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Biden team works on transition plans, sketches out a White House

Key health care role likely for Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general under President Obama
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, speaks in Wilmington on Thursday, November 5, 2020.
Joe Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, speaks in Wilmington on Thursday, November 5, 2020.
Erin Schaff/The New York Times

Shane Goldmacher   |   Washington   |   Published 07.11.20, 10:29 AM

Joe Biden’s advisers accelerated their transition planning Friday as election results showed him with an advantage in battleground states that could hand him the presidency, with the first senior officials in a potential Biden White House possibly named as early as next week.

In Wilmington, Delaware, and Washington, Biden’s advisers and allies are ramping up their conversations about who might fill critical posts, both in the West Wing and across the agencies, guided heavily by Biden’s plan to assemble what would be the most diverse Cabinet in history.


The behind-the-scenes activity underscored that even as Biden publicly offered a disciplined message about counting every vote and refrained from claiming victory, he was already mapping out a quick start in office as the nation faces a worsening pandemic and a damaged economy.

Biden, who ran from Day 1 on a message of bringing the country together, is said to be interested in making a bipartisan gesture as he plans a prospective government after a divisive election whose results President Donald Trump has tried to undermine. Biden is looking to fill out his possible White House staff first, with Cabinet posts not expected to be announced until around Thanksgiving, according to more than a half-dozen people familiar with the planning process who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the transition.

Biden’s team quietly began raising money for his transition operation in May and has raised at least $7 million to pay for its efforts. The Biden camp has prepared for multiple scenarios in case Trump refused to concede and his administration would not participate in a transition.

So far, officials in Trump’s government have worked in good faith, according to Biden officials, who said they hoped and expected that cooperation to continue.

As coronavirus infections hit new highs, Biden’s aides are planning for the first critical transition decisions to focus on health care and addressing the pandemic, the central theme of his campaign in the final months. They have assembled an internal group of roughly two dozen health policy and technology experts to look at the development and delivery of a vaccine, improving health data and securing supply chains, among other issues.

Among those expected to play a key health care role in a Biden administration is Vivek Murthy, a former surgeon general under President Barack Obama, who has privately advised Biden for months on the pandemic and is expected to play a large public role as a face of the potential Democratic administration’s response to the virus, dispensing advice on mask-wearing and social distancing.

Transition officials are also looking at what types of economic actions could be taken almost immediately, including rolling back some of Trump’s executive orders, part of a tradition in which new presidents move quickly to change or reverse regulations across federal agencies.

Biden, 77, has told associates that he considers his two terms as vice president and his knowledge of how a White House operates from the inside as crucial advantages in building out a government. And he has made it plain in public and private that a diverse team is central to his mission.

“Men, women, gay, straight, center, across the board, Black, white, Asian,” Biden said this spring when talking about his prospective Cabinet. “It really matters that you look like the country, because everyone brings a slightly different perspective.”

If Biden wins, he is expected to initially focus on filling top posts at the White House, including chief of staff, the most powerful single staff position. Ron Klain, his former chief of staff as vice president, who served as the White House Ebola response coordinator under Obama, is seen to have the inside track for that job, though others are still reportedly under serious consideration.

At the center of Biden’s transition planning is Ted Kaufman, his former chief of staff in the Senate, who was appointed to replace Biden as a senator after he became vice president, as well as Jeff Zients, a former Obama administration official.

Like Biden, Kaufman is seen as an institutionalist, and he wrote the law devoting additional government resources to transition teams. Yohannes Abraham, who worked in the Obama White House as a top aide to Valerie Jarrett and the National Economic Council, is overseeing the day-to-day operation.

Given his decades-long career in Washington, Biden has numerous relationships from his time in the Senate and the White House with people across various policy areas. That history also means that his transition team has faced a crush of outside advice and former Biden associates jockeying for jobs and influence.

Parts of the cast that had Biden’s ear throughout the presidential campaign — Anita Dunn, a senior adviser; Steve Ricchetti, another former vice-presidential chief of staff; and Klain — are among those guiding the formation of a would-be government. Sen. Kamala Harris of California, his running mate, is generating names and speaks regularly to Biden. In Biden’s policy orbit on the campaign, Jake Sullivan and Antony J. Blinken are widely seen as the most influential figures, and both are expected to hold senior posts in a potential administration.

Where they land is considered one of the early decisions that would help determine other appointments. Sullivan, a former adviser to Hillary Clinton, is lined up for one of a number of posts, while Blinken, who served as national security adviser to the vice president, is considered the leading candidate for national security adviser.

Some of the most powerful Cabinet positions in a possible Biden administration already have perceived front-runners.

The top candidate to lead the Defense Department is Michèle Flournoy, a former undersecretary of defense for policy who worked with Biden officials during the campaign. She would be the first woman ever to be appointed to the job.

Lael Brainard, who sits on the Federal Reserve’s board of governors and served in the Treasury Department under Obama, is the most talked-about candidate to run the department, especially if the Senate is controlled by Republicans, which would make it harder to confirm a more progressive choice like Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.

Leaders of the Biden transition are aware that many civil servants throughout the federal bureaucracy have become demoralized and have felt marginalized during the Trump administration. In a small gesture, they are calling their potential first arrivals at agencies “agency review teams,” as opposed to what the Trump operation called “landing teams” in 2016.

Already hanging over the discussions are the midterm elections, in 2022, which have traditionally been a struggle for whichever party holds the White House and which could be especially complicated for Democrats during an era of increasingly common progressive primary challenges.

Additional reporting by Genn Thrush and Michael D. Shear

New York Times News Service

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