The federal government is a massive, slow-moving ship. Even in the best of times it is often dysfunctional. But for the past four years, the Trump administration has deliberately made parts of government more dysfunctional, throwing sand in the gears in order to sabotage programs the president doesn’t like that are nonetheless required by statute.
Where agencies still remain at least superficially functional, they have been steered toward helping the president’s own political and financial interests — by awarding contracts to cronies, say, or weaponizing antitrust and other state powers against perceived enemies. Indeed, arguably the biggest contrast in governing philosophy between President Trump and Biden is not over government size, per se; it’s whether government should serve the interests of the governed.
Already a number of journalists and other analysts have written retrospectives cataloguing the damage Trump has inflicted upon major policy arenas and federal agencies, and what it will take to rebuild. They span immigration, the environment, trade and health care, among other areas. Some of Trump’s policy changes put in place via presidential action can be undone, easily and swiftly, the same way; indeed, Biden already has a pile of executive orders awaiting his signature on Jan. 20. Other changes, implemented through the ungainly notice-and-comment rule-making process, will take longer to reverse.
Even now, Trump is developing regulations that appear to have no purpose other than gumming up the works for his successor.
Last week, for example, the Department of Health and Human Services proposed a rule that would require nearly every regulation ever issued to automatically expire unless reviewed within a certain time. The goal seems to be to jam up the Biden administration, so it spends all its time keeping Medicaid, the Children’s Health Insurance Program and Medicare from accidentally blowing up.
Merely rolling back Trump-era regulations and enforcement memos won’t be sufficient to repair the damage if government infrastructure remains weak. And it might, without concerted effort to improve employee morale.
There have been purges, sidelinings of expert talent and voluntary brain drain across government agencies. Morale is poor at agencies whose missions have fundamentally changed under Trump, such as the increasingly anti-consumer Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. At least two targeted agencies, the Agriculture Department’s Economic Research Service and the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, were effectively dismantled; a sudden (seemingly punitive) forced move across the country led 75 percent of affected employees to quit.
Further, one possibly enduring legacy of Trumpism may be the normalization of threats against public servants. Former Trump adviser Stephen K. Bannon recently called for beheading public health expert Anthony S. Fauci; myriad other death threats have been made against politicians, state and local election officials, and other career civil servants.
These jobs were never especially glamorous or remunerative. Now that they’re evidently dangerous, too, recruiting talent may be challenging. Biden’s overt respect for public health experts and lifelong evangelization of public service are a good start at fixing these problems. But more work will be needed.
Finally, there’s the problem of public trust.
Even if qualified people work in government, and they make smart choices, such efforts may be in vain if the public doesn’t believe their “deep state” work to be done in good faith. To take one life-or-death example: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s covid-19 guidance is effective only if it’s both evidence-based and credible enough that people listen to it.
Distrust in government institutions has been rising for decades; Trump both exploited and fed these trends. Lately things have become especially dire, with the public distrusting official statistics, election results and coronavirus vaccine safety.
Earning back the public’s trust will be exceptionally challenging. It requires delivering good work. It requires having our leaders model respect for experts and public servants, as Biden has done. It requires public officials to be honest with the public even when the news isn’t good, and even when they fail to deliver.
And it requires having an electorate willing to believe that government can — maybe just sometimes, maybe only under certain conditions — work, if we demand it.