Brian Deese – Director of the National Economic Council

January 7. By Michael Sales. Massachusetts native and resident, Brian Deese, has been chosen by President-elect Joe Biden to be the Director of the National Economic Council, where he will be the top economic adviser at the White House. Biden emphasized Deese’s role as a climate activist in his announcement and tied the appointment to his plans to use economic policy initiatives to drive climate policy. In a video announcing the appointment, Biden described Deese, who is 42, as “one of the youngest NEC directors in history, but he’ll be the first who is a true expert on climate policy.” In the video, Deese asserted that he takes a “pragmatic and realistic” approach to issues and focuses on the “human stakes” and “good union jobs.” He pledged to move the U.S. further on climate than the commitments made in the Paris Agreement.

Deese was born in Belmont, Massachusetts. He earned a Bachelor of Arts in political science from Middlebury College in 2000 and a Juris Doctor from Yale Law School in 2009. He currently lives in Brookline.

Deese was not finished with law school when, in 2009, he acted as a key architect of the auto industry bailout. Later he replaced former White House chief of staff John Podesta as the Obama-Biden administration’s top climate official. In 2011, he began serving as Deputy Director of the National Economic Council. In this role, he coordinated policy development for the White House on taxes, financial regulation, housing, clean energy, manufacturing and the automotive industry. In 2015 Deese became the senior adviser to President Obama on climate change and energy, where he pushed ambitious regulations of carbon emissions from the electricity sector and from vehicle tailpipes as the United States prepared to join the Paris Agreement on global warming.

According to The New Republic, when he was at the Obama White House, Deese was among Washington’s “most powerful, least famous people.”

David Axelrod, former chief strategist of Obama’s political campaigns, had particular praise for Deese:

“I can tell you, having been there, that no one worked harder or more effectively to plan and execute the rescue of the American auto industry in the dark, early days of the Great Recession than Brian Deese. He was heroic.”

After his service in the Obama-Biden administration, Deese became Global Head of Sustainable Investing at BlackRock. Managing $7.8 trillion in investments, BlackRock is the largest asset management firm in the world.  According to the company: 

“The Sustainable Investing team is focused on identifying drivers of long-term return associated with environmental, social and governance issues, integrating them throughout BlackRock’s investment processes, and creating solutions for our clients to achieve sustainable investment return.” 

Deese’s involvement with BlackRock has generated criticism. For example, the Revolving Door Project is pressuring Biden to keep lobbyists and others with corporate ties out of his administration. The civil rights group, the Action Center on Race and the Economy, believes Deese has not done enough to curb climate change. Its political director, Vasudha Desikan, asserts that:

BlackRock executives like Brian Deese are responsible for financing environmental devastation while profiteering from Black and Indigenous communities. There is a deep bench of highly qualified economic policymakers of color who are dedicated public servants without compromised histories in the private sector.”

The news has again raised concerns about BlackRock’s outsize influence in U.S. politics. One campaign against Deese’s appointment called him the “chief greenwasher” of BlackRock and questioned his commitment to fighting climate change.

But Deese has won praise from others who worked with him on business and environmental issues in the Obama White House. One notable supporter is longtime climate activist Bill McKibben, who has been critical of BlackRock, but said that Deese pushed BlackRock to change its policies.

“I know he cares a lot, and works hard on the issue,”McKibben wrote.

Since — because of pure chance — I know Brian to be both able and decent, and because I know he in fact does care about climate, it felt like I had to say something…. [It’s not even] “remotely correct” [that Deese is] “not progressive” or “doesn’t care about climate change.” 

In a written statement in response to his appointment, Deese said that as the economy recovers from the COVID crisis, Biden’s economic team would work to rebuild infrastructure and support job creation and wage growth, “from restoring American industrial and manufacturing strength to embedding climate solutions in an ambitious jobs strategy.”

Former President Obama lauded Deese in an interview with Rolling Stone, saying he “engineered the Paris Agreement.”