Competence is making a comeback.
President-elect Joe Biden has prized staying power over star power when making his first wave of Cabinet picks and choices for White House staff, with a premium placed on government experience and proficiency as he looks to rebuild a depleted and demoralized federal bureaucracy.
With an eye in part toward making selections who may have to seek approval from a Republican-controlled Senate, Biden has prioritized choosing qualified professionals while eschewing flashy names. Even the most recognizable pick — John Kerry — lacks the showmanship that has defined the Trump era.
In sharp contrast to President Donald Trump, who openly distrusted the very government he led, Biden has showcased a faith in bureaucracy that was born out of his nearly five decades in Washington. He’s made hires with the deliberate aim of projecting a sense of dutiful and, even boring, competency.
Surrounding himself with longtime aides and veterans of the Obama administration, many of whom have already worked together for years, Biden has so far rolled out a team of careerists with bursting resumes and little need of a learning curve.
“Collectively, this team has secured some of the most defining national security and diplomatic achievements in recent memory — made possible through decades of experience working with our partners,” Biden said Tuesday as he unveiled his national security team.
“Experience” is indeed the coin of the realm on Biden’s burgeoning team.
His pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, worked for Biden in the Senate for years, and held the posts of deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser. His choice for national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, was the deputy to that post under President Barack Obama. His nominee for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen, was chair of the Federal Reserve and chair of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. His incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, was chief of staff to two vice presidents — Al Gore and Biden himself — and was the Obama administration’s Ebola czar.
And Kerry, Biden’s choice to fill the newly created post of presidential climate envoy, was a longtime U.S. senator and his party’s 2004 presidential nominee before serving as secretary of state.
“The team is bringing competency and experience, which are two separate things but deeply interwoven,” said retired Navy Adm. James Stavridis, former NATO supreme allied commander Europe, who has worked with much of Biden’s new team. “There are deputies stepping up into full roles, seasoned hands returning to the job. They tend to be calm and centered and they won’t all fight over the ball.”
“They know their counterparts overseas and they know whom to pick up the phone and call,” said Stavridis. “It’s a completely different approach than what we saw with the Trump team — and I hesitate to call it a team because they didn’t work all that well together.”
Four years ago, contenders for Cabinet posts were marched through the gilded lobby of Trump Tower, the president-elect’s Manhattan skyscraper, in full view of reporters and TV cameras. The candidates publicly jockeyed for posts, Trump aides took turn knifing each other in the media, and the incoming president even took one secretary of state contender, Mitt Romney, out to dinner for a public and ultimately unsuccessful audition.
Conversely, Biden’s transition hiring process has been carried out behind closed doors or, out of concern for the surging pandemic, on Zoom and over the phone. Leaks to reporters have been few. And the public only got its first glimpse of Biden’s choices when they took their spots, spaced apart and wearing masks, on a Delaware stage.
Another change was the distinct lack of tributes from the staffers about their boss, a marked difference from the lengthy, glowing venerations of the president that came to define any Trump Cabinet meeting. Also different: No one who stood with Biden was a family member or an in-law.
“The contrast between Biden’s selections and Trump’s selections are like night and day: Biden’s picks are capable, sensible and play well in the sandbox together,” said Steve Rattner, a former Obama economic adviser. “Biden prefers people he has known for decades. Trump picked Rex Tillerson because he thought he looked like a secretary of state.”
There are risks. Many progressive Democrats aren’t looking for simply a return to the Obama years, which ended with many on the left frustrated at the slow pace of change.
Republicans are also unimpressed with Biden’s hires.
“Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” tweeted Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who may seek the White House again in 2024.
Trump’s own hiring process was besieged with chaos of his own making. He jettisoned the man in charge of his transition — former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie — and over 30 binders Christie had prepared in favor of a staffing plan based on his gut, family recommendations and, yes, by his own admission, who looked straight out of central casting.
The tumult didn’t end once he took office.
While a few of his picks were establishment choices, like Marine Gen. James Mattis to run the Pentagon, most were plucked from the corporate world — like Tillerson at State and Steve Mnuchin at Treasury — while his senior adviser Steve Bannon declared he wanted to oversee “the destruction of the administrative state.”
Trump had more senior staff and Cabinet turnover than any modern predecessor — his first national security adviser, Michael Flynn, didn’t last a month — and he declared an informal war on the federal bureaucracy once the investigation began into whether his campaign had any ties to Russia.
Deeply suspicious of what he deemed the “deep state,” Trump allowed scores of vacancies to remain unfilled across federal agencies, fired officials he deemed insufficiently loyal, encouraged in-fighting on his staff and, with relentless public attacks, attempted to undermine Americans’ faith in the institutions of their own government.
Declaring “America is back,” President-elect Joe Biden introduced his national security team on Tuesday, his first substantive offering of how he’ll shift from Trump-era “America First” policies by relying on experts from the Democratic establishment to be some of his most important advisers.
“Together, these public servants will restore America globally, its global leadership and its moral leadership,” Biden said from a theater in his longtime home of Wilmington, Delaware. “It’s a team that reflects the fact that America is back, ready to lead the world, not retreat from it.”
The nominees are all Washington veterans with ties to former President Barack Obama’s administration, a sign of Biden’s effort to resume some form of normalcy after the tumult of President Donald Trump’s four years in office. There are risks to the approach as Republicans plan attacks and progressives fret that Biden is tapping some officials who were too cautious and incremental the last time they held power.
Still, Biden’s nominees were a clear departure from Trump, whose Cabinet has largely consisted of men, almost all of them white. Biden’s picks included several women and people of color, some of whom would break barriers if confirmed to their new positions.
They stood behind Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris spaced apart and wearing masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, a contrast with Trump and many of his top aides who have largely eschewed facial coverings.
The president-elect’s team includes Antony Blinken, a veteran foreign policy hand well-regarded on Capitol Hill whose ties to Biden go back some 20 years, for secretary of state; lawyer Alejandro Mayorkas to be homeland security secretary; veteran diplomat Linda Thomas-Greenfield to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations; and Obama White House alumnus Jake Sullivan as national security adviser.
Avril Haines, a former deputy director of the CIA, was picked to serve as director of national intelligence, the first woman to hold that post, and former Secretary of State John Kerry will make a curtain call as a special envoy on climate change. Kerry and Sullivan’s position will not require Senate confirmation.
With the Senate’s balance of power hinging on two runoff races in Georgia that will be decided in January, some Senate Republicans have already expressed antipathy to Biden’s picks as little more than Obama world retreads.
Sen. Tom Cotton, an Arkansas Republican and potential 2024 presidential candidate, argued that Biden is surrounding himself with people who will go soft on China.
Sen. Marco Rubio, another potential White House hopeful, who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that will consider Blinken’s nomination, broadly wrote off the early selections.
“Biden’s cabinet picks went to Ivy League schools, have strong resumes, attend all the right conferences & will be polite & orderly caretakers of America’s decline,” Rubio tweeted.
Biden said his choices “reflect the idea that we cannot meet these challenges with old thinking and unchanged habits.” He said he tasked them with reasserting global and moral leadership, a clear swipe at Trump, who has resisted many traditional foreign alliances.
The president-elect said he was “struck” by how world leaders have repeatedly told him during congratulatory calls that they look forward to the U.S. “reasserting its historic role as a global leader” under his administration.
Trump, who has debated recently whether to mount another presidential campaign in 2024, appeared to defend his worldview on Tuesday.
“We shouldn’t go away from that — America First,” he said at the annual turkey pardon, a lighthearted pre-Thanksgiving White House tradition.
While Trump expected total loyalty from his Cabinet and chafed at pushback from advisers, Biden said he expected advisers to tell me “what I need to know, not what I want to know.”
Further drawing a contrast with Trump, Haines said she accepted Biden’s nomination knowing that “you value the perspective of the intelligence community, and that you will do so even when what I have to say may be inconvenient or difficult.”
Haines said she has “never shied away from speaking truth to power” and added “that will be my charge as director of national intelligence.”
Biden celebrated the diversity of his picks, offering a particularly poignant tribute to Thomas-Greenfield. The eldest of eight children who grew up in segregated Louisiana, she was the first to graduate from high school and college in her family. The diplomat, in turn, said that with his selections, Biden is achieving much more than a changing of the guard.
“My fellow career diplomats and public servants around the world, I want to say to you, ‘America is back, multilateralism is back, diplomacy is back,’” Thomas-Greenfield said.
Mayorkas, who is Cuban American, also offered a nod to his immigrant upbringing.
“My father and mother brought me to this country to escape communism,” he said. “They cherished our democracy, and were intensely proud to become United States citizens, as was I.”
But Mayorkas might pose the most difficult confirmation challenge from Biden’s early round of nominees.
The Senate previously confirmed him in December 2013 by a party-line vote to be the deputy secretary of Homeland Security. The Senate was controlled by Democrats then, and all of the chamber’s Republicans voted against his confirmation mainly because he was then under investigation by the Obama-appointed inspector general in that department. At the time, the Senate historian’s office said it was unprecedented for the Senate to vote on a nominee who was under investigation.
The inspector general, John Roth, found in March 2015 that Mayorkas, as director of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, appeared to give special treatment to certain people as part of the visa program that gives residency preference to immigrants who agree to invest in the U.S. economy.
Meanwhile, there were signs on Tuesday that the stalled formal transition of power is now underway. Biden’s team now is in contact with all federal agencies, according to a transition official who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe developments that have not been announced.
At the Pentagon, Kash Patel, chief of staff to the acting secretary of defense, is heading the department’s transition work. A transition task force has been assembled, led by Tom Muir, head of the Pentagon office that provides administrative and management services to all Defense Department facilities in the Washington area.
Muir said the first meeting with Biden’s team was held virtually on Tuesday morning and that he expected daily meetings to come — some virtually and some in person. He said normal accommodations for the Biden team have been made, including provision of briefing materials, video-teleconferencing capabilities, and office space inside the Pentagon.
Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar also said his agency is working to get briefing materials to Biden’s aides immediately and pledged a “professional, cooperative and collaborative” transition.
The moves came a day after the head of the General Services Administration wrote the necessary letter of “ascertainment” acknowledging Biden as the apparent winner of the election, triggering the transition process.
Trump, who continues to press a legal challenge to overturn the election results, again on Tuesday refused to concede his election loss.
Trump tweeted that “the GSA does not determine who the next President of the United States will be.”
Don’t even think of putting the mask away anytime soon.
Despite the expected arrival of COVID-19 vaccines in just a few weeks, it could take several months — probably well into 2021 — before things get back to something close to normal.
The first, limited shipments of the vaccine would mark just the beginning of what could be a long and messy road toward the end of the pandemic that has upended life and killed more than a quarter-million people in the US. In the meantime, Americans are being warned not to let their guard down.
“If you’re fighting a battle and the cavalry is on the way, you don’t stop shooting; you keep going until the cavalry gets here, and then you might even want to continue fighting,” Dr Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious-disease expert, said last week.
This week, AstraZeneca became the third vaccine maker to say early data indicates its shots are highly effective. Pfizer last week asked the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency authorisation to begin distributing its vaccine, and Moderna is expected to do the same any day. Federal officials say the first doses will ship within a day of authorisation.
But most people will probably have to wait months for shots to become widely available. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines also each require two doses, meaning people will have to go back for a second shot after three and four weeks, respectively, to get the full protection.
Moncef Slaoui, head of the US vaccine development effort, said on CNN on Sunday that early data on the Pfizer and Moderna shots suggest about 70 percent of the population would need to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity — a milestone he said is likely to happen in May.
But along the way, experts say the logistical challenges of the biggest vaccination campaign in US history and public fear and misinformation could hinder the effort and kick the end of the pandemic further down the road.
“It’s going to be a slow process and it’s going to be a process with ups and downs, like we’ve seen already,” said Dr Bill Moss, an infectious-disease expert at Johns Hopkins University.
Shots in arms
Once federal officials give a vaccine the go-ahead, doses that are already being stockpiled will be deployed with the goal of “putting needles in people’s arms” within 24 to 48 hours, said Paul Mango, a US Department of Health and Human Services official involved in the Operation Warp Speed effort to develop COVID-19 vaccines.
Those first shipments are expected to be limited and will be directed to high-risk groups at designated locations, such as front-line health care workers at hospitals.
Federal and state officials are still figuring out exactly how to prioritise those most at risk, including the elderly, prison inmates and homeless people. By the end of January, HHS officials say, all senior citizens should be able to get shots, assuming a vaccine becomes available by the end of 2020.
For everyone else, they expect widespread availability of vaccines would start a couple of months later.
To make shots easily accessible, state and federal officials are enlisting a vast network of providers, such as pharmacies and doctor’s offices.
But some worry long lines won’t be the problem.
“One of the things that may be a factor that hasn’t been discussed that much is: ‘How many will be willing to be vaccinated?’” said Christine Finley, director of Vermont’s immunisation programme. She noted the accelerated development of the vaccine and the politics around it have fueled worries about safety.
Even if the first vaccines prove as effective as suggested by early data, they won’t have much impact if enough people don’t take them.
No magic bullet
Vaccines aren’t always effective in everyone: Over the past decade, for example, seasonal flu vaccines have been effective in about 20 percent to 60 percent of people who get them.
AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna say early trial data suggests their vaccine candidates are about 90 percent or more effective. But those rates could change by the time the studies end.
Also, the definition of “effective” can vary.
Rather than prevent infection entirely, the first COVID-19 vaccines might only prevent illness. Vaccinated people might still be able to transmit the virus, another reason experts say masks will remain crucial for some time.
Another important aspect of vaccines: They can take awhile to work.
The first shot of a COVID-19 vaccine might bring about a degree of protection within a couple of weeks, meaning people who get infected might not get as sick as they otherwise would. But full protection could take up to two weeks after the second shot -- or about six weeks after the first shot, said Deborah Fuller, a vaccine expert at the University of Washington.
People who don’t understand that lag could mistakenly think the vaccine made them sick if they happen to come down with COVID-19 soon after a shot. People might also blame the vaccine for unrelated health problems and amplify those fears online.
“All you need is a few people getting on social media,” said Moss of Johns Hopkins University.
There’s also the possibility of real side effects. COVID-19 vaccine trials have to include at least 30,000 people, but the chances of a rare side effect turning up are more likely as growing numbers of people are vaccinated.
Even if a link between the vaccine and a possible side effect seems likely, distribution of shots might not be halted if the risk is deemed small and is outweighed by the benefits, said Dr Wilbur Chen, a vaccine expert at the University of Maryland.
But Chen said public health officials will need to clearly explain the relative risks to avoid public panic.
Depending on whether the virus mutates in coming years and how long the vaccine’s protection lasts, booster shots later on may also be necessary, said Dr Edward Belongia, a vaccine researcher with the Marshfield Clinic Research Institute in Wisconsin.
Belongia and many others say the coronavirus won’t ever be stamped out and will become one of the many seasonal viruses that sicken people. How quickly will vaccines help reduce the threat of the virus to that level?
“At this point, we just need to wait and see,” Belongia said.
As nurse Teri Wheat made her rounds at a Texas maternity ward, she began to realize she was having a hard time understanding the new mothers who were wearing masks due to the coronavirus pandemic.
So she got her hearing tested and now wears hearing aids.
Her hearing loss “became more noticeable the more barriers that we had to have,” said Wheat, 52, who wears a mask and a face shield at work to protect herself and others against the virus.
Hearing specialists across the U.S. say they have seen an uptick in visits from people like Wheat, who only realized how much they relied on lip reading and facial expressions when people started wearing masks that cover the nose and mouth.
“More than likely, these are people that had some kind of hearing loss prior to all this starting but they were adapting,” said Andrea Gohmert, director of the hearing clinic at the University of Texas at Dallas’ Callier Center for Communication Disorders.
Most of the time, hearing loss happens gradually and people will often wait around seven years to get their hearing tested, according to audiologists, the professionals who assess hearing.
“We would have seen these people eventually but it could have been quite a few years from now,” said Catherine Palmer, audiology director for the western Pennsylvania health care system UPMC.
Wheat, who had her hearing tested at the Callier Center in August, said that even before the pandemic, she frequently asked her kids to repeat what they said, and people pointed out how loud she listened to programs on her computer or television. But, she said, her hearing loss hadn't been obvious to her.
Audiologists say it's not just the lack of visual clues that's making hearing difficult: masks and plastic barriers also reduce the sound level. And standing closer to the person you are talking to — another coping mechanism — has also been eliminated in most settings because of recommendations to socially distance during the pandemic.
Palmer, who just finished a stint as president of the American Academy of Audiology, said people with normal hearing can manage if voices are muffled a bit, but those with some hearing loss have a much harder time.
Nancy Tye-Murray, a professor at Washington University in St. Louis, said the visual is a “powerful supplement” to hearing.
“Most people with hearing loss don’t realize they rely on it so much, and even people with normal hearing rely on it, say, when you are in a noisy restaurant,” Tye-Murray said.
Palmer said adults can usually fill in the blanks and find words they aren't hearing, but it's exhausting.
Lorie D’Elia, an audiologist with Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, said that once people are fitted with hearing aids they realize that "a lot of that effort of listening is taken away.”
Palmer said even people who already have hearing aids have been coming in during the pandemic to get them adjusted to manage the sound difference caused by the new barriers.
She said masks have created another problem for hearing aid wearers: They lose or damage their hearing aids when they get caught and flipped out by the ear loops.
Then there’s the dogs adopted during the pandemic chewing on or swallowing hearing aids, she said.
“Unfortunately, we’re replacing a lot of hearing aids right now as well,” Palmer said.
David Dinkins, who broke barriers as New York City’s first African-American mayor, but was doomed to a single term by a soaring murder rate, stubborn unemployment and his mishandling of a riot in Brooklyn, has died. He was 93.
Dinkins died Monday, the New York City Police Department confirmed. The department said officers were called to the former mayor’s home in the evening. Initial indications were that he died of natural causes.
Dinkins’ death came just weeks after the death of his wife, Joyce, who died in October at the age of 89.
Dinkins, a calm and courtly figure with a penchant for tennis and formal wear, was a dramatic shift from both his predecessor, Ed Koch, and his successor, Rudolph Giuliani — two combative and often abrasive politicians in a city with a world-class reputation for impatience and rudeness.
In his inaugural address, he spoke lovingly of New York as a “gorgeous mosaic of race and religious faith, of national origin and sexual orientation, of individuals whose families arrived yesterday and generations ago, coming through Ellis Island or Kennedy Airport or on buses bound for the Port Authority.”
But the city he inherited had an ugly side, too.
AIDS, guns and crack cocaine killed thousands of people each year. Unemployment soared. Homelessness was rampant. The city faced a $1.5 billion budget deficit.
Dinkins’ low-key, considered approach quickly came to be perceived as a flaw. Critics said he was too soft and too slow.
“Dave, Do Something!” screamed one New York Post headline in 1990, Dinkins’ first year in office.
Dinkins did a lot at City Hall. He raised taxes to hire thousands of police officers. He spent billions of dollars revitalizing neglected housing. His administration got the Walt Disney Corp. to invest in the cleanup of then-seedy Times Square.
In recent years, he’s gotten more credit for those accomplishments, credit that Mayor Bill de Blasio said he should have always had. De Blasio, who worked in Dinkins’ administration, named Manhattan’s Municipal Building after the former mayor in October 2015.
“The example Mayor David Dinkins set for all of us shines brighter than the most powerful lighthouse imaginable,” said New York Attorney General Letitia James, who herself shattered barriers as the state’s first Black woman elected to statewide office.
“I was honored to have him hold the bible at my inaugurations because I, and others, stand on his shoulders,” she said.
Results from his accomplishments, however, didn’t come fast enough to earn Dinkins a second term.
After beating Giuliani by only 47,000 votes out of 1.75 million cast in 1989, Dinkins lost a rematch by roughly the same margin in 1993.
Political historians often trace the defeat to Dinkins’ handling of the Crown Heights riot in Brooklyn in 1991.
The violence began after a black 7-year-old boy was accidentally killed by a car in the motorcade of an Orthodox Jewish religious leader. During the three days of anti-Jewish rioting by young black men that followed, a rabbinical student was fatally stabbed. Nearly 190 people were hurt.
A state report issued in 1993, an election year, cleared Dinkins of the persistently repeated charge that he intentionally held back police in the first days of the violence, but criticized him for not stepping up as a leader.
In a 2013 memoir, Dinkins accused the police department of letting the disturbance get out of hand, and also took a share of the blame, on the grounds that “the buck stopped with me.” But he bitterly blamed his election defeat on prejudice: “I think it was just racism, pure and simple.”
Born in Trenton, New Jersey, on July 10, 1927, Dinkins moved with his mother to Harlem when his parents divorced, but returned to his hometown to attend high school. There, he learned an early lesson in discrimination: Blacks were not allowed to use the school swimming pool.
During a hitch in the Marine Corps as a young man, a Southern bus driver barred him from boarding a segregated bus because the section for blacks was filled.
“And I was in my country’s uniform!” Dinkins recounted years later.
While attending Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., Dinkins said he gained admission to segregated movie theaters by wearing a turban and faking a foreign accent.
Back in New York with a degree in mathematics, Dinkins married his college sweetheart, Joyce Burrows, in 1953. His father-in-law, a power in local Democratic politics, channeled Dinkins into a Harlem political club. Dinkins paid his dues as a Democratic functionary while earning a law degree from Brooklyn Law School, and then went into private practice.
He got elected to the state Assembly in 1965, became the first black president of the city’s Board of Elections in 1972 and went on to serve as Manhattan borough president.
Dinkins’ election as mayor in 1989 came after two racially charged cases that took place under Koch: the rape of a white jogger in Central Park and the bias murder of a black teenager in Bensonhurst.
Dinkins defeated Koch, 50 percent to 42 percent, in the Democratic primary. But in a city where party registration was 5-to-1 Democratic, Dinkins barely scraped by the Republican Giuliani in the general election, capturing only 30 percent of the white vote.
His administration had one early high note: Newly freed Nelson Mandela made New York City his first stop in the U.S. in 1990. Dinkins had been a longtime, outspoken critic of apartheid in South Africa.
In that same year, though, Dinkins was criticized for his handling of a black-led boycott of Korean-operated grocery stores in Brooklyn. Critics contended Dinkins waited too long to intervene. He ultimately ended up crossing the boycott line to shop at the stores — but only after Koch did.
During Dinkins’ tenure, the city’s finances were in rough shape because of a recession that cost New York 357,000 private-sector jobs in his first three years in office.
Meanwhile, the city’s murder toll soared to an all-time high, with a record 2,245 homicides during his first year as mayor. There were 8,340 New Yorkers killed during the Dinkins administration — the bloodiest four-year stretch since the New York Police Department began keeping statistics in 1963.
In the last years of his administration, record-high homicides began a decline that continued for decades. In the first year of the Giuliani administration, murders fell from 1,946 to 1,561.
One of Dinkins’ last acts in 1993 was to sign an agreement with the United States Tennis Association that gave the organization a 99-year lease on city land in Queens in return for building a tennis complex. That deal guaranteed that the U.S. Open would remain in New York City for decades.
After leaving office, Dinkins was a professor at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs.
He had a pacemaker inserted in August 2008, and underwent an emergency appendectomy in October 2007. He also was hospitalized in March 1992 for a bacterial infection that stemmed from an abscess on the wall of his large intestine. He was treated with antibiotics and recovered in a week.
Dinkins is survived by his son, David Jr., daughter, Donna and two grandchildren.