Biden looks to career officials to restore trust, morale in government agencies

President-elect Joe Biden’s picks for Cabinet posts will face dual challenges upon taking office: implementing policy and restoring morale and public trust after four years of the Trump administration.

President Trump arrived in Washington, D.C., four years ago with a pledge to “drain the swamp.” And while he failed to root out special interests, he succeeded in driving out a number of career government officials or diminishing their influence.

Trump regularly undercut career officials and policy experts during his time in office, and the Biden transition team — staffed with career officials and policy experts — cautioned it would need time to learn to what extent Trump had tried to “hollow out” the federal government.

“We are fully eyes open about the fact that there needs to be a rebuilt trust in government and institutions and what is communicated to the American people,” transition adviser Jen Psaki said Wednesday.

Psaki was referring specifically to health agencies after Trump spent the last eight months contradicting his own public health officials about a deadly pandemic and sidelining the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) from the response.

But while the pandemic has spotlighted the need to restore confidence in the CDC, the same issues could apply to several other departments.

Former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson gutted the State Department and imposed a hiring freeze. His successor, Mike Pompeo, was often embroiled in controversy, further deflating the diplomatic corps.

The Trump administration turned the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a sprawling agency with oversight of cybersecurity, counterterrorism and immigration enforcement, into a department that mostly focused on restricting immigration and left multiple high-level positions there unfilled. Career officials inside DHS have seen agencies such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Customs and Border Protection turned into arms of the Trump administration to enforce crackdowns on legal and illegal immigration.

While public mistrust in some of those agencies predated Trump, trust eroded over the last four years, often along political lines.

A Pew Research poll released earlier this year showed that ICE had a 46 percent favorability rating, though 77 percent of Republicans approved of the agency, compared with just 28 percent of Democrats.

A Kaiser Family Foundation poll released in September showed public confidence in the CDC had dropped roughly 16 percentage points since April, even as a majority of Americans still gave the agency high marks.

Biden’s solution appears to be tapping Cabinet nominees with extensive experience in government who former colleagues believe will command respect if confirmed.

The president-elect named Alejandro Mayorkas to lead DHS. If confirmed, he would be the first immigrant to lead the agency. Mayorkas served as deputy secretary of DHS during the Obama administration and led the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services agency.

Biden also announced that Antony Blinken, who has worked alongside the former vice president for decades, would be his pick for secretary of State.

“Tony knows the building well and he knows the people that work in the building, and he knows how to get things done,” said Tom Shannon, who briefly served as acting secretary of State during the Trump administration.

“Because of his relationship with [Biden] and the national security adviser, it will put the state department front and center on all foreign policy issues, and that is a big morale boost,” Shannon added.

Brett Bruen, who served as director of global engagement during the Obama administration, said the State Department in particular will need to both fill upper leadership roles left vacant during the Trump administration and encourage a new wave of civil servants who can work their way up.

“It’s just going to be a very delicate process I think of regaining confidence and restoring trust,” Bruen said.

The CDC has long been viewed as one of the world’s premier health agencies. But its reputation has taken a hit during the pandemic as guidance became politicized, Trump undercut Director Robert Redfield on the importance of mask use and the department’s top scientists were all but sidelined as the coronavirus ravaged the country.

“We’ve seen nationally an erosion in trust in probably the world’s leading public health agency,” said Richard Besser, who led the CDC in 2009. “You’ll want someone in that role who understands applied public health. Someone who’s worked at the global, national, state level doing public health work, as opposed to I think someone who has been primarily an academic researcher.”

Biden has yet to name his pick to lead the Department of Health and Human Services or the CDC. Contenders include individuals already serving on his coronavirus advisory group, and New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), who previously served as health secretary of the state, has also been floated to lead HHS.

“They’ll need to put CDC back in the role as a primary communicator around public health issues so the public can interface through the media and re-establish what had been a strong trusted relationship,” Besser added.

Tags Donald Trump Joe Biden Michelle Lujan Grisham Mike Pompeo Rex Tillerson
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