Inside Story

Tracking the transition

What needs to happen during Joe Biden and Kamala Harris’s journey from win to White House?

Lesley Russell 10 November 2020 1984 words

Different approach: members of the transition’s Covid-19 advisory board, led by Dr David Kessler, briefing president-elect Joe Biden and vice-president-elect Kamala Harris in Wilmington, Delaware, yesterday. Joe Raedle/Getty Images

With the American election season over for everyone except Donald Trump and his acolytes, the hard work begins for the Biden–Harris transition team. The new president and vice-president need to hit the ground running in January, and they must prepare even as Trump remains president, his cabinet appointees hang on to power and the make-up of Congress remains unchanged.

With the president refusing to concede defeat, it’s unclear how closely the process will resemble the usual orderly handover of powers. There’s every chance that the disregard for niceties, precedents and laws so evident over the past four years will continue until — and even on — Inauguration Day.

Normally, the General Services Administration acts quickly once the result is known. Even before the electoral college meets to finalise the results, the GSA provides the transition team with funding, access to government services and space for headquarters. Concurrently, the president-elect begins receiving classified briefings from the CIA and other security agencies, and exchanging information and background papers with all government agencies.

The Biden–Harris transition team has been gearing up since June and is expected to number some 350 people. Funds of more than US$7 million have been raised to cover costs, including the expense of shepherding nominees through the Senate approval process. Unusually, the GSA’s administrator, a Trump appointee, has yet to sign off on the provision of the agency’s assistance.

Presidential transitions can be fraught, but George W. Bush’s handover to Barack Obama in 2008–09 is seen as the gold standard. At the height of the global financial crisis, with the nation’s economy on the verge of collapse, their interactions were smoothed by the two teams’ knowledge of each other from briefings, group crisis training and a series of one‐on‐one meetings between senior Bush and Obama staff. A terrorism threat in Washington on Inauguration Day was dealt with by national security personnel from both the Bush and Obama teams.

The White House reportedly has a transition team headed by Chris Liddell, assistant to the president and deputy chief of staff for policy coordination. Much needs to be done, including providing security clearances to enable key Biden advisers to access classified briefings during the transition period. But this work — mostly hidden from Trump amid fears he would try to derail it — appears to have ground to a halt since election day. Reports suggest that the mood is dark and chaotic, and that staff are disheartened and already leaving, a situation not helped by another outbreak of Covid-19 in the White House.

Rumours suggest that Trump might signal his lack of engagement by decamping to Mar-a-Lago in Florida (presumably at taxpayers’ expense). Alternatively, he might take to campaigning again, making his case about a “stolen” election. He is also expected to deliver a series of pardons, perhaps even for himself and his family — an act whose legality is yet to be tested. The Republican National Committee and Trump’s campaign organisation are fundraising to support his legal tactics and retire his campaign debts; they need some US$60 million to fund his legal challenges alone.

Fortunately, Joe Biden has little need for a formal handover. He has already been part of a well-executed transition, and he and his family know their way around the White House.

A new Biden–Harris transition website lays out the five key policy areas already outlined by the president-elect: the pandemic, rebuilding the economy and jobs, healthcare, climate change, and racial justice.

The first order of business will be to tackle the health and economic impacts of a pandemic whose reach has grown exponentially during the election campaign. Hospitals in many states have been overwhelmed, the economy disrupted, and families and communities left in grief and crisis. Experts now consider Covid-19 to be out of control nationally.

The urgency of the problem is highlighted by forecasts released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They predict that the week ending 28 November will see between 450,000 and 960,000 new coronavirus infections and between 4600 and 11,000 deaths. These estimates might even be overly conservative: 6 November saw 132,797 new cases and 1147 deaths across the United States. More than ten million Americans have been infected and significant numbers remain disabled by long-lasting side effects. Without effective interventions, the toll by Inauguration Day will be crippling and intolerable — yet the Trump administration seems unconcerned that this will be its lasting legacy.

Biden has announced a bipartisan coronavirus taskforce headed by three physicians — former US surgeon general Vivek Murthy, former Food and Drug Administration commissioner David Kessler, and Marcella Nunez-Smith, who is recognised for her work promoting health and healthcare equity among marginalised populations. All are well known in public health, science and political circles. Murthy and Kessler have been outspoken about the need to avoid any perception of political interference in pandemic decision-making and have signalled they will approach pandemic control far differently from the Trump administration.

The taskforce will build on consultations and planning in recent months, echoing work on Obama’s healthcare reforms by former senator Tom Daschle’s team throughout December 2008. The taskforce will need to reach out to red and blue states alike, whose cooperation will be vital to implementing the Biden plan’s federal initiatives (including possible mask mandates) and improved supply chains for personal protective equipment, testing supplies, therapeutics, vaccines and supplemental healthcare services.

This work is unlikely to step on the toes of the White House coronavirus advisory group, which has largely ceased to function. Trump has threatened to fire Dr Tony Fauci, and former chief spokesperson Dr Deborah Birx has been reduced to issuing an urgent plea for more aggressive action, which was leaked to the Washington Post. Trump now listens only to Dr Scott Atlas, whose views on the pandemic are decidedly renegade.

The administration’s approach to the pandemic in recent months was succinctly summed up by Mark Meadows’s proclamation (so ironic in light of his own infection last week) that “we are not going to control the pandemic.” By contrast, a coronavirus briefing was the first order of business for Biden and Harris, followed by a public statement on plans to tackle the pandemic and rebuild the economy. Biden’s statement coincided with encouraging news from Pfizer about its coronavirus vaccine.

In 2008, the lame-duck Bush administration was willing to take advice and guidance from the Obama transition team on tackling the global financial crisis. Most notably, Bush agreed to Obama’s request to ask Congress to release more funds for the economic bailout. Biden will now push the lame-duck Senate to pass the coronavirus relief bill that is so urgently needed.

House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell have both indicated their interest in passing such a measure, but their last attempt failed when they were unable to agree on the scope of legislation. Can Biden’s input now help them find common ground? Complicating this push, Congress will be distracted by the looming 11 December government funding deadline. Failure to reach a deal on that issue will result in a government shutdown. And there’s another possible obstacle: Trump would need to sign any new spending bill.

Covid-19 and its economic impacts are challenging enough, but the Biden–Harris team will also need to work simultaneously on a range of other difficult issues. In quick order, Biden must announce his cabinet members and get them working on their agendas; assess which of Trump’s actions need to be undone (including his withdrawal from the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change); develop legislation and, if he can’t get the Senate to cooperate, issue executive orders; and develop a contingency plan in case the US Supreme Court overturns Obamacare in 2021.

Dramatic policy changes have been promised in areas such as climate change, environmental protections, immigration and education. Here Biden will have to balance different policy positions and concerns inside the Democratic caucus (especially those from the left) and the reluctance of Republicans to work cooperatively. One way to tackle ambitious agendas is to work stepwise, in a planned series of bills, but that requires a firm hand and strong control of the levers of government and policy implementation.

Unless Biden can work with the Senate, he will be forced to resort to executive orders. McConnell was the enabler-in-chief to Trump and he will look to play a controlling role with Biden. But Biden has worked with McConnell over many years and is arguably every bit as familiar with Senate procedures. It will be interesting to see whether Republican allegiances to Trump remain strong during the upcoming lame-duck session, or whether Biden can use his longstanding relationships to persuade at least some Republicans to moderate their positions.

Whether McConnell retains his role as majority leader in the new Congress depends on the outcome of two run-off Senate races in Georgia in early January. The Democrats need to win both of them to control the Senate with vice-president Harris in the chair. (Harris will resign her ordinary Senate seat, and the Democrat governor of California will replace her with another Democrat.) If that doesn’t happen, McConnell is once again in the catbird seat. Whether Trumpism will remain rampant in the Republican caucus once Trump is off the scene is unknown.

Democratic control of the Senate would make a big difference to Biden’s appointees and agenda. As incoming president, he will appoint more than 4000 people to his administration, a quarter of whom will require Senate approval. The media are already compiling lists of likely cabinet appointees and White House advisers. Biden has a surfeit of well-qualified people to choose from, many of whom have served in previous administrations. He will face a balancing act between experience and new faces, and has promised an administration that “looks like America.”

Axios reports that a Republican Senate would work with Biden on centrist nominees but block any “radical progressives” or other figures who are controversial among conservatives. This could result in Biden’s having a more centrist cabinet and a more centrist legislative agenda than anticipated.

While work must proceed apace in Washington, Biden must also look beyond America’s borders and begin the long and difficult task of restoring relationships and trust around the world. He has committed to end Trump’s America First approach but is expected to move carefully, providing international reassurance that the United States is re-engaged with the world with a few big, symbolic acts.

It is tricky to do this sort of work when the outgoing president still remains in charge. This time around, concerns have been voiced about the unscripted actions Trump might take in the remaining weeks of his tenure and how these could damage national security.

Biden’s choice of a secretary of state will send a clear message nationally and internationally. Former UN ambassador Susan Rice is a leading candidate, but her unpopularity among Republicans might mean that the position goes to William Burns, deputy secretary of state under Obama. Placing someone with substantial state department experience at the head of that agency would restore morale there, which is reportedly at an all-time low, and provide a strong pair of hands to take on this important work while Biden is consumed with domestic issues.

The most important task for Biden in the days ahead is to project calm and order. He must continue as he has begun: turning away from harsh rhetoric and divisive language; seizing the momentum and turning it into decisive action; listening to those who didn’t vote for him — people fearful of the future thanks largely to Trump’s rhetoric — and offering them hope and substantive change. Biden has set out the vision, saying, “Let us be the nation that we know we can be. A nation united. A nation strengthened. A nation healed.” Now he and his administration must work to deliver it. •