The Pandemic Cabinet

Job One for the Biden administration is controlling the pandemic. The economy won’t recover until people feel safe going shopping, to restaurants and movies, and all the rest. We can’t effectively work with other countries until we can think beyond full hospitals and people sick and dying and losing housing and going hungry. The justice system can’t work well with Zoom hearings and prisons as hotbeds of infection. We need to sort out priorities among education, bars, gyms, and yoga classes.

Simultaneously, the Biden administration must repair the government, hiring back to full agency capabilities and reversing malign policies. Assessment of the situation has already started in the transition. We need a fully staffed government, not hobbled by ridiculous policies, to control the pandemic.

In Congress, Mitch McConnell can be expected to continue obstructing legislation to deal with the pandemic. More than half the Republicans in the House have signed on to Donald Trump’s anti-Constitutional program.

The rest of the world does not stop for the presidential transition. Russia continues to hack us. Britain is negotiating (badly) with the EU over Brexit.

The characteristics needed to deal with the pandemic are different from what would be needed to run fully operating agencies in normal times. The Biden adminstration will have to hit the ground running the afternoon of January 20.

Biden is choosing people he is comfortable with and who have extensive experience, some from the Obama administration. Ron Klain, Biden’s chief of staff, was Obama’s White House Ebola response coordinator.

Lloyd Austin has Biden’s trust from his work in Iraq. Biden sees Austin’s oversight of the withdrawal from Iraq as a logistic project indicating that he can take leadership of the logistics of distributing the vaccine, a task delegated to the Defense Department by Donald Trump.

Vaccine distribution is an enormous job. The first shipments went out from the Portage, Michigan, Pfizer plant on Sunday and were put into use on Monday. They were accompanied by US Marshals. The first vaccine doses will go to frontline health workers and people in long-term care facilites. After that, the priorities and identification of people in prioritized categories become more difficult. Additionally, many more sites for getting vaccinations will be needed. Vaccine, equipment, and the right people must come together on time. That’s logistics.

Public health messages must go out from all departments of government – mask up, distance, and wash your hands, for starters. There will be other messages, about the vaccine’s likely side effects and no, it can’t give you COVID-19. The Housing and Labor Departments must see to people’s needs because of the pandemic. The Department of Agriculture stands at the intersection of immigration and pandemic issues, with immigrant workers suffering the pandemic in meatpacking plants and essential workers harvesting vegetables and fruit.

The foreign policy team must rebuild a badly damaged State Department and relations with the rest of the world. We’re not going to have a war with China, sorry Great Power™ wargamers.

The economics team must pressure Republicans in Congress to vote for relief to ordinary people and will have to keep things going when the Republicans don’t. A double win in Georgia will make their job less impossible.

Other overlays on Biden’s cabinet choices are his pledge that the cabinet will look like America and the need to build back better, meaning vision to do things in new ways rather than simply restoring the status quo. Taking people from the Senate and House is undesirable because of voting margins. Putting all these requirements together will result in choices that are disapproved by some.

For example, David Ignatius wants vision. But vision alone will not get us out of the pandemic. Ignatius also ignores the obstruction that Republicans in Congress will put up. Others want or don’t want particular people in particular jobs.

As the pandemic comes under control – and it will – the administration can increasingly move forward. At that point, initial cabinet members may move on, with new faces coming in.

Cross-posted at Balloon Juice

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