Forty Days of Biden: Not so Centrist, Not so Competent

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On the menu today: We’re past the 40-day mark of the Biden presidency, and already some things are clear. First, as many of us warned, Biden really isn’t much of a “centrist,” despite what much of the media claimed throughout 2019 and 2020. Second, he and his team are not exactly the wise, experienced, old Washington hands that they like to think of themselves as — remember that passing a COVID-relief bill was supposed to be the easy part of their agenda. Finally, Biden isn’t exactly moving with great speed to fill up the lower ranks of the executive branch.

Team Biden: Farther to the Left, and Less Competent, Than Promised

Six weeks into the Biden administration, the bad news is that Joe Biden and his team are way farther to the left than the candidate promised on the campaign trail in 2020. But this is somewhat offset by the fact that he and his team are much less competent than promised.

Let’s just quickly review impeachment, which ended two weeks ago and already feels as if it’s ancient history. The Biden team didn’t really want the Senate to take the time to deal with a doomed effort, but also didn’t want to take the heat that publicly discouraging the Senate from holding a trial would bring. The trial went forward, it didn’t eat up a ton of the Senate’s time, and in the end, not much changed; Trump got his “acquitted again” headline. Maybe holding the Senate trial exacerbated the infighting in the GOP a bit, but a lot of that infighting was baked in the cake already.

Biden’s impending signature legislative accomplishment — a massive COVID-relief package — is likely to come to fruition, but in a way that leaves few factions all that satisfied. Ten Senate Republicans came to Biden with a smaller bill that would have gotten significant bipartisan support, but the president and his team turned them down. It’s now doubtful that the bill that ultimately passes will get any Republican support in either chamber. The relief bill will need to be passed through reconciliation, requiring just 50 votes. But raising the minimum wage nationally to $15 per hour can’t be included in a budget bill passed through reconciliation, and the final version is likely to include other compromises as well. West Virginia senator Joe Manchin is pushing to reduce the $350 billion in aid to state and local governments — and as we’ve seen, in a 50–50 Senate, what Manchin wants, Manchin usually gets.

Twelve years ago, the newly elected President Obama signed his stimulus into law on February 17, 2009. We haven’t even gotten to the conference committee for differing House and Senate versions of the COVID-relief bill yet, although Democrats seem confident they can get a bill to Biden’s desk by March 14, when certain jobless benefits expire.

But keep in mind, this relief bill was supposed to be the easy and bipartisan part of the Biden agenda. On paper, everybody in Congress wants to do something to help the economy, and almost everybody on Capitol Hill likes spending money. If it’s proving slow and difficult to pass even a watered-down version of Democrats’ original vision for this package, just imagine what, say, immigration reform will look like.

Biden’s senior adviser, Cedric Richmond, says the White House is “going to start acting now” on reparations. A White House that can’t build a working consensus on spending money when Democrats narrowly control both houses of Congress is not going to build a consensus for much more sweeping and controversial proposals.

On foreign policy, Biden proudly announced that “America is back!” but what that means in practice is that our president doesn’t tweet angrily about allied leaders anymore.

Biden’s attempt to finesse Saudi policy, backtracking on his campaign promises, is landing with a thud. He wanted to restart the Iran deal, but the Iranians are, for now, rejecting it. A recent headline from the European edition of Politico reads: “Europe gives Biden a one-finger salute,” pointing to the EU’s expansion of investment in China and its decision to move full speed ahead with the Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia, as well as the soft-to-nonexistent European response to the Kremlin’s arrest of opposition politician Alexei Navalny.

Allied leaders might be glad that Biden isn’t Trump, but that doesn’t mean they’re necessarily more likely to cooperate with this administration.

When the complete history of the Biden administration is written, the nomination of Neera Tanden to be director of the Office of Management and Budget will be a minor detail. If her nomination fails, the White House will just find a like-minded nominee who doesn’t have Tanden’s personal HR issues. And the Senate’s confirmation of Biden’s cabinet is moving slowly but largely smoothly, with eleven of 23 cabinet officials confirmed so far.

But a fairer question, more than 40 days into Biden’s administration, is whether Biden and his team are moving fast enough to fill out all of those lesser-known administration positions. For example, Biden hasn’t nominated a director of the Food and Drug Administration yet, which seems a little odd, considering how central the FDA is to the approval of vaccines and treatments for COVID-19 right now and in the coming year.

There are about 1,250 positions in the executive branch that require Senate confirmation; Biden has picked 58 nominees so far. Almost no positions below secretary have been filled in any department or agency. There are a few holdovers from the Trump administration here and there.

Donald Trump was astonishingly lax when it came to staffing the executive branch; in September 2020, nearly four years into his presidency, the White House had not nominated anyone to 135 of 757 key positions requiring Senate confirmation. Yes, Biden has been in office for six weeks, but he won the election four months ago. And we know the Senate-confirmation process doesn’t move quickly, so if Biden wants his own people in there, he needs to formally submit their nominations to the Senate sooner rather than later.

Yes, you can argue that Biden will be more comfortable with the acting directors and career bureaucrats than Trump was, to which I’d reply that presidents should and do tend to prefer to have their own guys in there, enacting their vision. Then again, maybe there isn’t much to the Biden vision beyond a reversion to the Obama-era status quo.

Homeland Security secretary Alejandro Mayorkas claims he’s trying to deal with the “dismantlement of the system and the time that it takes to rebuild it virtually from scratch.” Meanwhile, the Biden administration hasn’t yet nominated anyone to be Mayorkas’ deputy secretary, nor named a nominee for director of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commissioner of U.S. Customs and Border Protection, or director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.

This pandemic-centered administration hasn’t named anyone to be the Pentagon’s assistant secretary of health affairs or the Department of Veterans Affairs’ undersecretary for health. It has named nominees for just four of the top 18 spots in the Department of Health and Human Services.

Biden has not yet nominated a solicitor general, a director of the Census Bureau (at a time when the pandemic has delayed the bureau’s work), a director of the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, a director of the National Counterterrorism Center, an NASA Administrator, a DEA administrator, an ATF director, a U.S. Marshals director, a director of White House Office of Drug Control Policy, a director of the National Park Service, a director of the Bureau of Land Management, a chairman of the International Trade Commission, a president and chairman of the Export-Import Bank, a chairman of the Federal Trade Commission, an administrator at the General Services Administration, a U.S. executive director of the International Monetary Fund, a director of the Peace Corps, or chairs of the National Endowment of the Arts and National Endowment for the Humanities.

Biden has not nominated a director of the Office of Government Ethics; please save all your jokes to the end.

The Biden administration hasn’t nominated anyone to be an ambassador to another country yet. In most cases, that’s fine, and the U.S. can function adequately with Trump holdovers or deputy chiefs of mission. But certain roles — such as the ambassadors to China and Russia — do carry some pretty important foreign-policy duties. Biden’s got to make some big choices on Afghanistan soon, but he doesn’t even have a named nominee to fill that ambassadorial post yet.

There are vacancies on the board of governors of the Federal Reserve, the Federal Communications Commission, the National Labor Relations Board, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the Farm Credit Administration, the National Mediation Board, and the Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board.

All of these unfilled vacancies aren’t a crisis, but it is already March. Nominating somebody is the part of the confirmation process that the White House controls; you can’t blame the Senate for moving slowly on a nominee that isn’t named.

Then again, maybe Joe Biden looks out the window of the White House every morning and feels pretty good. Lots of people thought he would never get here. The vaccination effort appears to be on pace again. He can get a lot of credit for just releasing a two-minute video that supports the unionization of workers at Amazon without actually saying the name of the company.

When a presidential candidate defines his mission in vague, intangible terms such as fighting “a battle for the soul of America,” it frees him from the burden of achieving specific, tangible goals such as passing certain legislation or achieving certain diplomatic breakthroughs. Throughout 2020, I wrote that Biden was running on the not-so-unspoken pledge to simply not be Donald Trump. Well, mission accomplished.