The Rival: Rebuilding the Bureaucracy
If Joe Biden is elected president, he promises to reverse the “hollowing out” of federal agencies and elevate the role of experts and scientists.
Joe Biden had a clear message for his aides: “You tell us what it is and we’ll deal with it.”
It was 2009, and the then-vice president was adamant that bureaucratic negligence would not stand in the way of agencies quickly distributing the roughly $800 billion Congress had allocated in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help Americans rebound from the Great Recession. From the start, officials were told to take any problems to Biden’s office.
“You told him where the problems were and he then, where he could, set out a way to fix them,” said Ed DeSeve, a former special adviser in the Obama White House who, along with Biden, led the charge in implementing the law aimed at breathing new life into the moribund economy.
Facing the worst economic crisis in the United States since the Great Depression, Biden had little room for error in delivering Recovery Act funds. His approach set the tone for his role as vice president, reflected the experience and relationships of his decades-long career in the Senate and created an example of how he would manage the executive branch as president. The stimulus package itself was criticized—that it was too large (or too small), was too slow to fund supposedly “shovel-ready” projects, invested in wasteful ventures or failed to deliver an adequate return on investment—but it is generally agreed it was administered successfully.
To supporters of the Obama administration, and even some detractors, Joe Biden is responsible for that success.
In a series of interviews, former aides, colleagues and observers of the Democratic nominee for president said that success was no coincidence. They describe a man who fundamentally is a problem solver who solicits and listens to advice, maintains a loyal following of staff while tapping into networks he has spent years putting together and demands accountability. What’s more, he respects subject matter experts, including civil servants, who he has promised to listen to and empower if elected president.
Whereas many voters, both in 2016 and now, are drawn to President Trump for his outsider perspective—his willingness to say things that make most politicians recoil and to engage in issues previously thought beneath the office of the presidency—Biden represents a striking alternative. As a lifelong politician, he would enter the Oval Office with vast experience in government and a deep understanding of its innerworkings. He, too, has a propensity to say the wrong thing at the wrong time (“He knows he talks too much, but that’s part of his appeal,” said Jules Witcover, author of Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption), and his experience has not always guided him in the right direction, supporting several policies over his long career that he has since called mistakes. He would enter the presidency, however, with a greater depth of understanding of what the job entails than most of his recent predecessors.
“There are very few people who understand government better than Joe Biden,” said Chris Lu, who served as White House Cabinet secretary during the Obama administration before becoming deputy Labor secretary in the second term. “When you served in the U.S. Senate and have been in D.C. as long as he has, you understand the roles that federal agencies play.”
Biden has repeatedly promised to empower federal employees, whose advice former aides said the former senator and vice president often solicited. Coming off four years of Trump chastising them for belonging to the “Deep State,” a Biden presidency would mark a dramatic reversal—in rhetoric and likely in substance—for federal agencies.
When then-President Obama tasked Biden with overseeing the implementation of the Recovery Act, the vice president quickly began convening meetings to stress his priorities. He set clear goals: Get the money out the door quickly; invest in programs and projects with a high return on investment for taxpayers; and ensure transparency and oversight. While the passage and oversight of stimulus funds was highly politicized, Biden tried to minimize the politics, said Danny Werfel, who served as the Office of Management and Budget’s primary representative on the stimulus task force led by Biden. Instead, he stressed the need to deliver on the goals.
Biden “understands when he’s motivating a set of government employees towards a goal he knows the right way to set up the objective is not through a political lens but through a substantive and mission lens,” Werfel said, “and I think that’s very powerful.”
Those who worked with him during the Recovery Act implementation did not describe Biden as a micromanager, saying he used his regularly convened meetings to request broad updates and offer what help he could. Every former official said Biden was “hands on” throughout the process, noting he showed up to every meeting, asked questions and took notes.
“It was not something Vice President Biden took lightly at all,” said Ray LaHood, the Republican congressman who served as Obama’s first secretary of Transportation and was heavily involved in disbursing federal stimulus dollars. “The nature of his questions were, ‘What are you doing? What programs are being implemented? How’s it impacting and what can I do to be helpful?’”
Biden particularly intervened when he saw or heard about bureaucratic dams blocking the otherwise steady flow of cash, frequently calling mayors, governors or other administration officials to remove barriers.
“If there’s a roadblock to getting money out the door because someone at OMB is holding it up, some governor is on the fence about doing it, you call me,” Lu recalled Biden telling him.
Officials credited Biden with creating intergovernmental networks that eased the process of moving funds quickly, leaning on both relationships he had spent decades developing and the power of his office.
“He was key to the networks,” said DeSeve, who previously worked at OMB and in other roles during the Clinton administration. “If he wouldn’t have told those folks to respond and do what we needed to do, we would’ve been simply out of luck.”
Lu described Biden’s leadership implementing the Recovery Act as “diplomacy,” frequently discussing with governors and mayors projects in their jurisdictions and the problems that afflicted them. Biden once fielded a call from a senator so angry about a project in the lawmaker’s home state that the vice president gave DeSeve 24 hours to solve it. Due to the relationships Biden had helped his team establish, DeSeve said, he was able to quickly address the issue—rearranging the schedule for new road construction so it did not interfere with another stimulus project to clean up a Superfund site in the same area—and the senator praised Biden from the Senate floor the next day.
The dollars did not always get out the door flawlessly. “We had done stupid things along the way,” DeSeve recalled. Out of the gate, the program garnered negative headlines for providing half a billion dollars to solar energy company Solyndra, which had lied to the Energy Department on its application and subsequently went bankrupt. On the whole, however, Energy’s loans generated a profit for taxpayers, and auditors found few instances of fraud or waste stemming from the Recovery Act.
Listener in Chief
Moe Vela, who served as Vice President Biden’s director of administration, said his boss had an inherent curiosity about things. He recalled, as the top Latino on staff, organizing an event for Cinco de Mayo, and Biden pulling him aside to go over the significance of the holiday.
“He’s a quick study,” Vela said. “He listens. He solicits information and data and details and he wants as much information as possible in order to make the best decision possible.” Biden wants to be “fully briefed,” Vela added, and is “very willing to listen and learn from experts.”
LaHood recalled that Biden always demanded a memorandum describing each stimulus project in which he took an active role, and studied up before he called governors or agency leaders to intervene.
“He was not somebody who operated off the top of his head,” LaHood said.
Such an approach could serve Biden well as he would immediately face the crisis of an ongoing pandemic that has claimed nearly 200,000 American lives. The Democratic nominee has said his first call as president would be to Dr. Anthony Fauci, head of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, asking him to remain in his role and provide advice on confronting the novel coronavirus outbreak. Biden promised to “fully staff all federal agencies, task forces, and scientific and economic advisory groups focused on health security” to combat the coronavirus, and has suggested the federal government would help state and local governments hire tens of thousands of employees to work as contact tracers.
“As president, I will provide agencies with the funding they need, respect the independence and rely on the expertise of career civil servants, and highlight their work as crucial to our government’s functioning,” Biden said in a letter earlier this year to Rep. Jennifer Wexton, D-Va., adding he would treat federal workers with “the utmost dignity and respect.” It was an explicit repudiation of the current president’s approach to leading the executive branch.
In a task force report drafted by representatives of the campaigns of Biden and Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., the group recommended the next president protect the “independence and intellectual freedom of scientists, whether they are employed by the federal government or receiving federal grants in support of their research.”
Elizabeth Sherwood-Randall, who served as chief foreign and defense policy adviser to then-Sen. Biden in the 1980s and later worked closely with him in multiple roles as a White House aide before becoming deputy secretary at Energy in 2014, said Biden always insisted on a “rigorous” and “unsentimental” discussion of issues.
“He seeks out extremely well-trained, creative, and diverse minds and he listens to them,” Sherwood-Randall said. “He consistently demonstrates a determination to avoid the pitfalls of groupthink and resists conventional wisdom unless it can be proven on its substantive merits.”
DeSeve said Biden could be faulted for maintaining an “old-school” management style that was overly hierarchical, but he and other former officials noted Biden’s propensity to solicit advice and demand answers from all levels. The vice president was able to navigate bureaucratic mazes, particularly those related to his experience chairing the Senate committees on Foreign Affairs and the Judiciary, which has allowed him to interact directly with those who could provide answers.
“If you looked at the way he could interact with the State Department organizationally, he knew what the deputy assistant secretary of yada yada yada did,” DeSeve said, adding, “He didn’t know everything, but when he didn’t know something, he knew who to call and who to talk to about it [to] get the best advice along the way.”
Witcover, the Biden biographer, noted the long-time public servant developed a tendency to listen to anyone who sought his counsel early on in his political career, with his now well-known habit of giving away his personal phone number to constituents and voters.
In meetings, Werfel said, Biden was just as likely to call on a career staffer as he was a Cabinet secretary.
“Sometimes it was the secretary of the agency, sometimes it was a plus one who happened to be there,” Werfel explained. “It didn’t matter who the agency representative was in terms of how he ran the meetings. He would address anyone.”
Reengaging the Workforce
“Dedicated public servants are the lifeblood of democracy,” Biden said in a speech to a group of them last year. “It doesn’t function without them.”
President Trump has spent the last four years suggesting the federal government was bloated, full of unnecessary bureaucrats either actively seeking to undermine him or holding back otherwise unrestrained American enterprise. He has attacked and threatened individual employees by name, overseeing large scale attrition at certain agencies and relocating entire offices, defending his actions as necessary in the course of draining the swamp.
Biden has said he will seek to unwind all of that.
“By hollowing out the ranks of federal agencies and using employees as scapegoats for problems in the government, this administration has demonstrated a level of cynicism that undermines who we are as a people and what we strive to accomplish,” he said in his letter to Wexton.
Biden has specifically promised hiring sprees at a variety of agencies, including a “thorough assessment of staffing needs” at the Veterans Affairs Department, a “surge” in asylum officers at U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, a doubling of the number of immigration judges and associated staff in the Justice Department and an uptick in the number of investigators at the Labor Department.
It is vital for any political leader in government to “recognize that civil servants are apolitical, that they’re serving a mission, and that they are going to help you achieve your goal as long as that goal is advancing the mission,” said Werfel, who served in the Clinton, George W. Bush and Obama administrations, including a stint as Internal Revenue Service commissioner. “Not every political person has that understanding,” he added, noting some in every administration in which he has worked have viewed federal workers as “a threat” and tried “to make decisions without them in the room.” Biden, however, “understands the value of civil servants.”
Vela said Biden’s time in government had taught him the talent and dedication of the career federal workforce.
In Biden, he said, they would have a president “who celebrates them, who affirms them, who recognizes them, who sees them because he’s been in public service for 40 years.”
Biden’s Republican opponents have questioned his ethics in connection to his son’s ties to foreign companies, but Biden himself has promised a series of ethics reforms and “good government” pledges such as strengthening whistleblower protections, further empowering inspectors general and an executive order prohibiting the White House from interfering with federal agencies’ contracting decisions. While the Obama administration drew the ire of federal employee advocates after it signed off on three straight pay freezes followed by historically small salary bumps, Biden has promised “consistent and regular pay raises.” The Obama administration sometimes clashed with federal employee unions, but Biden—known generally as a friend to the labor movement—vowed to reverse executive orders Trump signed to curtail their power and said he would direct federal agencies to bargain over non-mandatory subjects.
“The federal government should serve as a role model for employers to treat their workers fairly,” Biden said in a pledge on his website.
The Obama administration ushered in a new era of private health care for veterans through the 2014 Veterans Access, Choice and Accountability Act, though Biden criticized Trump’s policies to “privatize and dismantle” VA. Still, he pledged to “rethink and reinvent” the department, including the “right balance” of VA and community care. He promised to end the federal government’s use of private prisons and detention centers and bring unprecedented oversight to hold federal immigration agents and officers accountable.
Biden frequently visited federal agencies as vice president, something Lu recalled as a morale-boosting effort. Biden’s mere presence in the Oval Office would “get people reengaged in government again,” Lu said.
Loyalty and Accountability
Biden has throughout his career maintained a loyal group of confidantes to advise him. The current president too has leaned on a tight inner circle throughout his first term, though the Trump administration beyond that group of West Wing advisers has seen unprecedented turnover. Former officials predicted that would be unlikely in a Biden administration.
“His ability to bring forward this emotion of loyalty and willingness to serve is a tremendous, tremendous benefit,” DeSeve said.
Those who have worked with him said Biden had an eye for talent, upon which Obama would frequently rely for personnel decisions.
“He attracts very talented people to his core team that are extremely loyal to him and are highly effective at what they do,” said Werfel, the long-time public servant. Now in the private sector, he added that Biden had a “deft touch” to hold those he worked with accountable, and always focused on demonstrable metrics for success.
After most of the stimulus funds had been distributed, Obama again tapped Biden to lead a “Campaign to Cut Waste.” Lu, looking back on the federal spending prior and subsequent to that campaign, said it “felt like we were looking for spare change in the couch.” Still, Biden took it seriously—at least initially, as there is some debate over how effectively the initiative actually identified and reduced waste—again launching meetings with Cabinet officials and offering lessons from the Recovery Act.
“Guess what? We learned that all of you, all the Cabinet secretaries, unless you’re engaged, I’m engaged, we are each specifically held responsible, it just doesn’t get done,” he said.
Obama, when he tasked Biden with overseeing stimulus funds, called the vice president “Sheriff Joe.” To those who knew him, however, the moniker was an awkward one.
“He wasn’t banging his fist on the table,” Werfel said, but instead engaging with stakeholders to earn their trust.
“He doesn’t yell at people,” Lu explained. “He doesn’t scold people.” Instead, he said, Biden “knows how to motivate people, he understands how to get the best out of people.”
Biden would enter the White House with a pandemic that in early September was killing more than 1,000 people per day in the United States, an economic crisis that has created unprecedented unemployment, nationwide civil unrest sparked by multiple police killings of unarmed Black people, and the existential threat of climate change. If elected president, Biden will finally have the chance to demonstrate whether the loyalty he cultivated over decades, his faith in the civil service and his experience are enough for him to effectively address these challenges.