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Debate | Is Biden’s Obama throwback cabinet good or bad for millennial Jews?

This week, President-elect Joe Biden announced many of his cabinet picks. And to some, they were eerily familiar, names of people who had served under President Obama or who were adjacent to Obama’s cabinet. Is some good old fashioned stability just what the doctor ordered? Or are we overdue for some serious change?

We asked Forward contributing columnists Joel Swanson and Ari Hoffman to debate: Are Biden’s Obama-era throwbacks good or back for millennial Jews?

Joel Swanson I’m a millennial. Here are a few key facts about the economic prospects of our generation, compared to the Baby Boomers and Generation X that preceded us: We control just 4.2% of the wealth in the United States, making us fully four times poorer than the Boomer generation was at the same age. We’ve racked up fully a trillion dollars in debt, between student loans and personal debt, and there’s compelling evidence that this student debt is harming our mental health and causing us to delay many of the traditional milestones of adulthood such as homeownership, marriage, and having children. We’re less likely to have health insurance than any other generation, and the high cost of healthcare is the biggest reason why.

Joel Swanson | Artist: Noah Lubin

Joel Swanson Image by Noah Lubin

And this was all before the pandemic hit, which has resulted in more than half of young people losing our jobs or having our hours cut, causing further economic pain that we can’t withstand. Young people in the United States are twice as likely as older generations to struggle with underemployment as a result of the pandemic, and we’re disproportionately represented in the industries hardest hit by the economic recession.

Is it any wonder that millennials also happen to be the first generation in U.S. history to prefer socialism over capitalism?

In light of these shocking numbers that document the sheer economic precarity of our generation, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by President-elect Biden’s choices for his economic team. The key members of the Biden economic team — Janet Yellen for treasury secretary, former Obama advisor Brian Deese as director of the National Economic Council, longtime Clinton ally Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget — are all depressingly familiar choices, longtime party apparatchiks who have circulated around center and center-left circles in Washington for decades now. They’re capable administrators, no doubt, but no one should expect them to make radical changes to economic policy in the U.S. They’re likely to continue the Obama administration’s approach to the economy.

But the Obama administration failed millennials. It may have taken the United States out of the Great Recession in the largest sense, but millennials have never fully recovered from graduating during the recession. And that was before the pandemic hit.

Economic relief for young people is especially salient for the Jews. For every anguished piece about how young, non-Orthodox American Jews are supposedly disaffiliating from synagogues and how seven in ten of us are not members of any major Jewish organizations, it’s important to remember that young Jews are much likelier than older American Jews to cite membership fees and financial pressures as a reason not to affiliate. 44% of young Jews say it’s too expensive to be involved in Jewish life in the U.S., compared to 29% of older Jews.

Joe Biden has a chance to recognize what dire straits young people in the United States are in, and to go a lot further than merely restoring the Obama administration. But so far, his political appointments are not promising.

Ari Hoffman: There is no doubt that millennials have had a rough go of it in the 12 years since Lehman Brothers came tumbling down. Layering a public health crisis and the economic fallout on top of what was an already stark Main Street-Wall Street (and Silicon Valley) divide doesn’t help matters one bit. I feel for the many who are struggling, most of whom are not college-educated millennials.

Ari Hoffman | Artist: Noah Lubin

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

But the immediate task of the incoming Administration is to restore faith in government and competency to the Executive Branch. This is not a time of revolution; it is a time for mending and rebuilding. If Democrats do not show that they can run this government, they will not be asked to run the next one.

For that task, I want experience and expertise. The President-elect is himself old and evidently frail; his government must be precise, smooth, and efficient. The reality of credentialing and how experience accrues is that many of those in the Obama Administration are reappearing now.

Moreover, if the majority of Democrats wanted major overhaul, they were free to choose a democratic socialist standard bearer during the primaries. Instead, they went with a familiar Democratic face. Rejecting both Trump and the far-left, Americans chose the center.

If this Cabinet looks like a rerun, it’s because people decided this was the show they wanted to watch.

Not everything is same-old, though. Biden’s Transition team has been correctly touting this as the most diverse cabinet ever, and Jews should be sharers in that pride. Never before have there been so many Jewish people at the highest echelons of government, from such different backgrounds.

Joel Swanson: It is, indeed, notable that there are so many prominent Jews represented in the top echelons of the incoming Biden administration, notably Janet Yellen at Treasury, Anthony Blinken for Secretary of State, and Alejandro Mayorkas at Homeland Security. If confirmed, Mayorkas will be the first Jew of Sephardic ancestry to serve in an American presidential Cabinet, surely a milestone worth celebrating.

And although I have serious philosophical differences with Blinken, no Jew could help being moved when he used the occasion of Biden’s official announcement of his nomination to share the powerful life story of his stepfather, the only one of 900 Polish Jewish children at his school to survive the Holocaust.

And that’s without even considering family representation, where we find that three of President-elect Biden’s children married Jews, meaning he has a whole mishpocha of Jewish grandchildren. And then, of course, there’s Vice President-elect Harris’s husband Douglas Emhoff, the first Jew to be married to be a member of a presidential ticket, and a milestone for the rising number of interfaith couples in the American Jewish community. So many Jews in positions of prominence! Our tribe has a lot to be proud of when it comes to the Biden administration, no doubt.

But I see a dark side to this extensive Jewish representation in the Biden administration, which relates to the need for Biden to be less small-c conservative and more bold and radical in his policy prescriptions. If the Biden administration fails to improve the lives of many Americans, if it comes to be seen as an administration that fell back on half-steps and failed to meet the needs of the nation at a time when record numbers say we are on the wrong track, then Jews will become easy scapegoats for this failure.

Don’t believe this is plausible? It’s already happening on the far-right, where Trump’s aides are blaming Jared Kushner for his election loss. Fox News host Tucker Carlson, one of the ultimate barometers of right-wing opinion, has explicitly blamed Kushner for the failures of the Trump administration, a way of making the Jew the classic fall guy for your own failings, to avoid admitting them. Then of course there are the many Trump lawyers, among them Rudy Giuliani, blaming George Soros for supposedly stealing the election.

That’s the weird duality of being an American Jew in 2020: We’re so integrated into American life that President-elect Biden can nominate a disproportionate number of Jews for his cabinet and it barely attracts public notice outside of our community. But when things go wrong, Jews still provide a convenient scapegoat.

So American Jews, more than anyone, have a lot invested in the success of the Biden administration. Of course, every American should want the incoming administration to be successful and to improve the lives of a majority of Americans. But Jews, disproportionately represented in the Biden cabinet, are liable to be held especially responsible for the decisions the Biden administration makes, for better or worse.

Biden can’t afford to turn back to the tired nostrums of the Obama administration right now. Our challenges are too great. This is a time for radical thinking and radical policy proposals.

Ari Hoffman: While I have no doubt that prominence in the public eye can lead to scapegoating and prejudice, that’s a price I would gladly pay for the chance to play a central role in giving back to a country that has been the biggest blessing for Jewish thriving since the dawning days of the Diaspora. How lucky we are to live in a system where “court Jews” don’t have to cower behind the throne, but can be proud public servants on the biggest political stage, bringing their whole selves to the work they do for everyone.

To me, it’s exciting. And I think we would both agree that the sense of moral purpose Mayorkas and Blinken derive from their family stories is a gust of fresh air in our cultural climate. That Jews have these opportunities a mere two generations after the Holocaust is just one more miracle of our history.

But the reality is that “radical” thinking has no monopoly on wisdom, and Biden’s picks seem to me, by and large, to strike the right balance between empirical expertise and broadly speaking progressive commitments. The activist base of the Democratic Party might have moved to the left, but a gander at this cabinet, especially on the economic side, reveals a coterie that by any means is left of center.

Your argument against timidity is well advised, and Democrats as well as Republicans should be attuned to the populist energies that found expression in Trump but are still circulating around the body politic. I just think that many of those don’t line up easily to “right” and “left;” I still believe Democrats need to do more to explore an economically liberal, culturally moderate message, something that combines Bernie 2016 with Biden 2020.

At a time of frayed uncertainty, however, I think we need operators, not ideologues. Supply chain experts, not manifesto writers. And I think Biden’s cabinet is a step in that direction.

Joel Swanson: We certainly agree that Jews have a lot to be proud about in how far we’ve come in the United States, less than a century after a law that largely banned Jewish immigration to this country and so doomed a lot of European Jews to die in the Shoah. Every American Jew, left, right, or center, must be moved by Blinken’s story.

But it shouldn’t blind us to the fact that there’s another story to be told about the past few years, and that’s a story of increasing terror and fear among American Jews, who are starting to feel less secure in the United States than at any point since World War II.

That’s the strange duality of being an American Jew in 2020: We can listen to multiple nominees for Cabinet Secretary in the Biden administration recount moving stories of how their Jewish backgrounds have become an integral part of the broader American tapestry, even while we’re more terrified for our own safety than at any other moment in recent American history.

And that’s why I think you and I will both agree that American Jews have so much at stake in the success or failure of the Biden administration. Because our nation is at the breaking point, which means that disaffected people are ripe for radicalization.

If Biden can’t offer the people of a deeply pessimistic nation the promise of a better life, some of them will be radicalized further, and some of that radicalization will inevitably hurt the Jews.

So my final message for the Biden administration is this: Go big! Go bold! Be brave in your policy proposals! We can’t afford to risk timidity at a time of such great crisis. And the Jews need that boldness more than anyone.

Ari Hoffman: One of the many, many miracles of America for Jews is that their thriving is aligned with the country’s success. Jewish and American exceptionalism harmonized on these shores in a way that has rarely ever been the case. The bond between Jews and American democracy (and, it must be said, capitalism) has generated much flourishing for both, and makes Jews not just bystanders in the American project, but stakeholders deeply invested in it. Like any investor, they are also deeply vulnerable to the enterprise failing, even if only in part. So yes, much rides on this moment.

I am encouraged by a recent interview where Biden acknowledged that the Democratic Party’s imagination needs to extend farther than deep blue cities and coastal enclaves, and needs to begin to apply itself to suturing wounds that have been open for far too long.

Remember that the transformations of the New Deal were overseen by Henry Morgenthau Jr., a Jewish child of immigrants who grew up in New York City.

If this country is to stay a homeland, we all need to turn our eyes to the heartland.

Joel Swanson is a contributing columnist for the Forward and a Ph.D. student at the University of Chicago, studying modern Jewish intellectual history and the philosophy of religions. Find him on Twitter @jh_swanson.

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. He is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at N.Y.U., and his writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, and a range of other publications. He holds a doctorate in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.

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