'People Are Just Relieved': Career Feds Express Optimism as Biden Officials Take Charge at Agencies
Employees are hopeful they will have better relationships with political appointees than existed under Trump.
As Biden officials quickly find their way into agencies across government, many rank-and-file career federal employees are breathing a sigh of relief.
While a significant contingent of the federal workforce supported President Trump, those on the frontlines have expressed an exhaustion from the often adversarial relationship they had with officials from the former administration. Largely leaving aside policy issues, employees who spoke to Government Executive expressed a sense of optimism the Biden administration will create a friendlier work environment and allow them to carry out their duties with less interference.
John Sandweg, a former Homeland Security Department official in the Obama administration, said his former colleagues still in government told him there is a hopeful atmosphere as Trump officials made way for their Biden replacements.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Sandweg. “There is a very palpable sense of excitement that [DHS Secretary-designate Alejandro] Mayorkas is coming back. It’s not tied to policy or politics. It’s a management and leadership issue.”
One senior DHS employee, who, like most of those Government Executive interviewed requested anonymity to speak openly, said his colleagues are more cautious than celebratory as they wait to see if Biden’s team will make all the necessary policy and personnel changes. At the very least, the employee said, there is hope that Biden will fill long-vacant positions.
There is a sense “that a new administration is going to listen to science and the experts on COVID, trust the process, provide transparency, and take action,” the employee said, adding Biden will have to prove the new boss is not the same as the old boss. “If draining the swamp was the motto of the previous administration, this new administration needs to flush out the sewer.”
On Wednesday evening, Biden held a virtual swearing in ceremony for hundreds of political appointees not requiring Senate confirmation who have now deployed across government. The president issued a warning to those officials, placing a marker on how they must treat their colleagues and career federal employees. He also took a shot at the dynamics of those relationships under President Trump.
“I'm not joking when I say this: if you're ever working with me and I hear you treat another with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot. On the spot,” Biden said. “No ifs, ands or buts. Everybody is entitled to be treated with decency and with dignity. That’s been missing in a big way the last four years.”
Biden repeatedly praised civil servants during his campaign and did so again on his first day in office, saying employees across government are “dedicated to serving the American people, not a political party or agenda.” This has employees hopeful his administration will be more attuned to their concerns and grievances, and forge better relationships with their representatives. A front-line Veterans Affairs Department employee said Trump “empowered leaders to behave irresponsibly and ignore laws.”
“People are just relieved,” the employee said, adding her colleagues were “disgusted” by Trump’s behavior and how it “spilled over” to his appointees. Employees are hoping for a “cultural change” at VA, but also “that it comes with a practical change.” Top of mind, the worker said, is the COVID-19 response and an expectation that Biden will find more success in confronting the pandemic and distributing vaccines.
A Justice Department employee said his colleagues have yet to process all the details of what the new administration will bring, but “right now the biggest thing is everyone is excited for a new administration.” They expect Biden to be pro-employee, he said, and for Vice President Kamala Harris to serve as a liaison to the federal workforce.
“I’m ready for the attacks to stop at work,” the employee said of his adversarial relationship with Trump officials. Every interaction with those appointees required him to “fight and crawl up the hill,” the Justice employee said, but he is hopeful his team can “build that partnership that was lost.” He added, “There is a lot of excitement in the air.”
Agencies across government began to swear in dozens of appointees on Wednesday, with formal announcements for their new leadership. Biden officials at agencies have already gotten to work implementing pieces of the president’s agenda. At the Homeland Security Department, for example, David Pekoske, tapped to serve as acting secretary, issued a memorandum to pause deportations for 100 days and otherwise redirect employee focus away from strict interior enforcement. The Interior Department similarly issued a memo freezing leases of federal lands for 60 days, as well as hiring and promotions for positions at the GS-13 level and above. The Education Department noted on Tuesday it continued a pause on federal student loan payments “at the request of President Biden.”
One agency facing an immediate and stark reversal as soon as Biden took office is the Environmental Protection Agency, which was quickly tasked with reviewing dozens of Trump-era regulations and actions. One EPA employee said that has created an expectation they will see the agency led in a new direction.
“It is a relief to see the Trump folks go,” the employee said. “They were weak on enforcement and undermined the agency mission from Day 1.”
Sandweg, the former Obama DHS official, emphasized the mood from his former colleagues is less connected to any one policy issue and more a matter of, “How good is your boss?”
“They couldn’t stand the Trump appointees,” he said.