When Abraham Lincoln entered the presidency in 1860 — elected by just 40 percent of voters — the country was literally breaking apart, and Lincoln wasn’t any too popular even within his own nascent party. As historian Doris Kearns Goodwin has written, he built consensus (and kept track of his critics) by assembling a “team of rivals” to manage the country through its greatest crisis.
Now, in a time of another national crisis, we are approaching another presidential election. Unlike Lincoln, Joe BidenJoe BidenFighter jet escorts aircraft that entered restricted airspace during UN gathering Julian Castro knocks Biden administration over refugee policy FBI investigating alleged assault on Fort Bliss soldier at Afghan refugee camp MORE seems largely free from mischievous attacks by party rivals. But he does face one crucial decision that could intensify factional division: the selection of a vice presidential running mate.
There are a number of sound choices among the women Biden will consider: Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenTreasury says more rental aid is reaching tenants, preventing evictions 11 senators urge House to pass .5T package before infrastructure bill Senate Democrats seeking information from SPACs, questioning 'misaligned incentives' MORE (D-Mass), Stacey Abrams (D-Ga.), Gov. Gretchen Whitmer (D-Mich.), Sen. Kamala HarrisKamala HarrisTwo 'View' hosts test positive for coronavirus ahead of Harris interview Rep. Karen Bass to run for mayor of Los Angeles: report Biden taps big bank skeptic to for top regulatory post MORE (D-Calif.), Rep. Val DemingsValdez (Val) Venita DemingsDemocrats face bleak outlook in Florida Democratic donors hesitant on wading into Florida midterm fights Democrats fret over Trump-district retirements ahead of midterms MORE (D-Fla.), Gov. Michelle Lujan GrishamMichelle Lynn Lujan GrishamDemocrats lean into vaccine mandates ahead of midterms Hochul makes New York the 31st state to have had a female governor New Mexico indoor mask mandate returns with new vaccine requirements MORE (D-N.M.) or Sen. Amy KlobucharAmy KlobucharHillicon Valley — Presented by Xerox — Officials want action on cyberattacks Senate panel advances antitrust bill that eyes Google, Facebook This week: Democrats face mounting headaches MORE (D-Minn.). Each would have particular appeal to a faction or region that might feel deeply aggrieved by another selection. But just because their names don’t join Biden’s on the bumper sticker doesn’t mean this reserve of talented people — and other knowledgeable and respected leaders — cannot be enlisted to prepare for a new administration. In fact, they should be.
When he discloses his vice presidential selection, Biden also should tell a more expansive story by naming not a team of rivals but a “team of colleagues” to help bring the country back from a multiplicity of crises.
Biden has three months to go before his nomination, another two months before the election, and then three more months between Election Day and Inauguration Day. During those months, if he wins, Biden will be focusing both on building out his administration through crucial Cabinet selections and other key appointments who cannot take office until after Senate confirmation.
In the interim, he should designate key leaders (please, not “czars”) who would work with congressional leaders (don’t leave them out!) and others to develop implementation plans for the most urgent challenges he would face on Jan. 20, 2021:
- COVID-19 policy (testing, tracking, treatment, vaccine development, aid to states and hospitals, improved coordination with international health organizations);
- economic recovery (re-employment assistance, unemployment, health and food programs, child care, mortgage and loan forgiveness to prevent homelessness and bankruptcy, low-interest loans with payback forgiveness for small businesses);
- employment initiatives (financial support for teachers, child care workers, first responders, service employees, infrastructure investment);
- assistance to state and local communities;
- recovery support for small businesses and family farms;
- budget discipline and deficit reduction, including areas for fair spending reduction, tax law changes to promote growth and tax equity, even potential entitlement reform to reduce indebtedness and crushing interest costs).
Biden should not name an overall recovery manager: That would be his job and that of his vice president, whoever she is. But parceling out high-visibility responsibilities on an interim basis, until the administration is formally in place, would enable Biden to bring the party together and boost public confidence in his governing vision. By enlisting the talents of a diverse group of leaders, Biden would demonstrate the leadership and management skills this nation, and the world, so desperately need.
This “team of colleagues” could be picked from former presidential rivals, sitting members of Congress or governors, retired legislators, leaders in the business, academic, labor and other communities, and scientific and medical experts. These appointments would serve the goals of frontloading an action agenda and engaging diverse leaders while reducing the obsessive focus on who won and who lost in the vice presidential selection.
Empowering such a talent pool now, instead of waiting for the election, also would allow Biden to draw a sharp contrast with the incompetents, myrmidons and bumblers who people the chaotic masquerade known as the Trump presidency.
If ever there was a time for the best and the brightest to be recruited to public service, this is it.
True, there are always liabilities in appointments; the choices are second-guessed, embarrassing personal or ethical issues can emerge, and those who are not selected are mightily insulted. Those concerns would argue for selecting people who have been vetted for high public office already. But such risks are far lower than enduring weeks of infighting and ego-soothing after a VP candidate is selected, let alone sitting around and doing nothing, hoping things get better. We already have an administration that is expert at that.
John A. Lawrence, former chief of staff to Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOn The Money — House pushes toward infrastructure vote US mayors, Black leaders push for passage of bipartisan infrastructure bill Lawmakers say innovation, trade rules key to small business gains MORE, is the author of “The Class of ’74: Congress After Watergate and the Roots of Partisanship” and a visiting professor at the University of California’s Washington Center. Follow him on Twittter @JohnALawrenceDC.