Joe Biden’s Beltway: The Secrets of Putting Together a Top Team
It seems ludicrous to issue this caution so many days and weeks after the election, but it seems that Joseph R. Biden Jr. has been elected as the 46th President of the United States and will be inaugurated on January 20, 2021. The antics of the outgoing chief executive notwithstanding, President-elect Biden is now turning his attention to putting together a team to govern the U.S. for the next four years.
How should he proceed? Much of the federal administration has been hollowed out by Donald Trump, either with the dismissal of officials or the failure to fill posts in a timely fashion. At the beginning of the pandemic, of the 75 senior positions at the Department of Homeland Security, 20 were vacant or filled on a temporary basis, and the pattern is repeated across other departments and agencies. So, Biden and his recruitment team have work to do.
Biden moved quickly to set the tone: On November 12, he announced that he would nominate Ron Klain as White House chief of staff. Klain has already served Biden in that role before, when the latter was vice president, and before that, he was the right-hand man to Al Gore, so he knows how to organize a senior staff and will intimately be involved in selecting the rest of the new team. A Harvard lawyer, he has worked in and around the Democratic Party for a quarter of a century, and he will bring much-needed order and structure to the administration; President Trump, by contrast, has burned through four chiefs of staff in as many years.
Discipline, then, is perhaps the top priority of Team Biden. Find qualified candidates, fill the vacancies, get the senior appointments through the Senate and get on with the business of governing. In that respect, this is no different from a corporate restructuring or take-over, in which an incoming CEO brings with him or her a group of trusted and proven advisers to slot into the most critical roles. As a Harvard Business Review paper framed it, one of the first tasks of a new boss is “selecting and managing the right senior management team to share the burden of running the company.”
Populating the federal government with the right people is especially important now. We are still in the grip of a global public health crisis, and there is little time for new agency chiefs to learn the ropes. But the elephant—or donkey—in the room has to be recognized: Joe Biden is an old man. The campaign demonstrated that he is not, perhaps, as sharp as he once was, nor does he have the stamina of a man of, say, Barack Obama’s age. He may well serve only one term in the White House; perhaps it will not even be that. These things are regarded as indelicate but have to be faced in a calm assessment of the new administrations to-do list.
Insofar as succession planning can be attempted from the Oval Office, the presence of a vigorous, hard-charging vice president in the person of Kamala Harris will either be a blessing or a curse. The Biden/Harris relationship was not always easy during the nomination battle, but if Harris knuckles down to serve Biden loyally and takes on a maximal load of responsibility for a vice president—like Nixon or Cheney—then her own succession is made as likely as possible. She is overwhelmingly likely to be the Democratic nominee in 2024 or, even, 2028, and her electoral chances must seem good against a Republican Party still looking for its post-Trump identity.
The other great task for any new regime, in business as in politics, is setting long-term goals and priorities right at the beginning. The phrase McKinsey & Co. uses is: “Start with where you want to end up.” For Biden, there are many worthy objectives: build on and entrench Obamacare; take steps to tackle climate change; restore U.S. leadership abroad; and, of course, control the COVID-19 pandemic and deal with its aftermath. His selection of Tony Blinken as nominee for secretary of state, a foreign policy specialist steeped in diplomacy, is promising for deft American action abroad; John Kelly’s place as climate change envoy brings a heavyweight international figure to a pressing problem; and D.C. insiders will look carefully for signs from Biden’s other picks, such as Linda Thomas-Greenfield as UN ambassador.
This is a genuinely pivotal point for American leadership. Four years of a Trump presidency have exacerbated underlying societal tensions and fanned them from embers into a blaze; the country’s reputation in the global community is tarnished (though credit must be given for the extraordinary progress made in the Middle East between Israel and several Arab states); and the U.S. electorate finds itself in a position besieged by suspicion and distrust inside and out.
Joe Biden has the potential to raise America’s game, but his success is by no means assured. What the business community can tell him, and show him, is how to make an organizational and strategic success of an enterprise. It is a framework, a skeleton on which he can build what George H.W. Bush called “the vision thing.” Like any grand edifice, it needs someone to get the foundations right.
Eliot Wilson is the cofounder of Pivot Point, a change management, strategy and PR consultancy based in London.