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Incoming White House Public Engagement Director On His Plans For The Job

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

While the president pursues his quest to remain on Pennsylvania Avenue, President-elect Joe Biden continues to announce Cabinet nominations and White House staffers. One of his earliest choices to join the administration was Cedric Richmond to become director of public engagement. He's currently a Louisiana congressman and former chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Welcome to the program.

CEDRIC RICHMOND: Well, thanks. Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: Now, we've just heard that more than 100 Republicans in the House won't even acknowledge that Joe Biden won - right? - and say his win should be overturned. How can a Biden administration find common ground with lawmakers who question the legitimacy of his election?

RICHMOND: Look; I'm not - I don't think that the Republican lawmakers question the legitimacy of his election. I think they are still trying to entertain and patronize the current president, and, you know, that will soon go away. And then we'll get to govern and work on COVID, which is our No. 1 issue. But we also will focus on rebuilding the middle class, fighting systematic...

CORNISH: So you don't take that seriously, that effort? You think...

RICHMOND: No, I don't.

CORNISH: ...This is something that will somehow pass?

RICHMOND: No, I don't.

CORNISH: You know, you've been creating an office - a position within your office to reach out to conservatives. What would that reaching out look like?

RICHMOND: Well, look; part my office is to engage with constituencies all across the country. And the two new areas that I want to do is, one, I want to reach out to conservatives, and the other, I want to reach out to formerly incarcerated people and make sure that they have - or know that they have a person in the White House that is there to handle their constituency and the issues that come up. And so for conservatives, that's going to be important, too. We have an agenda we want to push to the extent that they can help us. We will join hands to the extent that they - to the extent that they don't want to help us, we'll still continue to push. We're not going to compromise our values.

CORNISH: You know, the - Biden has also reportedly said that he would not seek to use executive actions to mandate policy changes that he said are long up to Congress to make. Again, where does that leave an agenda where there is not a sign of bipartisanship? And I ask this because you have been in the House of Representatives for the last few years, and it has not looked like a bipartisan atmosphere.

RICHMOND: Well, yeah. But I think it all starts with leadership at the top, and I think that Joe Biden is a different leader than Donald Trump, and I think that he will seek to find common ground. And his old stomping grounds - for lack of a better description - is the United States Senate, where he has...

CORNISH: Hasn't a lot...

RICHMOND: ...Relationships.

CORNISH: ...Changed since then, though? I mean, when I look at the relationship between the Senate and the Obama White House - not great.

RICHMOND: Yeah. But they still got stuff done. Even in the lame duck, they passed the CARERS Act, which no one thought that we could bring people together and do it. And so I think that Joe Biden is an anomaly. I think he's different. And I think he's going to have the ability to bring people together, but also use his relationships to bring on some senators from the Republican side. And in the House, we still have a majority.

CORNISH: I want to talk about Cabinet and advisory picks. You have progressives such as Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez saying that the cabinet needs, quote, "a more cohesive vision." What is your response to that?

RICHMOND: Look; I think members are going to have their own opinions, but I think that our Cabinet selections so far are outstanding. They're historic in many ways. But the vision that the vice president...

CORNISH: But there's also criticism that they're not very progressive. And when you look at people, especially some of the names who are - for lack of a better term - the kind of usual suspects who have been around administrations, I mean, are progressives right?

RICHMOND: No, I don't think so. I think that, first of all, every person that's a part of the Cabinet will work on President Biden and Senator Harris' agenda. And so once you decide to go into the administration, you leave your own personal politics behind and you adopt those of the president, and you adopt his priorities. And so his climate plan is aggressive and bold. His poverty reduction plan is progressive and bold. And so I think that that is - that's where we are. And those are - you know, that's how we will operate.

CORNISH: Biden ran as a unifier. How long do you think voters will give him to prove that he can navigate those waters - right? - that he can hold together the different factions that he's attempting to?

RICHMOND: I think the people's going to give him time to do it because they know the difficult job that it's going to be to do that, that this country is really divided, purposefully over the last four years. And it's going to take some time to bring people together, and I think the American people understand that.

CORNISH: That's Cedric Richmond, Joe Biden's pick to become the director of public engagement in the White House. Thank you for your time.

RICHMOND: Thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA'S "THE AWAKENING OF A WOMAN (BURNOUT)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.