’Twas the Friday after Christmas, when all through the land, not a person was working, the computers unmanned. The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while Joe Biden released the names of the wealthy and well-connected volunteers who are fundraising for his campaign.
These fundraisers, otherwise known as bundlers, have all brought in at least $25,000 for the campaign, although many have likely brought in sums an order of magnitude larger, or at least plan to throughout the course of the campaign.
While it might be an exaggeration—or, if you like, a bit of poetic license—to say that no one was working at 11 p.m. on the Friday after America’s biggest holiday, it is hard to imagine another moment in the year when people are less hooked in to the steady drip of the 24-hour news cycle. The Biden campaign’s motivation for this stealth release is no mystery. With names from private equity, Big Tech, and many other disfavored industries scattered throughout the list, they surely wanted to tiptoe around negative press coverage. And they picked the perfect spot to ensure that.
The fact that the media, for the most part, fell for this evasive maneuver has higher stakes than the Biden campaign simply avoiding a bad news cycle. This list tells you more than perhaps any other campaign document about what a Biden presidency would look like—and, let’s just say, it does not paint a flattering picture. These names seem to suggest that the bold actions proposed in the Day One Agenda would not be borne out in reality under a President Joe Biden, instead remaining trapped on the Prospect’s pages.
Consider how exactly presidents are powerful. Although campaign-trail rhetoric tends to focus on candidates’ legislative agendas, in reality, presidents have limited influence over legislation. But they still have the power to enact major reforms. As the Day One Agenda illustrates, presidents can make bold changes in all policy realms using the tools of the executive branch, including regulation, enforcement, federal contracting, and yes, even executive orders. But the efficacy of these tools depends on the personnel a president taps to carry out their mandate.
One might hope that the individuals chosen to fill these positions of prestige would be picked for their qualifications and, above all, unassailable commitment to the public good. Unfortunately, positions in the executive branch are often treated as rewards, doled out to prolific fundraisers and their allies. Even when bundlers don’t take a job themselves, their work uncovering money for the candidate wins them a receptive ear when it comes time to choosing who does, and does not.
Since bundlers are inevitably from the wealthiest ranks of society—executives in the private equity, real estate, BigLaw, and technology industries—their perspective is hardly that of the average person. And indeed, their influence has routinely tipped the scales against the public interest, including dissuading administrations from taking the sorts of actions that the Day One Agenda encourages, and instead toward the maintenance and expansion of private profit.
Biden’s list of bundlers gives ample reason to believe that his administration would fall short of the Day One Agenda’s bold proposals. Consider, for example, the numerous ways the next president could “Overhaul the Business of Wall Street,” from breaking up too-big-to-fail banks to forcing divestiture from carbon (and much, much more). But look at Biden’s biggest fundraisers, and these proposals start to seem less attainable. People like Erskine Bowles, who served as Bill Clinton’s chief of staff but now sits on the board of Morgan Stanley, are unlikely to support any effort to have the Federal Reserve use its authority to divide up the nation’s largest banks. Worse still, they’ll likely have the opportunity to discourage the president’s team from appointing hard-charging Fed governors in favor of more business-friendly picks. Other Wall Streeters bundling for Biden include Andy Cohen of the hedge fund Greenoaks Capital, Wells Fargo’s former chair of “corporate responsibility” Federico Peña (who was Bill Clinton’s energy secretary) and Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers alumnus Mark Gilbert (who was made ambassador to New Zealand under Obama).
(Yes, you read right—Wells Fargo had a “chair of corporate responsibility.” Next we’ll learn Fox News has a fact checker!)
Bank consolidation is not the only thing Biden’s list suggests we will be stuck with. It would seem unlikely that financial regulators would take advantage of the tools at their disposal to get the country divested from carbon with people like Michael Collier, Biden fundraiser and fossil fuel financier, in the next administration (or exerting influence over it). As an aside, Biden signed a pledge vowing to reject donations from the fossil fuel industry, though he’s likely to sidestep that the same way Pete Buttigieg has, arguing that Collier is merely an investor in fossil fuels, not a producer of them. This may not pass our laugh test, but so far it’s been good enough for the bundler-heavy candidates in this primary.
Presidents have tremendous power to enact transformative change, and high-powered bundlers are well positioned to threaten such an agenda.
Aside from breaking up big banks, the next administration could stop, or even reverse, consolidation in other sectors as well. The Federal Trade Commission and Department of Justice still employ merger review guidelines from 1982, the validity of which has been thoroughly debunked. The next administration could issue new ones that recognize the threat that rampant consolidation poses to our economic and political systems. This would, however, be unlikely to occur if some of Biden’s bundlers were to land spots in his administration. Take for example Mark Angelson, who brags in his Biden Foundation bio that he was “a leader of the transformation and consolidation of the printing industry.” Or there’s Jon Fisher, a Silicon Valley investor known to counsel startups to try to be acquired, rather than grow into stand-alone companies.
Consider also the support Biden is receiving from private equity bigwigs like Alan Patricof, Sanjeev Mehra, and Anthony Gardner (who was made ambassador to the EU under Obama). The next president would have the power to unilaterally curb some of the industry’s abuses and undercut its profitability. For example, under existing authority, the IRS and the SEC may be able to close the carried-interest loophole, from which the industry profits handsomely. If bundlers like Patricof have anything to say about it, however, it’s unlikely to happen.
The next president could also make it easier for hundreds of thousands of workers to join a union by reversing a Trump-era rule that prevents home health care workers from having union dues automatically deducted from their Medicaid-funded wages. But here, too, there is reason to doubt that Biden would follow through. A look at Biden’s list of bundlers reveals that he received early, enthusiastic support from Stephen Cozen, founder and chairman of the union-busting law firm Cozen O’Connor.
With over 200 individuals and couples on Biden’s list, this exploration could go on for many more pages. I could talk, for instance, about how support from Bart Friedman, a lawyer who has represented numerous pharmaceutical companies and sits on the board of the biotechnology company Ovid, casts doubt on a Biden administration’s willingness to use “march in” rights to claim pharmaceutical patents and lower drug prices. Or I could enumerate the many ways in which the private equity industry could protect or expand its markets by exerting influence over the next administration. I could even point out Biden’s excessively narrow vision of his promise not to take money from lobbyists—his bundler Joseph Falk openly brags about his lobbying experience, but since the money he has raised was technically donated by other people, Biden can still claim that he’s free of lobbyist influence. Without going into all of that, however, two things should by now be clear: Presidents have tremendous power to enact transformative change, and high-powered bundlers are well positioned to threaten such an agenda.
None of this is preordained. Should Biden win the nomination, it is not a given that he will appoint people from among the ranks of his bundlers, nor even that he will consult with fundraisers in making his choices. Public pressure to disavow such figures could ensure that the next administration is instead staffed with qualified, steadfast fighters for the public interest.
For that to happen, however, media outlets need to pay attention to the realities of presidential power, and ask questions that elucidate how candidates would wield it. When the media obsesses over a candidate’s position on legislation they can’t pass—or worse, on the zingers that campaign speechwriters pen in part to deliberately distract—it ignores the substantive issues that will take up the vast majority of a president’s time.
Each president must fill thousands of positions throughout the executive branch, set enforcement priorities, institute new regulations, and much more. Voters need information about how candidates think about those topics to choose a president who will work in their interest. Researching a campaign’s most influential fundraisers would be a good place to start.
This article first appeared in the American Prospect.