When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the country was in the midst of a dire economic crisis. Twelve years later, his vice president, Joe Biden, has been elected president in the midst of a dire economic crisis and a worldwide, worsening coronavirus pandemic.
In 2008, Obama’s team and that of outgoing President George W. Bush worked together to allow the new administration to be as prepared as possible on Jan. 20, 2009. That’s not happening for Biden, as President Donald Trump continues to fight the election results and block the official transition.
Particularly when it comes to the COVID-19 pandemic, experts say, that delay could cost lives.
“If the new team has to waste time getting up to speed, that’s a huge waste of resources,” said Donald Kettl, a professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas-Austin and an expert in presidential transitions.
Until the formal transition begins, there are critical — and usually routine — things the incoming Biden officials cannot do, said Kettl. “Among the things not allowed right now are formal briefings by government officials, including Tony Fauci,” the head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and the top federal infectious disease expert. In addition, Kettl said, Biden’s landing teams — the handful of people who go inside government agencies to start the actual transition work — “cannot actually land and talk to the people doing front-line planning. And they can’t see some of the front-line documents.”
Biden can — and is — meeting with plenty of people who will be vital to carry out his administration’s fight against COVID. On Thursday, he met remotely with a bipartisan group of governors and vowed afterward to continue to work with state and local officials. He also has his own COVID advisory board, led by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy; former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, David Kessler; and Yale researcher Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith.
But Kettl warned that it’s not enough for Biden to surround himself with smart, experienced people with good policy ideas. “The biggest risk they face is in managing these details, and that’s where a direct connection with the bureaucracy is so important, and we can’t afford to fumble this handoff,” he said.
So what can Biden do between now and Jan. 20?
Some public health advocates suggest he could set up a shadow COVID effort, to compete with the Trump administration’s task force. “He could do briefings three times a week telling us what we know and what we don’t,” said Dr. Arthur Kellermann, a longtime public health expert who is now CEO of the Virginia Commonwealth University Health System. Without better information for the public, Kellermann said, “we could lose tens of thousands of people between now and” Inauguration Day.
But others worry that Biden needs to be careful not to appear to have more power than he does, lest he end up with the blame if things don’t go well, particularly on the complicated issue of getting a vaccine distributed and accepted by the general public.
“I think we have to have reasonable expectations of what they can do,” said Farzad Mostashari, a senior health official at HHS in the Obama administration. “A lot has got to be planning and creating a ‘whole of government’ approach to tackling COVID.”
Kettl said the incoming Biden administration is better positioned than many others would have been because they have such recent experience running the government. Incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain, for example, coordinated the federal government’s response to the Ebola outbreak in 2014. “There’s never been a group or team more prepared to run the government than this one,” Kettl said.
But it won’t be as easy as just picking up where they left off, he said, because of how politicized health and science has become. “The places they are walking into are not the same places they walked out of four years ago. The CDC is a shell of itself, the FDA is not the same.”
Mostashari, though, said he is confident the federal government can do more to combat the virus. “There are plenty of experts [still in the government] who are amazing at what they do,” he said. “They just have to unshackle them.”
HealthBent, a regular feature of Kaiser Health News, offers insight and analysis of policies and politics from KHN’s chief Washington correspondent, Julie Rovner, who has covered health care for more than 30 years.