“President Sanders.” A once-inconceivable phrase is suddenly far more realistic these days. Bernie Sanders still faces stiff primary competition and the prospect of a bruising general election campaign against Donald Trump. Yet with Sanders the current Democratic frontrunner, his presidency is a far more likely prospect than it ever was at any point in 2016.
But if Sanders makes it to the White House—to the horror of the uber-wealthy and political conservatives everywhere—he’s going to have to bring an entire administration with him. Who might be included in it? The American Left has never had to face such a question before, because it has been so distant from power. Unlike past presidents, Sanders does not have the luxury of choosing from an inexhaustible list of allies in high office and civil society to compile his cabinet: He has very few ardent supporters within Congress and his ideological brethren in elite Washington policy-making circles are few and far between.
Should he win the presidency, expect that a Sanders administration would be composed of a mix of former officeholders, think tank employees, and political allies who receive posts in order to prepare them for higher office in the future. (There may be particular emphasis on the latter, since Sanders lacks an obvious heir to his movement once he exits the political scene.) Who in particular though? What could such a cabinet plausibly look like, given the currently available range of candidates? Here are a few speculations and suggestions.
Secretary of State
Nominees for this coveted post traditionally stem from one of three sectors: Congress; lower executive office (especially the U.N. Ambassador or National Security Advisor posts); or within the Department of State itself. Given the absence of the Left in prominent executive and bureaucratic circles, Sanders may have to rely on the former: Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy and prominent collaborator in Sanders’ effort to end the War in Yemen, could be up to the task, as could non-interventionist stalwart Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, the sole Senator to endorse Sanders’ previous presidential run. Wisconsin’s Russ Feingold, legendary in progressive circles for his lone opposition to the PATRIOT Act, is currently out of a job following his failed comeback bid for Senate, and his unique combination of left-wing bonafides, tenure on the Foreign Relations Committee, and formal diplomatic experience make him an obvious contender as well.
Whoever is chosen will be given the Sisyphean task of taming the U.S. foreign policy “blob” in order to meaningfully re-assess America’s commitments abroad. The new generation of progressive internationalists as represented by Matt Duss, the campaign’s chief foreign policy advisor, would surely be represented in a Sanders administration, though any immediate appointment to a top executive office is perhaps unlikely.
Secretary of Defense
A similar conundrum exists for Sanders’ team in filling the posts at the Pentagon: There are very few traditionally “qualified options” (Defense staff, top military personnel) for top Defense posts who align with Sanders’ anti-interventionist politics. Looking to Congress, key Sanders ally and campaign co-chair Rep. Ro Khanna of California has been a stalwart anti-interventionist voice during his time in the House and was a leader in the effort to end support for the war in Yemen. Given his presence on the Armed Forces committee and executive experience as a former Deputy Secretary of Commerce, Khanna would be a logical choice for Secretary of Defense, especially since his ambition is blunted by the lack of open statewide offices in California for him to run in; indeed, a stint as a top Cabinet official would give him a leg up in 2024 when one of the state’s Senate seats is likely to be open.
Other options within Congress include the California delegation’s legendary peacenik Barbara Lee, the ever-controversial Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii whose status as a veteran makes her an obvious choice, as well as any of the names mentioned above for State.
Secretary of the Treasury
Economic policy guru and political celebrity Robert Reich, who headed Labor under the Clinton Administration and has emerged as a social media phenomenon in the Trump era, was mentioned for the role in 2016, and for good reason: He has cultivated a great personal relationship with Sanders, has experience in crafting public policy, and is charismatic enough to serve as an effective communicator for Sanders’ far-reaching progressive economic program. Should Sanders opt for a trained economist to head Treasury, an intriguing possibility would be Stephanie Kelton, Sanders’ chief economic advisor in his prior run, who has since become well known as the leading advocate of the radical Modern Monetary Theory. Kelton’s heterodox policies may be too hard a pill for the Senate to swallow, however, and she might be better served in a top advisory post like Chair of the Council of Economic Advisors.
Sarah Bloom Raskin, who served as a Federal Reserve Governor followed by a stint as Deputy Secretary of the Treasury under Obama, is a staunch progressive noted for her consumer protection advocacy, and as a potential appointee she has the added benefit of being uncontroversial enough to have been confirmed by voice vote. A name that cannot be absent in this discussion is that of Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren: While she would surely be a valuable asset to the Sanders administration in the role, her absence in the Senate may come at too great of a cost, and many progressives would prefer to see her in a leadership position within the Democratic caucus.
Whoever is appointed Attorney General will be tasked with dismantling the institutionally racist criminal justice system. Vanita Gupta, who served in the Justice Department under Obama as civil rights chief (and was formerly ACLU’s deputy legal director), could very well fit the bill. Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner, a name that would excite Sanders’ base —while enraging the Republican opposition like no other —is renowned by the American Left for his efforts to end mass incarceration and would likely be the choice of activists. The direct elevation of a county prosecutor to the Attorney General’s office is not unprecedented (Janet Reno, who served in the post from 1993–2001, was Miami-Dade County’s head prosecutor before heading the Justice Department) and Krasner’s appointment would undoubtedly delight advocates of criminal justice reform.
However, Sanders may not feel inclined to use precious political capital on confirming a figure as polarizing as Krasner. Instead, he may reach across the internal Democratic aisle and appoint a moderate such as Sanders’ longtime foe Tom Perez, the DNC head and ex-Labor Secretary who was a probable pick for the role had Clinton won in 2016. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, despite being a regular target of criticism from the Left as a result of his perceived ties to Wall Street, has emerged as a champion of criminal justice reform in his tenure; Booker being appointed to the role might signal something of a rapprochement with the centrist-minded Democratic Party establishment.
Secretary of the Interior
A climate hawk like Sanders is sure to appoint a Secretary of the Interior willing to take to task the job of reversing Trump-era guidelines that have led to the deterioration of America’s National Parks. No name comes to mind like that of Raúl Grijalva, the fiercely progressive Congressman from Arizona who was a finalist for the post in 2009. Considered by some to be the most left-wing member of the lower chamber, the ex-militant Grijalva has been one of the most vocal advocates of mining reform and increased petroleum industry oversight since joining the Natural Resources Committee, and his endorsement of Sanders’ previous run cemented his strong progressive bonafides.
As governors of western states are commonly chosen for the position, Sanders may be inclined to give the nod to Jay Inslee, the outgoing Governor of Washington whose long-shot presidential candidacy is centered on environmental justice. Bill McKibben, a titan in the environmental movement and fellow Vermonter who was a Sanders appointee to the DNC platform committee in 2016, is an obvious choice from outside of governor though may prefer to lead Energy or the EPA instead.
Secretary of Agriculture
The affairs of the Department of Agriculture often receive little interest. But Sanders, who hails from a rural state and has positioned himself as a fierce advocate of small-scale farming and as an opponent of large agribusiness, takes a different approach. Sanders may choose to “keep it in the family” and appoint a fellow Vermonter for the role, such as his ally Rep. Peter Welch (founder of the Congressional Dairy Farmers Caucus) or Lt. Governor David Zuckerman, a member of the Vermont Progressive Party and organic farmer by trade.
John Boyd, founder of the National Black Farmers Association, was a progressive favorite for the role in 2009 and was vetted for the position by Obama’s team at the urging of the Congressional Black Caucus. He has since been at the forefront of the battle for compensation of black farmers faced with discrimination, helping to secure more than $1.5 billion in the federal budget to resolve the victims’ claims, and his appointment would be looked at with glowing regards by the black community. An interesting prospect is that of Iowa native Austin Frerick, an ex-Treasury economist who has been noticed by Sanders’ team for his expertise in the matter of reforming the food supply system and dedication to challenging agricultural monopolies.
Secretary of Commerce
An office typically held by business leaders with close personal and financial relations with the President, whoever is chosen as Secretary of Commerce by Sanders will serve as something of a liaison to a business community naturally skeptical of the democratic socialist’s economic program, and will use the office to promote economic development (particularly in depressed rural areas) in coordination with the administration’s broader efforts to transform the American economy into one rooted in environmental sustainability. Sanders is unlikely to choose a business leader for the role as has typically been the case given that he has no major financial backers who he needs to reward with a plum cabinet spot in exchange for future funding.
The obvious choice for the role is Rep. Ro Khanna given his experience as the Department’s Deputy Secretary, but should he decline, someone like Sam Jammal, a prominent solar energy businessman and former congressional candidate who served in the Department’s Industry unit under Obama, could very well fit the bill here instead. Millionaire investor Joe Sanberg, who made a name for himself after leaving Wall Street to pursue a career as a California-based anti-poverty advocate, sees progressive policy as a means to encourage economic growth and would feel quite comfortable in the position.
Secretary of Labor
No candidate in the Democratic field is more serious about repairing the Democratic Party’s bruised relationship with organized labor than Sanders, and he has a large number of potential choices for Secretary of Labor to choose from among allies and supporters of his progressive agenda. Should he not receive a post as an economic advisor, William Spriggs, a decorated labor economist who previously served in the Department as Assistant Secretary for Policy and now advises the AFL-CIO, is left-wing enough to appeal to Sanders’ team while uncontroversial enough to prevent a significant confirmation battle, as is Gabriela Lemus, a progressive who served as the Department’s Director of Public Engagement in Obama’s first term.
Representative of a new wave of grassroots labor activism, the renowned and widely recognized Ai-jen Poo, noted for her leadership of the National Domestic Workers Alliance and for her successful effort to guarantee labor protections to domestic workers in New York. Robert Reich, a previous occupant of the job, could very well see himself leading the Department again if he’s not serving in another post in the administration.
Secretary of Health & Human Services
Single-payer healthcare is the sine qua non of the Sanders political project bar absolutely none, and whoever Sanders chooses as Secretary of Health and Human Services will be side-by-side with the administration as they work to push the historic Medicare for All bill through Congress. Abdul El-Sayed, the ex-chief of the Detroit Health Department, has become something of a superstar in progressive circles following his ultimately failed insurgent bid for Governor of Michigan. Renowned for his brilliance —and a target of vicious conspiracy theories due to his Muslim background — El-Sayed is one of the most vocal advocates for a Medicare for All system nationwide and already has a working relationship with Sanders stemming from the Senator’s endorsement of his campaign in 2018.
Another experienced name associated with Sanders is that of Harvard’s Don Berwick, an internationally distinguished pediatrician who briefly headed Medicare and Medicaid Services under Obama by way of recess appointment though was never formally confirmed in the wake of Republican opposition. Other potential appointees include: Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the leader of the push for Medicare for All in the House whose position at the helm of the Congressional Progressive Caucus has led her star to rise considerably in the past two years; Adam Gaffney, the young, Harvard-trained, and increasingly vocal leader of Physicians for a National Health Program; RoseAnn DeMoro, retired leader of National Nurses United who turned the union into a powerhouse and led the charge for single-payer in California (DeMoro is also a Sanders devotee known for her social media presence); Claudia Fegan, a decorated single-payer advocate and executive director of Cook County Health and Hospitals System.
Secretary of Housing and Urban Development
A position often reserved for campaign super-donors, Sanders will surely appoint a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development with a serious commitment to ensuring housing affordability and anti-discrimination housing policies. Veteran housing policy analyst Diane Yentel, who previously headed HUD’s public housing division and now leads the National Low Income Housing Coalition, is a prospective candidate who has both the policy chops and the executive experience to make an effective Secretary.
If Sanders takes a more conventional path and looks to, say, a municipal officeholder for the role as prior Presidents before him have done, he might consider using the post to elevate Chokwe Antar Lumumba, the radical Mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, whose higher political ambitions are naturally inhibited by the red lean of his home state.
Secretary of Transportation
The Department of Transportation is another ostensibly low-level cabinet office that is a favorite of presidents looking to elevate wealthy financiers or ambitious officeholders looking to pad their resume. Presiding over a portfolio primarily tasked with awarding funds to public transportation projects, Sanders’ Secretary of Transportation would receive attention unseen by their predecessors as a result of investment in rail transit being a hallmark of the Green New Deal. Sanders may choose to elevate an ally like Rep. Chuy Garcia, a power-broker in Chicago politics and proponent of investment in high-speed rail within the House Transportation Committee to overlooked role, or perhaps the staunchly progressive Rep. Peter DeFazio, who chairs the aforementioned committee and has been mentioned as a likely candidate for the role in the past.
Should he elect to appoint someone with hands-on experience in the field, he may look to Janette Sadik-Khan, the former commissioner of the New York City Department of Transportation, who is a favorite of new urbanists and critics of car culture everywhere. Beth Osborne, who leads Transportation for America and has previously served within the Department and in multiple advisory posts, could very well be in the mix as well, as could Katharine Kellemen, head of the Pittsburgh Port Authority who has been described as a “powerhouse” in the field of public transit.
Secretary of Energy
The Department of Energy’s jurisdiction encompasses a wide range of responsibilities, from presiding over the maintenance of the American nuclear weapons system to promotion of and research into energy conservation efforts and new forms of energy production. This is another spot in which the aforementioned Inslee and McKibben (particularly the former given his experience on the House Energy and Commerce Committee) would feel comfortable in. Should Sanders take the route Obama took and appoint a professional scientist to the role, a name like Mark Jacobson, a high-profile Stanford academic who heads the Energy program at the university and is one of the most prominent scientific officials to corroborate the logistical viability of the Green New Deal, might be enticing.
Secretary of Education
Even as his rivals rush to co-opt most of his policies at every turn, Sanders’ goal of eliminating tuition fees for public universities altogether remains in contrast with his opponents’ more moderate proposals to control the costs of higher education, such as only making two years of community college free for students. The Secretary of Education, tasked with the administration of federal assistance to both higher and lower educational institutions, holds a significant degree of power despite the decentralized nature of the American school system. Breaking sharply with the Obama administration’s penchant for “charterization,” one can assume that whoever receives the nod to head the Department of Education in the democratic socialist’s administration will be a strong supporter of public schooling.
Randi Weingarten, the powerful head of the American Federation of Teachers, is a major Democratic power-player who butted heads with Sanders in the 2016 primary but has since made amends with the Left and has come around to many of the policies championed by Sanders’ movement. If Sanders wishes to bury the hatchet and further ingratiate himself with the organized labor apparatus, Weingarten could very well fit the bill here. An uncontroversial name that might be chosen for the role is that of Tim Walz, Governor of Minnesota — a high school teacher by trade who, despite his fairly conservative reputation, ran unapologetically on a platform of two years of tuition-free college and was rewarded by the electorate of his swing state with a sizable victory in 2018. Freshmen Rep. Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, who made a name for herself prior to election as National Teacher of the Year 2016, is a progressive who will surely be on the shortlist for the job in any Democratic administration.
Secretary of Veterans Affairs
An often overlooked feature of Sanders’ Senate tenure has been his prioritization of the welfare of veterans; from 2013 to 2015 he served as Chair of the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee. Whoever serves as his Secretary of Veterans Affairs is likely to be a relatively unknown bureaucrat from within the VA who will be tasked with presiding over one of the largest - and most dysfunctional - agencies in the federal government as it is faced with the prospect of privatization. On the off-chance Sanders wants to make an unorthodox choice and choose a veteran’s advocate from outside of government, he might pick someone like Tyson Manker, a retired Marines Corps corporal and attorney who headed the Veterans for Bernie organization in 2016 and is currently leading a class action lawsuit against the U.S. government for denying benefits to PTSD-inflicted veterans. This is another post in which Rep. Tulsi Gabbard would fit comfortably in, and Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.), a moderate Democrat who served as Assistant Secretary in the Department, would likely sail through confirmation if she were to be picked.
Secretary of Homeland Security
While not yet a serious target for abolition, the Department of Homeland Security, the largest agency created in reaction to 9/11, has long been a lightning rod for criticism from the Left, and it has received particular scrutiny in the Trump era given the administration’s draconian immigration policies. This is another post where Vanita Gupta would serve well in, as would Jeff Merkley given his vocal opposition to the security state and the Trump Administration’s family separation policies. David Cole, a prolific Georgetown Law professor and national director of the ACLU with a speciality in national security issues who has been at the forefront of legal battles against Trump’s immigration policies, would also be appropriate and well-qualified choice for the position. Merkley’s senatorial counterpart in Oregon, Sen. Ron Wyden, is a liberal member of the Select Committee on Intelligence and a major opponent of mass surveillance, making him a natural fit for the position or for an intelligence role such as at the head of the CIA or as Director of National Intelligence.
This list is hardly exhaustive. There can be a robust discussion about different possible candidates, hopefully with some bold, unexpected, and imaginative choices floated. But the possibility of a far more progressive presidency requires us to think seriously about who we would want running the federal government agencies…
Photo: Chokwe Antar Lumumba, Ai-jen Poo, Abdul El-Sayed, Diane Yentel
If you appreciate our work, please consider making a donation, purchasing a subscription, or supporting our podcast on Patreon. Current Affairs is not for profit and carries no outside advertising. We are an independent media institution funded entirely by subscribers and small donors, and we depend on you in order to continue to produce high-quality work.