Op-Ed: On Inauguration Day, Joe Biden's Superb Staff Picks Portend a Return to Competence and Trust
Updated: Jan 20
By Laura Capps
For an insomnia-prone person like me, the past four years have carried countless hours of tossing and turning each night – from a savage pandemic, an economy in peril and students struggling to learn at home, to rising national poverty and hunger, an attempted coup by those who threaten more violence and a climate crisis that rages on.
But as of Wednesday, January 20, 2021, there is one thing that none of us have to worry about, regardless of political affiliation: the Biden-Harris Administration knows what it is doing. If the Obama White House was dubbed “No-Drama Obama,” and the Trump White House had too many adjectives invoking chaos and corruption to list, my prediction is that --
because of its first-rate, battle-tested staff -- the Biden White House will be recognized as “Joe Knows.”
Contrary to Donald Trump’s bizarre approach to the job, being president of the United States is not a one-man enterprise of performative politics with policies and critical pronouncements spun off haphazardly on the basis of personal resentment, cynical calculation or the latest rant on Fox News.
The President is a delegator-in-chief, who makes his goals, values and aspirations clear, explicit and transparent – while empowering and taking in ideas, policies and plans for implementation from competent staff with specific expertise often greater than his own.
Biden and Harris have cherry-picked the best of the best from decades of Clinton, Obama and Biden-era talent. Three key examples:
Ron Klain, the incoming White House Chief of Staff. Over the past three decades, Klain has held senior positions in all three branches of government, serving as a chief of staff multiple times.
I worked with Klain in the Clinton White House when he was chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore, after having been chief of staff to Attorney General Janet Reno and prior to serving as chief of staff to then-Vice President Biden.
In political operations, the chief of staff is the ultimate utility player, in charge of all major decisions and ensuring that all parts of the engine function, while simultaneously serving as confidant/absorber of stress to the elected official, aka ‘the principal."
Klain also clerked forJustice Byron R. White on the Supreme Court and served as chief counsel to the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Been there, done that” is a phrase Klain could reliably say. Case in point: in 2014 as Ebola emerged as the then biggest global health threat, Obama appointed Klain as the Ebola Czar. The result: two Americans contracted the virus, both survived. (Those efforts are described by Klain in a short Biden campaign video here.)
Neera Tanden, the nominated director of the Office of Management and Budget. Like Klain, Tanden has worked in federal government and politics for three decades, serving as a close advisor to Hillary Clinton both in the White House and Senate, running a preeminent progressive think tank, and helping construct the fundamentals of Obamacare.
She is known as a policy wonk who has successfully traversed the ability to communicate and marshal needed political support. What makes me most enthusiastic about Tanden as OMB Director, in addition to seeing the first woman of color to hold the position, is what it means for the economic policy of the Biden Administration.
Budgets are moral documents where values are put into practice so they can impact, and ideally improve, our lives. Upon being nominated by President-elect Biden, Tanden detailed how, as the daughter of a single mom from India, she is a product of good programs like food stamps and Section 8 low-income housing. Despite some intra-party grumbling from the left, I am confident that Tanden has the know-how to be the architect of new, life-saving programs that strengthen the safety nets that millions of Americans need now more than ever.
Jen Psaki, White House Press Secretary -- and the staff appointment about which I am most excited: When I was a kid, President Reagan spent much time at his Santa Ynez ranch and during those times, White House press briefings were conducted at a hotel along the waterfront.
A few times my dad, then a professor, brought me with him to watch, uninvited of course. “Just act like you belong here,” he’d say to me as a 9-year-old, and once or twice it worked. The names of White House press secretaries Marlin Fitzwater, Jim Brady and Pierre Salinger loomed with respect in our house, and underscored the faith we had in government institutions, even those we didn’t agree with politically.
For the past four years, we’ve all suffered from a lack of integrity and transparency coming from the White House briefing room, to put it mildly, however.
Jen Psaki is the exact right choice to restore it. Psaki and I worked closely in the trenches together for two years on John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign, starting first in Des Moines, where we shared a small beat-up office in our headquarters that was a former used car showroom.
She went on to hold significant communications positions on Capitol Hill, the Obama campaign, the Department of State, and as Obama’s White House Communications Director.
She is as big-hearted a person as she is intelligent, hard-working and up-to-speed on a vast array of policy. With her signature self-deprecating laugh, reporters trust her because she’s earned it.
Psaki’s inherent honesty, matched with her experience having run a White House Communications department and serving as the State Department spokesperson, offers assurance that the bond of trust between the people and the president soon will be back intact.
In addition to the diversity throughout his cabinet, kudos to Biden for appointing an all-female senior communications team because in his words, “communicating directly and truthfully to the American people is one of the most important duties of a President.”
The bottom-line: Joe, Kamala and their team know what to do, and in a matter of hours, help is on the way.
SB School Board President Laura Capps served four years in the Clinton White House, first as an aide in the West Wing to George Stephanopoulos and then as a presidential speechwriter.
Images: Joe Biden speaks in Delaware, July 2020 (Scientific American); Laura Capps with President Clinton in the White House, 1995.