It turns out that Trump was right.
Not about the ideology, of course — Biden is no socialist, and given that Republicans stand a decent chance of keeping the Senate, there could be no significant legislation at all in the next few years, radical or otherwise. But Biden is nevertheless poised to bring about an extraordinary change. After what we’ve been through in the past four years, it seemed almost too much to hope for.
Consider the list Biden released Tuesday of people who will be working to ensure a smooth transition from Trump’s administration to his. Every Cabinet department has a team assigned to it, as do a number of other key executive agencies. Whatever you might think about one individual or another, the hundreds of people on the list are experienced professionals with knowledge of the departments they’re responsible for; many of them worked in previous Democratic administrations.
It’s almost as if Biden wants the government to work well. What a remarkable idea!
This sounds like a rather uninspiring thing to celebrate. Shouldn’t we want a new president to transform the nation, to bring us to a future of boundless prosperity and justice, to cure every ill and right every wrong?
Well no, we shouldn’t. That was what some were naive enough to hope for when Barack Obama was elected 12 years ago, and the result was inevitable disappointment, for all his real accomplishments.
Biden, on the other hand, is not offering much in the way of sweeping visions of a glorious future. He does, however, promise a simple competence and seriousness that we desperately need after four years of chaos and corruption.
Meanwhile, the nominal head of the Trump administration’s pandemic response, Vice President Pence, had to cut short his planned vacation, not because the pandemic is surging but because he needs to be around to provide support forTrump’s effort to overturn the election results. In fact, the administration long ago stopped bothering to do much of anything about the pandemic, and as a result the virus is exploding and our death toll should hit 250,000 within a week or so.
In retrospect, Trump’s horrific failure on the pandemic was predictable given what we saw from the administration’s first moments. As Michael Lewis reported in “The Fifth Risk,” the hacks and grifters Trump appointed to fill out the executive branch never even showed up to Cabinet departments during the 2016 transition, leaving civil servants waiting in vain to brief them on how agencies worked.
The contrast with what’s happening right now couldn’t be clearer — from both sides. While Biden is attempting to fashion a transition, Trump is actively impeding it; as The Post reported earlier this week, “The Trump White House on Monday instructed senior government leaders to block cooperation with President-elect Joe Biden’s transition team.”
That will not last forever, and the emerging picture suggests one possible path a Biden presidency might take: Republican obstruction in Congress that shuts down any meaningful legislation, alongside an executive branch that manages to restore the government to good working order.
Which, for Democrats, would be unquestionably disappointing. It would mean that much of the agenda Biden ran on would simply be filed away for some later date: no public health insurance option, no new Voting Rights Act, no increase in the minimum wage, no universal pre-K.
To some extent, that’s out of Biden’s control. But he can control what happens in the executive branch, and he has about as much preparation for that job as anyone could, with 36 years in the Senate and eight as vice president behind him.
And though it might not be particularly glamorous, that job is of vital importance to the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive project. Trump may have been a singular force of destruction, but in his management he was only a more dissolute iteration of the Republican model, in which they take power, degrade the government’s ability to solve problems and leave a Democratic administration to clean up the wreckage while they sneer “See? Government can’t do anything right” from the sidelines.
There’s one more reason to be hopeful: If you know how government works, you can use it not just to carry out its existing tasks competently, but to expand its capabilities. The Post is now reporting that Biden “is poised to embed action on climate change across the breadth of the federal government, from the departments of Agriculture to Treasury to State.” It’s an ambitious set of ideas to address a global emergency — if they can pull it off.
But no matter how administratively skilled it is, the Biden administration will face a political problem: Making government work doesn’t give you many high-profile triumphs. A federal agency doing its job well doesn’t make the news, any more than a successful airplane landing. But after what we’ve endured, these past four years, it would still be something to celebrate.