Biden’s chief aide says president wants teams, no rivals

As he takes office in the face of the most substantial set of crises facing any new president in almost a century, President-elect Joe Biden is structuring an incoming administration around teams meant to break down the fiefdoms and silos that have at times vexed many of his predecessors.

If former President Obama built his Cabinet as a team of rivals, Biden is building a team of allies.

The Biden transition has structured its nominees and senior officials into policy pods, Cabinet members and policy coordinators introduced together over the course of the two-month transition, designed to use the levers of government across departments and agencies.

“We face a lot of really complex problems here,” Ron Klain, Biden’s incoming chief of staff, said in an interview. “They are crises to the country. I think for the government to solve them you need really comprehensive, whole-of-government solutions. That’s what we’ve been building through the campaign and then more intensively through the transition.”

The structure itself is a reflection of Klain, the person who will oversee Biden’s critical first days in office. A veteran of the previous two Democratic White Houses, Klain oversaw the Obama administration’s implementation of the 2009 economic stimulus package and the response to an Ebola epidemic in West Africa.

“My work on the recovery act, which was a massive $800 billion effort, reporting to the then-vice president, now president-elect, was a great learning experience in how to coordinate among federal agencies, how to increase the pace at which government responds, how to break down bureaucratic conflict in the agencies and how to deliver results for the American people,” Klain said. “Those are the kind of models we’re looking at.”

The silos between federal agencies and departments exist in every administration, the product of jealous bureaucrats and Cabinet secretaries who guard their slice of the policy world with zeal. In their worst moments, the silos can grind the policymaking process to a halt.

“The institutional stove pipes we’ve created mostly for good reasons work well with narrow issues,” said William Galston, a domestic policy adviser in the Clinton administration who now heads the Brookings Institution’s Governance Studies Program. “But not so well when the problems are less focused.”

Turf battles and legal barriers between departments have stymied top priorities in other administrations. Elaine Kamarck, a veteran of former President Clinton’s domestic policy operation, recalled a cross-governmental effort to streamline safety net programs gummed up by laws that prevented information about minors enrolled in one program shared with administrators of another.

“Tearing down [silos] is easier said than done. Everybody intends to do it but it is hard to do,” said Kamarck, who now heads the Center for Effective Public Management. “What you need to make that work is a sophisticated team who is comfortable in government operations.”

From the White House, Jeff Zients, a former director of the National Economic Council, will oversee the Cabinet-level agencies responding to the coronavirus pandemic. Brian Deese will run the National Economic Council, coordinating efforts to revive the economy. Former EPA administrator Gina McCarthy will coordinate climate change policy, and domestic policy adviser Susan Rice will lead the team addressing systemic racism.

All four, like Klain, are veterans of the Obama administration. All four might be called czars of their respective domains, as Klain was dubbed the Ebola czar, though Biden officials are not enamored of comparisons to 19th century Russia.

“What they’re focused on is trying to develop the policies that will enable us to really mount a comprehensive response to these challenges that they are responsible for overseeing,” Klain said. “That means working closely with the Cabinet. It means working closely with external stakeholders as well, whether that’s governors, mayors or citizen activists or constituency groups, trying to really mobilize for action around these key challenges.”

The transition has rolled out its pods together for a reason. McCarthy was introduced alongside Interior Secretary nominee Deb Haaland, Energy Secretary-designate Jennifer Granholm and EPA administrator-in-waiting Michael Regan.

“The point is they have been presented as a team from the start, and I think that kind of team approach helps minimize some of the traditional friction between the White House policy coordinators and the Cabinet members,” Klain said.

Though President Trump has pledged a smooth transition, the handover has been anything but. The General Services Administration waited weeks to formally recognize Biden’s victory, delaying initial meetings between the incoming team and either outgoing Trump administration appointees or the career employees they oversee.

But the transition team plans to have hundreds of Biden staffers show up for work the day he is inaugurated.

“We are hiring on day one 500-600 people to go into the agencies to fill political appointments there,” Klain said. “We’re going to have more people on the job on day one in these positions than President Obama did on day 100. We’re moving very quickly to really try to restaff the government, beef up the government and enable it to begin to deliver results for the American people.”

Biden’s most immediate challenge will be in Zients’s court, tackling a coronavirus pandemic that is killing thousands of Americans each day.

“A short-term problem, like Samuel Johnson’s gallows, focuses the mind wonderfully,” Galston said. “Everybody knows that how the new administration handles COVID, which is a medical emergency that has produced economic and social dislocations on a massive scale, will define the first impression that it makes.”

Biden has said he will ask Americans to wear masks and to listen to public health experts while speeding the distribution and administration of critical vaccines.

“If we can deliver 100 million shots in 100 days, I think we’ll show progress on COVID. But this disease is wildly out of control and it’s going to take more than 100 days to get it under control, there’s no doubt about it,” Klain said.

But public health officials have warned that it will take months for a sufficient number of vaccine doses to be administered, a period over which hundreds of thousands of lives will be lost.

“Results have to happen here,” Kamarck said. “Because people are dying.”

Tags Barack Obama Bill Clinton Brian Deese Deb Haaland Donald Trump Gina McCarthy Jeff Zients Jennifer Granholm Joe Biden Michael Regan Ron Klain Susan Rice
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