Over the Juneteenth weekend, two different men in two different venues told the story of elite Washington in the early Biden era. One was Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), quoted in a New York Times story about the return of extravagant D.C. parties attended by politicians, lobbyists, and media pundits. Asked about busting out the tuxedo after a year in quarantine—while nearby, ballerinas performed Don Quixote and men lined up for photos with Paul Ryan—Warner quipped, “If I was bummed, I’d be in the wrong business.”
The other man was Walter Shaub, the former Office of Government Ethics director pushed out by Donald Trump. Shaub, a vocal Biden supporter during the election who is now at the Project on Government Oversight, wrote an angry and grief-ridden Twitter thread about reports of rising nepotism in the Biden administration. “This is a real ‘fuck you’ to us—and government ethics,” Shaub wrote. “Do I sound bitter? HELL, YEAH, I’M BITTER! I’m the stupid moron who fell for his [Biden’s] false promises.” Shaub has followed up with more angry tweets and quotes in the days since.
If Shaub, a seasoned veteran of the Beltway, feels tricked by the White House, it’s worth examining why. Shaub’s discontent was mostly directed at Biden counselor Steve Ricchetti, the most flagrant nepotist in the president’s innermost circle and, per the Times, a designated White House emissary to those stylish D.C. parties. I first warned about Ricchetti for the Prospect in September, and the Prospect first wrote about him in 2019.
J.J. Ricchetti, Steve’s son, just so happened to be hired as a special assistant in the Treasury’s legislative affairs division last week. He is the third of Ricchetti’s children, and overall the fifth child of a top presidential aide, to slip into a plum administration job. When he graduated from the University of Pennsylvania last year, a campus social society asked J.J. what he planned on doing next. “I wish I knew!” he replied.
With his new job, J.J. might consider taking over the family business some day. His father and his uncle Jeff co-founded the private lobbying firm Ricchetti, Inc., in the 1990s, which is currently enjoying one its most profitable years ever, as Steve and his children hold the ears of presidents and Cabinet officials. Amazon just came into Ricchetti, Inc., as a new deep-pocketed client, along with its roster of health care and pharmaceutical companies. Jeff insists he does not lobby his brother, expert bridge salesman that he is.
Treasury’s Office of Legislative Affairs, which interfaces with Congress on the administration’s core economic priorities, is the perfect place for J.J. to gain the experience (and more importantly, connections) needed to one day be the new “Ricchetti” in “Ricchetti, Inc.” He could theoretically be joined by Shannon Ricchetti, a deputy associate director of the White House Office of the Social Secretary, and Daniel Ricchetti, a senior adviser to the undersecretary of state for arms control and international security. You could have a full-spectrum next generation for the K Street firm, as the partying with ballerinas, schmoozing with senators, and serving of private benefactors soldiers on while the country crumbles. What could possibly go wrong?
THE BIDEN ADMINISTRATION didn’t always look this elitist. Around the hundred-day mark, Biden had passed a popular trillion-dollar stimulus and was moving fast to nominate a Cabinet that earned surprisingly high marks across the broad Democratic Party. Moreover, his team clearly knew the fight they were in. “If we don’t show people we’re helping the shit out of them, this country could be back to Trump way too quickly,” one of Biden’s economic advisers told the Times’ Ezra Klein in April.
That anonymous adviser correctly identified the stakes. If Biden fails to deliver some sort of progressive populism within these four years, the public will have no meaningful counterpoint to Trump’s far-right version. But when the public looks at the Biden administration today, it likely doesn’t see people furiously searching for new ways of helping them. It sees an infrastructure push (not incidentally negotiated by Steve Ricchetti) flailing in Congress, a voting rights bill brought down by intransigence from the president’s own party, an executive action agenda that has gone somewhat cold, and little perceptible urgency from the White House to do much about this. When Politico asked civil rights leaders about Biden on Juneteenth, they all voiced frustration with his insistence on bipartisanship and unwillingness to just, well, get things done. The Onion joked last month that Biden was worried his agenda could be stalled “by him not really caring if it happens or not.”
The mission-driven urgency from the first hundred days to fill the executive-branch ranks with qualified nominees has also dissipated. Key economic and climate jobs sit unfilled, setting the government up for failure to handle the climate emergency through sheer inattention. Meanwhile, the administration nominated as Treasury general counsel a Biden aide who once literally sued the Treasury on behalf of ExxonMobil. That nominee, Neil MacBride, openly bragged about undermining enforcement of practically every part of Treasury’s issue portfolio. It’s hard not to feel like the administration’s top priority has shifted from “helping the shit out of them” to helping the, uh, dickens out of themselves.
In the face of these complaints, many professional Democrats have given a dull, predictable response: “How can you criticize Biden, when he’s so much better than Trump?” This is correct. Steve Ricchetti is not worse than Donald Trump. To emphasize this is to miss the point.
Donald Trump made no effort to present himself as anything other than the monster he is. Ricchetti, and by ready extension for right-wing media, Biden, come off instead as typical politicians breaking promises and duping the public. It certainly looks like the Ricchettis are cashing in for themselves when Biden said his team would do the opposite.
When people lose faith that a political party will ever address their needs or follow through on its promises, all it has left is showmanship and attack ads. The recent history of the Democratic Party, and especially of its dominant centrist wing, inspires no confidence that it can defeat right-wing populism on appeal alone. Barack Obama, an effortlessly cool politician who struggled to produce change, oversaw Democratic electoral catastrophes in both midterm elections he presided over. By the end of his presidency, Democrats controlled none of the three branches of the federal government and held their lowest percentage of both state legislatures and governor’s mansions since 1920.
What, after all, does a centrist look like to the public? A wheeling-and-dealing “political operative.” A cleverer-than-thou wonk. A guy in a suit wondering out loud why the poor keep voting “against their interests” before digging into his caviar. Someone, in other words, who views politics as a career and ultimately disdains the people they should be working to help.
More and more, that’s what people see in the Biden administration, and there’s an extremely sophisticated and well-funded right-wing propaganda machine hell-bent on making them see it. That propaganda machine, and the political party now subservient to it, are likewise more and more openly fascistic. Some scholars argue that fascism is by definition pure aesthetics. That is its core appeal.
Biden ran a general-election campaign premised on the aesthetic of his personal decency, amidst a historic pandemic all but ignored by his opponent. He won by fewer than 50,000 votes combined in the four decisive states. Given the structural advantages enjoyed by the GOP, Biden and the Democratic Party can’t compete in years to come off of one stimulus bill and a handful of other efforts killed by filibusters their own party allowed. For the sake of democracy, they need to deliver on their promises. The window of opportunity is closing rapidly.
If Biden genuinely wants his legacy to be the final defeat of Trumpism—and more importantly, if our bare tatters of a democracy stands a chance at survival—he needs to start improving people’s lives immediately and publicly. He has an entire executive bureaucracy at his disposal to do so, no matter what happens on Capitol Hill. But if the public’s impression of the Biden administration is Steve Ricchetti plopping his kids into plum government jobs before driving off to exclusive D.C. soirees, there’s not much that Biden will be able to do. He will have wasted his chance to restore people’s trust in government to be a force for good, and no one knows what will come next.