“To govern is to choose,” President John F. Kennedy declared. Choices have consequences. One choice often precludes other choices. But government works best when the choices are clear — yes or no, not maybe.
President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE gets to start governing even before Jan. 20, 2021. He can name his closest advisers and White House staff. He can announce nominees to cabinet positions who will need Senate approval after the inauguration. He can name sub-cabinet officials who will be part of the leadership teams across the government. And he can put them all to work right now, meeting and sorting out how to proceed once they have legal authority.
There are about 1,200 senior leadership jobs requiring Senate confirmation, of which about 225 have critical policymaking or time urgent responsibilities. The incoming president should be choosing people for as many of those jobs as possible right now.
Previous administrations waited months to name officials down to the assistant secretary level. The Trump administration hadn’t even nominated people for 37 percent of those critical positions after 11 months in office and still had two-thirds of the remaining senior jobs empty. The Obama and George W. Bush administrations did better, but had nominees for only 62 percent of critical posts after three months.
Delays mean that day-to-day decisions will be in the hands of Trump holdovers, either burrowed political appointees or inexperienced junior people who survived the purging of senior career professionals.
The Senate, if controlled by Republicans after the Georgia runoff elections, might delay action on some nominees. But that is no excuse not to nominate a full roster. And if necessary, some can be named “acting.”
Mistakes could be made in the rush to fill positions. Those can be corrected with replacements. But nothing can make up for time lost.
No matter how qualified and exemplary the nominees are, many people will be disappointed. There can be only one secretary of State, only one secretary of Defense, only one national security adviser. Each choice blocks the path to other choices. That’s why President John Adams complained, “Every time I make an appointment, I create 99 enemies and one ingrate.”
For a time, the un-chosen will maneuver to get another appointment until all the chairs are filled.
While the nominees can’t make policy, they can plan — plan the organization of their offices, plan their sequence of actions once confirmed, plan the budget requests and other taskings they will need to make in those first days anyway. That’s also why they need a full roster even before inauguration.
We who have watched previous transitions know that mistakes will be made, of omission or commission. We know that some unexpected matters will flame into media attention and pull the new people off course. We know that the limited bandwidth for action will lead to more complaints and frustration.
The importance of jump-starting a new administration was recognized even by a president with a much more decisive victory, including overwhelming majorities for his party in both houses of Congress. In January 1965, Lyndon Johnson summoned the legislative liaison officials from across the government to a meeting, where he challenged them: “Every day that I’m in office and every day that I push my program, I’ll be losing a part of my ability to be influential, because that’s in the nature of what a president does. He uses up his capital. Something is going to come up … something like the Vietnam War or something else where I will begin to lose all that I have now. So I want you guys to get off your asses and do everything possible to get everything in my program passed as soon as possible, before the aura and the halo that surround me disappear. … Don’t waste a second.”
The Biden transition team is launching a Coronavirus Task Force to meet and plan for dealing with the pandemic. Don’t stop there. Set up economic recovery teams and foreign policy teams and defense teams and trade teams.
The campaign had such groups. Now they need to be strengthened with actual nominees in charge, and tasked to prepare specific action plans for Jan. 20.
Charles A. Stevenson, Ph.D., teaches American foreign policy at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a fellow of the National Academy of Public Administration. He is the author of “Congress at War.”