In his drive to deliver Americans $1.9 trillion in economic relief, President Joe Biden is turning to a trusted aide known more for his record of forging compromises on some of the nation’s most charged issues than he is for his progressive politics.
Brian Deese, director of Biden’s National Economic Council, stepped down from his position at BlackRock Inc. to become the White House frontman in the fight to push a stimulus through a Congress deeply divided over the substance and price tag of the rescue package.
The White House is banking on Deese’s data-driven and firm but low-key approach to bridge the chasm between the most progressive wing of the Democratic party and moderate Republicans — amid intense pressure from outside groups — to deliver a bipartisan rescue package.
Biden “wasn’t looking for someone to have a very different point of view, or steer things in a different direction,” White House chief of staff Ron Klain said in an interview. “He was looking for someone to make the wheels of government deliver the views he has.”
Thorny and urgent rescues aren’t new to Deese. As a senior staffer in Barack Obama’s administration, he helped craft the 2009 auto bailout, the 2015 Bipartisan Budget Act and the Paris climate accord. Still, Washington has become even more divided since he left government in 2016, leaving Deese with the task of appealing to widely divergent factions, including centrist Democrats, moderate Republicans and powerful liberal senators including Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
“He is bringing his experiences from the Obama administration that led to many successes and frustrating losses,” said Democratic Senator Ed Markey, who has known Deese for years. “He has the benefit of that experience of the pathway to victory, but knows also how to avoid defeat. That is a hard won set of lessons that he has internalized, and the Biden agenda will be the beneficiary of his experiences.”
White House aides and allies say they feel enormous urgency to prop up the economy, direct more money toward vaccines and reopen schools during Biden’s first 100 days in office. Republicans have argued the $1.9 trillion price tag is far too high and filled with Democrat pet policies, like raising the minimum wage. And even some more moderate Democrats have balked at the cost.
While economists and the Congressional Budget Office have painted a mixed picture of the economy and the pace of growth, Deese and other administration officials say action now will determine the health of the labor market over the next several years.
“It is not just a $1.9 trillion package. It is a package to try to say, ‘We are actually trying to get to a place where we close that employment gap much much faster’ and it is motivated by experience, including 2009, but also stepping back and looking at what we know about crisis response more generally,” Deese said in an interview.
“When we look at economic crises, it is more often policy makers do too little than too much,” he added. “If you under-invest in these areas of crisis, it becomes a persistent drag on growth.”
BlackRock to White House
Originally, Deese, 42, wasn’t sure he wanted to return to the federal government.
The father of two young children and a fan of running and Boston sports, he was enjoying New England life in Brookline, Massachusetts, where he was the global head of sustainable investing at BlackRock.
He had informally worked on several of the Biden campaign’s policy proposals — including the climate and economic agendas. During the campaign, Deese wasn’t as close to candidate Biden as other economic aides, including Jared Bernstein, Ben Harris and Heather Boushey.
But shortly after the election, Biden settled on Deese for the top economic job after the transition team briefly also considered him for the director of the Office of Management and Budget. One transition aide said Biden genuinely enjoys Deese’s company — a feeling Biden doesn’t have for all aides.
Inside the transition, Deese was regarded as a fair broker who could manage complex ideas and processes without imposing his own ideological views or warring with other advisers. Some of Biden’s advisers believe such conflicts were a drag on Obama’s initial economic team.
Unlike some of his predecessors in the job, Deese is neither a Ph.D. economist nor a business titan, like Laura Tyson, Larry Lindsey, Lawrence Summers, Robert Rubin, Jeff Zients or Gary Cohn. What he instead brings to the Biden White House is a keen grasp of government policy and the best way to communicate it, current and former colleagues say. And with that, he has the experience of working in the middle of a historic economic crisis, as the Obama White House did in 2009.
But Deese has already faced questions from the progressive flank of the party about whether he’ll ensure that Biden’s policies are liberal enough. When news of his appointment broke in December, dozens of climate and environmental groups balked because he had spent his post-Obama years working as an executive at the largest asset management firm, BlackRock.
More than 25 environmental groups released a letter calling out what they considered Deese’s potential conflicts of interest on climate policy.
“We were critical of Deese because we did not see the imprint of his leadership until later in his tenure [at BlackRock], and even then, in our view, it was more rhetoric than action,” said Jeff Conant, senior international forest manager at Friends of the Earth, one of several groups which signed the letter.
BlackRock has been criticized by activists for not moving fast enough to divest holdings of fossil fuel producers or lead the financial industry to act on climate change. When BlackRock did start to make more aggressive moves in 2019 and 2020, environmental groups attributed the change more to external pressure and outside campaigns than Deese’s influence.
Deese’s friends and allies, however, defended his work, saying he took the BlackRock job to try to change a major financial player from the inside. They said that at his core, he is not a Wall Street player.
Deese said he shares the same impatience of climate advocates who believe they should move faster and with more ambition, but added that financial firms in the U.S. have moved significantly on climate issues. Environmental groups will be watching Deese closely at the White House to see if the administration follows through with a bold set of policies.
But the amount of sway Deese will ultimately have in the West Wing both politically and economically isn’t yet clear. He has known Biden since 2009 but isn’t part of the president’s inner-circle, like Klain, deputy chief of staff Bruce Reed, counselor Steve Ricchetti or Cabinet Secretary Evan Ryan. Once the Senate confirms the top aides to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, officials expect the agency to become its own nerve-center for economic policy making.
For now, Deese is trying to build his team and forge stronger relationships with lawmakers under the limitations of the pandemic. He is talking to members of Congress from their cars or kitchen counters.
“He does have an uncanny ability to bring together big people around big ideas,” said Denis McDonough, Obama’s former chief of staff, who Biden has nominated as his secretary of Veteran Affairs. “He pulls together big ideas and then executes on them. He does it as a just-the-facts kind of leader.”