Biden facing growing pressure over secretary of defense pick

FILE - This Dec. 7, 2011 file photo shows former U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, preparing for a bilateral meeting in Beijing, China. Flournoy, a politically moderate Pentagon veteran, is regarded by U.S. officials and political insiders as a top choice for President-elect Joe Bide to choose to head the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File)
FILE - This Dec. 7, 2011 file photo shows former U.S. Defense Undersecretary Michele Flournoy, preparing for a bilateral meeting in Beijing, China. Flournoy, a politically moderate Pentagon veteran, is regarded by U.S. officials and political insiders as a top choice for President-elect Joe Bide to choose to head the Pentagon. (AP Photo/Andy Wong, File) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – President-elect Joe Biden is facing escalating pressure from competing factions within his own party as he finalizes his choice for secretary of defense.

Black leaders have encouraged the incoming president to select an African American to diversify what has so far been a largely white prospective Cabinet, while others are pushing him to appoint a woman to lead the Department of Defense for the first time.

At the same time, a growing collection of progressive groups is opposing the leading female contender, Michèle Flournoy, citing concerns about her record and private-sector associations.

A coalition of at least seven progressive groups warned Biden to avoid Flournoy in an open letter to Biden obtained Wednesday by The Associated Press that referenced her record of “ill-advised policy decisions” — particularly in relation to Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Afghanistan — and an “opaque history of private-sector activity.”

“Ms. Flournoy’s consistent support for military interventions has contributed to devastating crises around the world, including in Yemen,” said Jehan Hakim, chairperson of the Yemeni Alliance Committee, which helped organize the letter.

Other contenders are emerging, including retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin and Jeh Johnson, who served as the Pentagon’s top lawyer and then as head of the Department of Homeland Security during President Barack Obama’s second term. Both Austin and Johnson are Black.

The competing pressures are intensifying less than a month into Biden's urgent push to build an administration while trying to preserve the broad coalition that fueled his victory over President Donald Trump last month.

And facing massive governing challenges once he takes office on Jan. 20, Biden can perhaps least afford to lose the backing of the Democratic Party’s fiery progressive base. Nearly 100 House Democrats belong to the Progressive Caucus, which may wield significant influence over Biden's policy agenda as Democrats cling to their narrowest House majority in a century.