordinate a wide range of official briefings for the president-elect and vice president-elect.

And equally if not more important, the advisers on the transition team also begin the process of exploring the president-elect’s future legislative strategy, narrowing the administration’s policy priorities, and generally making sense of the political landscape the new administration will be walking into. And as we’ve seen within the Democratic Party alone, the political landscape on Capitol Hill can be presented very, very differently depending on who you talk to. Biden has indicated again and again that he plans to lead the country through a pretty ambitious first 100 days, and a well-rounded, well-informed transition team is part of ensuring he’s as successful as possible.

These advisers play an early role in the administration’s view of which policy proposals are worth building a strategy around, what the administration might be willing to sacrifice to push legislation through, and whom the Biden-Harris administration deems a political ally or an inconvenience. The advisers on the transition team aren’t as influential as permanent Cabinet picks, but they do shed light on the early vibes and priorities of a new administration.

Out of the hundreds of staff members that make up the Biden-Harris transition team, CNN reports that 46% are people of color and 41% of the senior staff members, specifically, are people of color as well. The team had an eye on gender diversity too — 52% of overall staff and 53% of the senior staff are women. The transition team’s advisory board echoes the same trends, with 43% of advisers being people of color and 52% being women. A leader who surrounds themselves with a diverse team is always a good look, and it’s a decidedly more representative approach than Trump administration took.

Cecilia Muñoz. [Brad Barket/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images]

But diversity statistics alone aren’t a stand-in for the kind of legislative strategy everyday Americans are desperate for, and a diverse staff doesn't automatically translate into material improvements in the lives of the marginalized communities. That, instead, falls more upon who the staffers actually are. And two big causes for concern include the appointment of Cecilia Muñoz and Neil MacBride.

Muñoz was a top immigration adviser to former President Barack Obama, so perhaps it's unsurprising that Biden tapped her. But for many immigration reform advocates, Muñoz represents a return to Obama administration-era immigration policies — that is, a time that certainly wasn’t as publicly cruel and openly xenophobic as the Trump era, but that did prompt immigrant and undocumented rights activists to give Obama his infamous “Deporter in Chief” moniker.

“Cecilia Muñoz is the one person besides [Trump White House aide] Stephen Miller who has spent years of her public service dedicated to the smooth execution of mass deportation policy at the West Wing level,” former Democratic National Committee spokesman Pablo Manríquez told The Hill. For many advocates and activists fighting for the rights of migrants and undocumented people, the goal isn’t to standardize the country’s deportation policy or expand and streamline its infrastructure; the goal is to create a safe and accessible process to gain citizenship while still preserving the human rights of those who haven't secured that status yet. With Muñoz advising the administration, there’s the possibility that the Biden White House will prioritize perfecting the deportation process over creating a safe, dignified pathway towards citizenship.

Ending the country's family separation policy forever, and its practice of keeping migrants and undocumented people in cages, feels like an easy win that Biden can push for early. But making meaningful changes to immigration reform will take more than that. It'll require an administration willing to erect a bold whole new process for enabling undocumented people to become citizens without needlessly dehumanizing, brutalizing, or criminalizing them. Ending cruelty is the first step; establishing and protecting the human rights and dignity of every person, undocumented or otherwise, is another.

“People who have profited off of climate chaos shouldn’t be anywhere near the federal government’s response to it.”

Meanwhile, MacBride, a former lawyer for ExxonMobil, has also been named to the transition team in a move that the Sunrise Movement quickly criticized. “We believe no fossil fuel executives, lobbyists, consultants to and lawyers for fossil fuel companies have any place on the transition team, or in the Biden-Harris administration,” said Sunrise Movement spokesperson Garrett Blad in an email to The Hill. “People who have profited off of climate chaos shouldn’t be anywhere near the federal government’s response to it.”

During his time representing ExxonMobil, MacBride ensured the oil giant escaped financial penalty for allegedly violating foreign sanctions. Currently, he’s representing a Fiat Chrysler Automobiles employee who was indicted in a case that allegedly involved plans to “manipulate vehicle emissions tests.” It's not the greatest track record, given the Biden administration has pledged to make the climate crisis a priority. And although MacBride alone might not have a dramatic impact on Biden’s approach to the oil industry and environmental legislation at large, Biden does still have the option of actually listening to the grassroots organization and selecting someone else without such a spotty history. It might seem small, but it would at least suggest that he’s listening.

The members of the transition team might be temporary, but there’s always a chance they could be later appointed to a permanent role in the Biden administration. Either way, both sides of the political spectrum are looking for any insight into how Biden’s presidency will begin, and the transition team does offer a view, however limited, into the administration’s priorities. This is just the beginning, but keeping Biden accountable to his campaign promises and commitment coalition building will require attention every step of the way.