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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 23-01-2021 09:43

Professionalism returns to the White House with Biden

Policy expertise and political savvy are already on display. That’s a welcome contrast to Trump, but no guarantee of success.

The professionals are back.

If there’s one thing that’s going to be obvious about the brand-new administration of President Joe Biden, it’s going to be professionalism. Jobs are going to be filled, from the top down and with few exceptions, with people who know how to do them. Many officials will be returning to the US government after a brief four years on the outside — perhaps a step above their old levels, but well within their competence. Others will move from state government. There will be plenty who are new to government, but most of them are (judging from what we’ve seen so far) well-credentialed, with the expertise that their jobs demand.

Competence was on display on Day One. Wednesday’s major inaugural events went off without a hitch (OK, the “virtual parade” made for awful TV, but the evening entertainment extravaganza more than made up for it). Press Secretary Jen Psaki’s first briefing went well, and provided a sharp contrast to the way such things were done in the previous administration. She supplied information that wasn’t immediately discredited by fact-checkers, and did it without smearing the reporters in the room, or anyone else. That’s professionalism. Biden rolled out 17 executive actions, none of which seemed likely to be immediately thrown out by the courts because of sloppy drafting, nor provoke an international incident, nor anger major groups of voters. That’s professionalism, too. 

This is almost entirely a good thing. Sure, too much reliance on the same people (even if they are individually skilled) can lead to groupthink, a danger in any organisation, but there’s enough new blood in the new administration to guard against it. Expertise can also walk hand-in-hand with arrogance, and Team Biden should be alert to that peril. Still, the diversity of the administration’s personnel should help ward off that problem.

I should emphasise that political expertise is no less valuable than substantive know-how. Biden isn’t likely to ignore that reality as he tackles big challenges like climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. Public policy requires political judgment. Neither its evident scientific nor political expertise guarantees that the Biden administration’s policy choices will be the best ones in any objective sense, but they will improve the odds of producing policies that accomplish their intended purpose while minimising strong opposition.

Professionalism in government was missing under Donald Trump, and it’s been missed. Its return won’t automatically deliver sound policy, but it’s likely to clear out some policy-making breathing room. I wouldn’t be surprised to see something of a media honeymoon as reporters react to officials who clearly know how to do their jobs — especially in contrast to the previous gang of bumblers. There’s nothing wrong with that; indeed, Team Biden probably should treat a grace period as an earned asset in the early days of the presidency. They should know, too, that it won’t last long.

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by Jonathan Bernstein, Bloomberg

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