With urgent problems facing him, Biden cannot afford early missteps
By Dan Balz,
One of the most important priorities ahead for President-elect Joe Biden will be the ability to hit the ground running. After four years of the chaos of the Trump presidency and with enormous problems awaiting him, Biden can ill afford missteps that sometimes plague new administrations.
President Trump’s administration went off the rails when he blew up his transition days after his election in 2016. The executive branch has suffered ever since. Bill Clinton ran into personnel problems at the outset of his administration and then ceded too much power over his legislative priorities to congressional Democrats. He paid a big price in the 1994 midterms. Jimmy Carter got crosswise with Congress early in his presidency and never fully recovered.
Biden does not have the luxury for those kinds of mistakes. He has promised a national pandemic strategy. He has pledged to make distribution of a vaccine more efficient than the existing, haphazard system of coronavirus testing. The weakened and inequitable economy needs immediate attention. Meanwhile, Biden wants to fix a broken immigration system, launch an ambitious climate initiative and address racial injustice. There’s no time for trial and error.
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President-elect Joe Biden gives a Thanksgiving speech on Wednesday at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.
The initial rounds of appointments to his administration point to how Biden is thinking. For his White House inner core and the principal members of his national security team, he is turning to trusted advisers, along with a smattering (so far at least) of newcomers. They are well experienced, perhaps as much as any new team in memory. His advisers say the administration ultimately will reflect the diversity of the country in all ways.
They also have been described as having the makings of a third Obama administration, a critique those around Biden are eager to challenge. “There’s been some critical reporting that this is just Obama 2.0,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.). “I don’t think that’s accurate. We’re in a different time. . . . There is a different configuration of people and Joe is a different principal [than Barack Obama].”
Added Ted Kaufman, who earlier helped shape the updated legislation that governs presidential transitions and is now co-chair of the Biden-Harris transition team: “This is not going to turn into a reprise of the Obama administration.”
While there could be considerable overlap with the Obama administration in terms of personnel, Biden is building his own administration, populated with people he has known and worked with over his long career in the Senate and as vice president. In the area of foreign policy and national security and in the team he will bring with him to the White House, Biden can look to people he knows and, just as important, who know one another.
Ron Klain, his White House chief of staff, goes back decades with Biden when he served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mike Donilon, who will become a senior adviser, has been a political adviser for decades. Cathy Russell, who will be White House personnel director, was staff director for the Judiciary Committee when Biden was chairman, and she was chief of staff to Jill Biden.
Steve Richetti, who will be counselor to the president, is a more recent Biden aide. He was his vice-presidential chief of staff during the second Obama term and chair of Biden’s presidential campaign.
One newcomer will be Jen O’Malley Dillon, who had no deep ties to Biden when she took over as campaign manager as the 2020 primaries were drawing to a close and the campaign went into shutdown. She directed Biden’s November victory from her home in Chevy Chase. She will apply those skills to White House operations. Another will be Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), who will leave Capitol Hill to oversee the office of public engagement.
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Secretary of state nominee Antony Blinken speaks after Biden’s introduction of his Cabinet nominees on Nov. 24 in Wilmington, Del.
Biden’s foreign policy team will also include people with whom he has worked closely over many years, starting with Antony Blinken, tapped to be the new secretary of state. Blinken worked for Biden in the Senate and then when Biden was vice president. He later moved to the State Department as deputy secretary.
Jake Sullivan, who at 44 would be the youngest national security adviser in decades, is a veteran of Hillary Clinton’s State Department and then served as Biden’s vice-presidential national security adviser. Avril Haines, who is designated as the next director of national intelligence, worked with Biden when he chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and later served in the Obama White House.
The potential value of these relationship will be put to the test quickly when Biden takes the oath of office and expectations for a dramatic shift from the Trump years come into focus.
“The last four years have left America in a different place,” Coons said. “You can’t go back to 2016. . . . So Joe Biden and Kamala Harris face a steeper and more challenging road ahead . . . and this team is going to need every ounce of connection and coordination to help them pull together to get America out of this mess.”
Trump’s presidency has shown the consequences of inexperience in senior positions and the lack of relationships among top advisers throughout the government. If part of Trump’s goal was to decimate the executive branch, he has succeeded. But the country has paid a high price for the current president’s erratic and impulsive management style.
Trump disdained Washington’s political elite and Biden’s new team has been described in not-always-complimentary terms as members in good standing of that establishment. Kaufman called that misguided. “To have somebody come in and be secretary of state or national security adviser, to pick people in those positions who don’t know the positions, is like hiring a car mechanic who’s never worked on a car,” he said. “Clearly you need people who know what the positions are.”
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Biden introduces his Cabinet member nominees on Nov. 24 at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.
Those who know Biden say he has long had an eye for talent, particularly precocious younger people, and after nearly half a century in Washington, has stocked and restocked his staffs. He will be surrounded by trusted people in the White House, could operate as chief of foreign policy in a close partnership with Blinken and, from his years on the Senate Judiciary Committee, will have definite instincts about staffing a Justice Department that has been rocked repeatedly by Trump.
Still, in other areas that have not been the focus of long-term attention, he may end up relying on people with whom he is less familiar. The economy is one such critical area, though his work on the Obama administration’s recovery program gives him some experience there. His selection of Janet L. Yellen, a former Federal Reserve Board chair, as secretary of the treasury, has drawn widespread praise across the spectrum of the Democratic Party and beyond. The rest of an economic team has yet to be announced.
If there is obvious value in the kind of experience and relationships among those Biden is selecting, there are potential pitfalls as well. People can be too comfortable in those relationships and too confident in their experience at a time when the magnitude of the problems demands fresh thinking and even fresher ideas. Will that come from the people with the longest ties to Biden? If not, how difficult will it be for newer, younger advisers to break into those existing inner circles?
Biden has pledged a return to normalcy and a willingness to work across partisan lines. He has said he will put the United States once again at the head of the table internationally as a leader in the world in collaboration with allies. He has made clear what his domestic agenda will be. Kaufman said that, from past campaigns, Biden learned that a new president should not come into office and spring policy surprises on the public.
“Our policy is everything Joe Biden said during the campaign,” Kaufman said, emphasizing that the new administration’s agenda will be based on Biden being a realist, rather than a particular ideology. “He’s someone who speaks about things he knows he can do if he gets elected.”
Before the Biden team can produce the results they have promised, they still have to persuade the public — and probably at least a few Senate Republicans, who could still be in the majority come January — that the campaign agenda is worthy. The campaign did not settle that debate.
“The results in the House and Senate elections make it clear that while a majority of Americans are sick of Trump and Trumpism in the White House and voted for more normalcy and measured leadership with Joe Biden, they are not yet fully sold on the agenda that the Democratic Party is presenting,” Coons said. “We need to find ways to demonstrate . . . that we will actually deliver results that will make people’s lives better.”
That is the campaign that Biden and the team he will bring with him to the White House will begin to run on Jan. 20.