Typically, the start of a presidential administration is filled with expectation. Victorious campaign staffers arrive in Washington to claim jobs at federal agencies. Lobbyists commandeer hotel ballrooms for breakfast buffets with incoming power brokers. Magazines assign fashion photographers to do shoots of the West Wing’s newest inhabitants.
The mood won’t be quite so heady this time. When Joseph R. Biden takes the oath of office on Jan. 20, 2021, he will inherit the gravest national crisis faced by any new president in the past 75 years. Although a vaccine for the coronavirus may be ready for initial use, infections are likely to remain rampant as Americans endure a winter crowded indoors. Tens of millions will still be out of work, and many children may not have returned to the classroom. Members of the president’s own staff may be forced to work remotely for months, even as they begin taking action on policy priorities ranging from health care and climate change to trade and nuclear arms control.
Then there’s a less obvious but perhaps even more daunting challenge: rebuilding the government after four years of Donald Trump, whose assault on the “administrative state” has demoralized federal workers and chased away thousands of career civil servants—the very specialists best suited to help the country find a way out of its current morass. America’s calamitous pandemic response has exposed the costs of Trump’s war on expertise. “We’ve got a number of broken agencies that desperately need repair,” says Paul Light, a professor of public service at New York University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
Biden’s half-century of experience in Washington, including eight years in the executive branch, makes him uniquely qualified to lead the reconstruction project. Depoliticizing federal agencies, restoring bureaucratic morale, and strengthening accountability for political officials will be among his immediate priorities—but the new president should also seize the opportunity to push through long-overdue reforms to make the government more nimble and dynamic. In the spirit of candidate Biden’s campaign slogan, here are five imperatives to “build back better.”
1 EMPOWER THE SCIENTISTS
On Nov. 9 the president-elect announced the creation of a council of advisers on the coronavirus, made up of prominent physicians, infectious disease experts, and former federal public-health officials. By elevating scientific voices, Biden sent an important signal of change. Among all of the Trump administration’s failures in handling the pandemic, none has proved more corrosive than its under mining of government scientists, notably Dr. Anthony Fauci, the top infectious disease specialist. White House officials have exerted pressure on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration to influence public-health guidance and speed up therapeutic-drug trials and the pace of vaccine approvals. Trump has personally defied medical professionals and spread false information about testing, Covid-19 fatality rates, and alleged “cures” for the disease. The effect has been to heighten mistrust on all sides about public- health officials’ pronouncements, making it even harder to defeat the pandemic.
“These organizations, the CDC and the FDA, were once the envy of the rest of the world,” says Ali Nouri, president of the Federation of American Scientists. The “gold-standard” agencies “have now become politicized under Donald Trump. That’s done great harm that will take a long time to repair.”
The erosion of the government’s scientific knowledge base extends beyond agencies focused on the pandemic. The administration has marginalized career employees at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which collects data related to climate change, and replaced the agency’s top scientist with a climate change denier. It’s forced dozens of top scientists out of government, including the head of mineral-resources research at the U.S. Geological Survey and the archaeologist at the National Park Service who was responsible for protecting historic public sites from the effects of climate change.
A May 2020 survey by the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative found that because of budget cuts and “neglectful and disdainful treatment of career staff” at the Environmental Protection Agency, more than one-quarter of those with relevant expertise in environmental science had left the agency since 2016.
The exodus of government scientists will hamper the nation’s ability to respond to pandemics and climate-related natural disasters. Biden can start to undo the damage by coaxing departed experts to return to government—in part by taking advantage of one of Trump’s more sensible reforms, which allows agencies to rehire former workers at a higher pay grade.
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