How Biden’s Team Is Building Back Government, Better

Joe Biden

President-elect Joe Biden

Photo by jlhervàs/ CC BY 2.0

With the Biden-Harris transition in full gear, I can't help but be reminded of my time working on the Obama-Biden transition in late 2008 and early 2009. A quote from the mega-hit musical "Hamilton" keeps popping into my head. There's a scene in which Alexander Hamilton and George Washington are going back and forth during a Cabinet meeting, and Washington says to Hamilton, "Ah, winning was easy, young man. Governing's harder."

President Barack Obama had just won a decisive electoral victory, but we were now faced with governing a country that was experiencing the greatest recession in 100 years, two wars abroad, a broken health care system, and a Republican Party whose No. 1 priority was making sure we failed.

As head of personnel for the transition, it was my job to make sure we had qualified people ready to go on Day 1. It was no easy task then, and now, with a pandemic raging, it's an even harder job.

It is impossible to describe the pressure and all of the competing considerations that go into naming people to the government.

First and foremost, you want people who are qualified to do the job. While the Trump administration did not seem to care about things like experience or character when naming government officials, most administrations take those very seriously

But, beyond qualifications, there are dozens of other factors. For example, most presidential candidates make some sort of campaign promise around nominations — and those promises have to be kept.

For example, during the 2008 campaign, Obama promised that a Republican would be in his Cabinet. That meant that as we were looking to staff the executive Cabinet departments, we had to find and nominate a Republican who would get confirmed (and that promise was kept with Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood).

Joe Biden promised to build a government that looked like America. And, looking at his initial round of high-profile nominations and appointments, he has kept that promise.

However, one challenge that Biden may face that Obama did not is the prospect of a Republican Senate.

Hopefully, Democrats can take control of the Senate by winning both runoff elections in Georgia next month, but if we come up short, then the Republicans will control the fate of many of President-elect Biden's nominees.

As we saw when Republicans denied Obama a Supreme Court nomination, they have no problem brazenly and hypocritically exploiting Senate rules for political gain.

And they are already signaling to us that they intend to keep up that obstructionism. This means that Democrats are going to have to be clear-eyed about dealing with Republicans and need to make sure that we keep voters engaged and activated to pressure Republicans who want to deny Biden his right to staff the executive branch.

All that said, Biden has a deeper understanding of government than any incoming president in modern history. He has already shown incredible judgment with regard to personnel, starting with his wise decision to choose Kamala Harris as his running mate.

After four years of seeing American institutions abused and hollowed out by the Trump administration, Americans deserve a government that will work for them — and Joe Biden is primed to give the American people a government that will do just that.

Jim Messina is CEO of The Messina Group and chief strategist for American Bridge 21st Century. He was formerly White House deputy chief of staff under President Obama, and campaign manager for the president's 2012 reelection campaign.


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