Dec 23, 2020

Biden's pick for education secretary.

Biden's pick for education secretary.

Plus, why do presidents make 100-day promises?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 10 minutes.

Joe Biden’s pick for education secretary, the history of “100-day” promises, and Tangle’s days off for the holidays.

Programming note.

It’s the holiday season! Like many of you, I am excited for 2020 to come to a close. I am also excited for a break from what I truly believe has been the most chaotic, nonstop, unprecedented few months of political news our nation has ever seen. With all that being said, we’re taking off tomorrow, Friday, and Thursday and Friday of next week as well.

That means Tangle will be back in your inbox on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday next week.

In the meantime, I encourage you to take a break from the news. Part of the reason I started Tangle is because of the constant barrage of hyperbolic, sensational, emotional news coverage that blankets newspapers and television today. It’s not great for anyone’s mental health — even mine — to be immersed in all that for hours a day. I know many of you are political junkies, but consider this my friendly nudge to come up for oxygen.

Reader feedback.

On Monday, I replied to a reader question about billionaires in the U.S. Kristin from Madison, Wisconsin, wrote in to say she thought I was “being far, far too lenient with billionaires' actions with regards to the pandemic.

“Yes, it's great that they're giving more during these chaotic, disastrous, unprecedented times, and yes, you do call out that billionaires often do this kind of thing to boost their public image/the public image of their business(es),” she said. “However, isn't it also worth mentioning that billionaires' (and millionaires') rampant exploitation of workers is a large part of why our economy was so unprepared for this pandemic in the first place? If no billionaire-run businesses are willing to step up and pay their employees good, equitable wages and/or keep their employees, well, employed, as long as possible (even if it means a quarter or two of losses for the overall business), pre-Covid or not... doesn't that render those actions a bit hollow?”

Ari from Pittsburgh wrote in responding to last week’s Tangle about Pete Buttigieg, pushing back on “My take” by saying “I don't like him because he has no resume indicating a person of liberal values, but very much has a resume of centrality and self-advancement. It's not childish to distrust a person for a high position of public office for which he has no relevant experience on the grounds that he is an opportunist. It might be childish to think the same person is going to look out for your best interests because he is a good orator, though.”

Quick hits.

  1. President Donald Trump is threatening to veto the COVID-19 omnibus bill unless $2,000 checks to every American are added. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) took him up on his offer, suggesting she’d add a bill to increase the $600 checks to $2,000, something many Republicans oppose.
  2. California Gov. Gavin Newsom has appointed California Secretary of State Alex Padilla to replace Vice President-elect Kamala Harris in the Senate.
  3. Pfizer and the Trump administration agreed on a new deal to provide more doses of the coronavirus vaccine.
  4. Coronavirus coordinator Deborah Birx says she plans to retire after a story in the Associated Press on her Thanksgiving travel to spend time with family brought her widespread criticism.
  5. President Trump continued a longstanding tradition of past presidents by granting pardons and clemency to a wave of political allies. The list includes three GOP Congressman accused of insider trading and campaign finance abuses as well as a former campaign operative whose actions prompted the FBI investigation of Trump’s campaign.

What D.C. is talking about.

Miguel Cardona. Yesterday, Joe Biden announced that he would nominate Cardona to replace Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. Cardona, the commissioner of public schools in Connecticut, is 45 years old and — just two years ago — was serving as an assistant superintendent in Meriden, Connecticut.

Along with his credentials leading various public schools and school systems, the Biden team was particularly impressed by his background, according to The Washington Post. Cardona was “born to Puerto Rican parents who lived in public housing” and was the first in his family to attend college. He started his career teaching fourth grade and, at age 28, was the youngest principal in Connecticut. In 2012, he was named Principal of the Year.

“In Miguel Cardona, America will have an experienced and dedicated public school teacher leading the way at the Department of Education,” Biden said.

Most notably, given the pandemic, Cardona has been working to reopen public schools in Connecticut. He frames the issue as one of equity, arguing that schools need to be open to level the playing field for all students. A little more than 70% of schools offered in-person classes in Connecticut this week; roughly one-third of students were able to attend in-person classes. One of Cardona’s most important challenges will be finding a way to get the whole nation’s schools open for in-person learning. Cardona will also tackle the complex question of whether and how to forgive student loans, and if the current suspension of student loan payments should be extended.

What the right is saying.

The right has been — relatively speaking — quiet about the pick so far. There were a lot of concerns about a number of top candidates, many of whom the right criticized as being too beholden to teacher’s unions. But Cardona is not a candidate who has drawn particular ire. Still, many are pushing for Cardona to be more open-minded in regards to charter schools.

In The Wall Street Journal, Karl Zinsmeister praised Cardona for being open to various reforms and not driven by ideology, but warned he’d be under serious pressure to ignore the success of charter schools.

“One social invention of the past generation stands out in rigorous evaluations as a clear success: charter schools and educational choice,” Zinsmeister wrote. “In randomized-control trials similar to those used to test new drugs, charters produce hard proof of their effectiveness. For instance: KIPP—the largest charter-school provider in the U.S., whose students are roughly 90% black or Hispanic—was shown to lift achievement in both reading and math… Not long ago, Democrats like Cory Booker and Barack Obama praised charters for closing racial achievement gaps. But as poor parents eagerly shifted their children and charters grew to serve more than 3.3 million pupils at 7,500 schools (many of them so popular they have long waiting lists), the educational empire struck back.

“Public schools are a $750 billion a year bureaucracy, and their eight million government employees provide the most important volunteers and funding for liberal activism today… Under pressure from teachers unions and district administrators, politicians put caps on the number of charter schools allowed.”

In The New York Post, Patrick Wolf and Corey DeAngelis said it was a “relief” Biden didn’t pick a union official, but that “reformers and school-choice advocates shouldn’t let their guards down.”

“Team Biden’s position is that bad charter schools need to be defunded and possibly shuttered, while traditional failure factories just need more cash,” they wrote. “One assumption baked into this contradictory pair of claims is that charter schools get more money than traditional public schools. But as our recent study shows, in cities where charters are most common, charter students receive about two-thirds of the funding that their peers in traditional district schools receive.”

And even when government funding falls short, “Nonpublic funding widened the gap” between public and charter schools. “Public schools receive revenue from various nonpublic sources, including philanthropy, school fundraisers, student fees and investment income. Contrary to popular perceptions, traditional schools often receive more revenue from these nonpublic sources than do charters. In 2018, nonpublic funding increased the charter school funding gap by $1,412 per student.”

What the left is saying.

The left has praised Cardona, with quite a few people expressing relief that someone with actual experience in public school education was chosen. Cardona doesn’t appear to be many people’s top choice, but he also hasn’t drawn significant blowback from any factions on the left.

“If selected as secretary of education, Dr. Cardona would be a positive force for public education — light-years ahead of the dismal Betsy DeVos track record," the Board of Education Union Coalition said in a statement. “Miguel Cardona’s formative experience as a teacher and administrator has been critical to his accomplishments as Connecticut Education Commissioner. He has been tested by the unprecedented upheaval caused by the pandemic. While this challenge has been a rocky road — and many issues remain unresolved — teachers and school support staff have appreciated his openness and collaboration.”

In NBC News, Evan Greer argued that one of Cardona’s top priorities should be keeping facial recognition software out of schools.

“Cardona has been outspoken about racial and class inequalities in the education system, and invasive surveillance technology, like facial recognition, supercharges those injustices,” Greer wrote. “A major study from the University of Michigan found that the use of facial recognition in education would lead to ‘exacerbating racism, normalizing surveillance and eroding privacy, narrowing the definition of the 'acceptable' student, commodifying data and institutionalizing inaccuracy.’ The report's authors recommended an outright ban on use of this technology in schools…

“But despite the overwhelming backlash and evidence of harm, facial recognition is still creeping into our schools,” Greer added. “Surveillance tech vendors have shamelessly exploited the Covid-19 pandemic to promote their ineffective and discriminatory technology, and school officials who are desperate to calm anxious parents and frustrated teachers are increasingly enticed by the promise of technologies that won't actually make schools safer.”

According to HuffPost, Cardona was one of the few picks that did little to upset anyone.

“On the ground in Connecticut, he’s been able to retain the support of stakeholders, even when he’s at odds with their views, by taking pains to understand the perspectives of others and placing an emphasis on collaboration,” Rebecca Klein reported. Amy Selib Dowell, a Connecticut State Director of Democrats for Education Reform, told Klein that Cardona has “remained calm and deliberate during debates on school reopenings, though the issue is fraught with tension, treating all parties with sensitivity and centering the experiences of students.”

My take.

This seems to be one of Biden’s best picks yet. To understand why, you have only to look at the challenge he was facing. The Democratic left is, generally speaking, broken into two factions on education: one that rallies behind teachers and their unions and another that rallies behind student testing, charter schools and teacher evaluations. Cardona was one of the only — if not the only — candidates who was not firmly in either camp.

When Betsy DeVos was picked as Trump’s education secretary, I wrote critically about her for a number of reasons: she had very little education background, she was extraordinarily wealthy and detached from everyday life for most Americans, and she’d never been a student, teacher or administrator in public schools anywhere. She’ll leave the post as the one of least popular picks of the Trump administration.

Cardona is basically the opposite: he grew up poor, he’s worked as a teacher, he’s worked as a principal, he’s spent his whole life in public schools and now he’s running an entire state’s public education system, making him really well qualified. And, perhaps most perplexingly in this day and age, he seems well-liked by everyone who has worked with him.

Cardona is still “green,” as the Biden camp gently put it. But there’s a reason he’s not facing any serious opposition — even from the right. His single driving ideology seems to be that one size doesn’t fit all, and for someone about to take the helm of something as complex as our education system, that’s a very good thing.

Also, it’s important to remember that this role is not nearly as powerful in the K-12 space as many advocates believe. If you want to change your local school district, don’t vote for a president because you think you’ll like who they tap as education secretary. Go vote in your local school board elections, show up to your district meetings, and work for change on the local level.

Cardona’s impact will, almost certainly, be more profound on the higher education system and on the general attitude of public school administrators nationwide. You can expect him to move quickly to overturn DeVos’s controversial Title IX rule that realigned how schools respond to allegations of sexual assault, which DeVos cites as her signature achievement.

A debate about charter schools and public schools could be an entire Tangle issue of its own (and likely will be), but the most pressing issue we face now is school reopenings. And Cardona has executed what looks to me like the blueprint for getting that done everywhere it’s possible.

The disparity between how many Connecticut schools are open (about 70%) and how many students can attend school in-person (about a third) is partly because of the large population in New Haven, where schools haven’t yet reopened. Cardona has tried publicly pressuring administrators to reopen there, but hasn’t outright forced them to. As local CT Mirror reporter Adria Watson put it, “his department has issued a plethora of guidance for district leaders to follow so they can open their doors, and used federal pandemic aid to buy masks, plexiglass, and other protective equipment schools need to open safely. The administration has also allocated federal funds to purchase laptops and internet access so that every student has the ability to learn from home.”

And “Although Cardona has repeatedly said he believes all the state’s K-12 schools should reopen, he has so far resisted calls to order superintendents to hold in-person classes.”

This kind of balance is why he probably has good marks, and it’s an encouraging sign for me. As I’ve written here, I believe schools should be open — and the data suggests clearly that they are among the safest places for kids to be. Given the education trade-off, it should be a top priority. But there also need to be proper safety measures and funding allocated to make that happen, and Cardona seems to recognize this.

Your questions, answered.

Q: Biden has promised a national mask mandate, 100 million Americans vaccinated against Covid-19, all travel bans lifted, and his own 1994 crime bill “mandatory sentencing” rescinded—all in his first 100 days as president. I would think Machiavelli would counsel a President AGAINST making rash pledges. Don’t these empty promises strain public trust?  What’s the game plan behind this tactic?  Is it meant to build momentum? Does it ever work in the President’s favor?

— Tom, St. Charles, Missouri

Tangle: In America, the first 100 days in office became a benchmark for U.S. presidents thanks to Franklin D. Roosevelt. When FDR took office in 1933, he was facing a crippling financial crisis and a complete panic across the United States. In March of that year, he began addressing Americans every evening in nationally broadcast radio addresses that became known as the “Fireside Chats,” which lasted for about a month.

It was in a radio address on July 24th, 1933 that FDR first coined the term the “first 100 days.” He used it when he spoke about the time that had elapsed between the opening and closing of a special session of Congress — from March 9th to June 17th. It was a mere coincidence that the period was 100 days long. By then, FDR had enacted more than a dozen pieces of legislation tied to the New Deal and had successfully calmed much of the panic across the United States. There’s an entire book about FDR’s first 100 days written by historian Anthony Badger, who says “The first hundred days of the New Deal have served as a model for future presidents of bold leadership and executive-legislative harmony.”

For presidential aides, the 100-day promises since FDR are often aggravating. It’s a difficult framework to live up to, especially in today’s polarized era, and not many presidents come remotely close to doing what FDR did. For a long time, it was thought a president was most powerful when they first entered office — with the will of the people at their back, momentum from their election, and fresh faces in the capitol. Today, though, the first 100 days often become a time when the opposition party flexes its power as a bulwark against the incoming administration.

As for successes, there are some: Barack Obama, like FDR, entered office during a financial crisis. He passed a $787 million stimulus bill on his 29th day in office. Harry S. Truman passed 55 laws in his first 100 days in office, which is second only to FDR. Donald Trump’s first hundred days were considered a failure by many of his supporters, as he passed just 28 relatively small bills despite having control of both the House and Senate. He did, however, introduce his major tax reform bill before the 100-day mark, which eventually became law.

All this being said, I do think FDR is a bit of a unicorn here. On the whole, the 100-day promises strike me as fantasyland and something that often undercuts the credibility of an incoming administration. Like you, I think these promises do more to negatively impact a president’s credibility than they do to inspire hope and confidence, and I think Biden — and presidents of the future — will face serious uphill battles in ever accomplishing their 100-day agendas.

A story that matters.

The United States Justice Department is suing Walmart for the role it has played in the opioid crisis. The Justice Department alleges Walmart unlawfully dispensed controlled substances through its pharmacies, fueling the nation’s opioid crisis, according to CBS News. Critical to the complaint are allegations that Walmart pressured pharmacists to quickly fill opioid prescriptions, even when those prescriptions were invalid, filling thousands of prescriptions that were clearly from so-called “pill mills.” America’s opioid crisis has hit every corner of the country, and Walmart could face serious financial penalties for its actions.


  • 5. The number of days Donald Trump has to sign the financial stimulus before the government shuts down.
  • 28. The number of days until Joe Biden is inaugurated.
  • 3 million. The estimated number of Americans who went through TSA checkpoints over a three-day period this week.
  • One in three. The number of Americans who believe their physical and mental health will be better next year.
  • 234. The number of federal judges confirmed to lifetime appointments during the Donald Trump administration.
  • $6,680. The cost per every living American, in today’s American dollar, of FDR’s New Deal, according to Axios.
  • $6,126. The cost of the 2020 CARES Act per every living American, according to Axios.
  • $8,845. The combined cost of the 2020 CARES Act and the $900 billion December 2020 Covid-19 bill per American, according to Axios.
  • 46%. Donald Trump’s approval rating before the election, according to Gallup.
  • 39%. Donald Trump’s approval rating now, according to Gallup.


Tangle is off tomorrow and Friday for the holidays. In the meantime, you can give Tangle as a gift to someone by clicking here. You can become a Tangle subscriber to get Friday editions by clicking here. Or you can check out some Tangle swag by clicking here (we have a cool logo!). Don’t forget to take a breather from politics this break, and we’ll see you Monday!

Have a good weekend.

Are you paying attention to the essential workers in your life? One neighborhood in Richmond, Virginia, certainly is. Last week, when UPS driver Anthony Gaskin rounded a corner on his typical delivery route, he came upon a line of hundreds of cars and people with signs who had gathered to thank him for his work during the pandemic. Residents of the neighborhood where Gaskin works were outside with megaphones to cheer for him. Gaskin was brought to tears by the gesture, and local residents told CBS News about all the ways he had helped them over the last year.

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