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Transition veterans aim to give President-elect Biden a quick start to governing

The transition team has identified 4,300 prospective appointees for the 4,000 federal jobs it must ultimately fill.
Image: Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden speaks at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 4, 2020.Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

WILMINGTON, Del. — As the scope of challenges facing the next president grew throughout the summer and fall, Joe Biden’s transition team spent months working to ensure he’d have a team in place ready to help implement his agenda on Day One.

Now, a small group of the president-elect’s most trusted advisers is set to begin executing a game plan that includes quickly filling top West Wing jobs and key health-related posts throughout the government, and ultimately fielding a diverse and qualified field of candidates to take the reins of government in 10 weeks.

Having studied what worked — and what didn’t — in past transitions and using its own experience in the executive branch, Biden’s team has pre-emptively cleared scores of individuals who will soon fan out to take stock of a federal workforce in some cases depleted under the Trump administration. The team has also already identified 4,300 prospective appointees for the 4,000 federal jobs it must ultimately fill, putting a premium on those with responsibility for tackling the Covid-19 pandemic, and others that don’t require Senate confirmation.

Overseeing the operation is Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime Senate chief of staff who, as a senator himself, wrote the legislation that established the modern framework for presidential transitions. Working with him to lead a team that grew to 100 by Election Day are Yohannes Abraham, an eight-year Obama administration veteran, and Jeffrey Zients, a former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget and director of the National Economic Council.

Despite their experience, officials acknowledge the difficulty of the task before them, because of Covid- 19, the economy and succeeding President Donald Trump. But Kaufman, who has been part of four transitions, said they were confident they’d meet the task.

“The quality of people that want to come to work for Joe Biden is extraordinary,” Kaufman told NBC News. “It’s not just that people know him, but they know the people who will work for him. … The good attracts the good.”

Biden took his first steps Monday with the announcement of a Covid-19 task force, led by former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, former FDA Commissioner David Kessler and Yale University professor Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith. After the transition website launched Sunday, it received 3 million views within just 15 hours. The most visited page: Biden’s plan for Covid-19.

Meanwhile, transition staff — which itself will swell to an expected 350 by Inauguration Day — will begin reaching out to dozens of individuals already identified as potential hires to begin taking the first steps to ready the new administration: debriefing with officials throughout the government to assess their operations and staffing levels, and identify what needs to be done to put Biden’s team in position for quick action.

“We've got highly qualified, vetted people that we haven't reached out to — they don't know they're on the list — but that we can potentially deploy,” a senior transition official told NBC News.

While Biden has not yet been designated as president-elect by the General Services Administration, the agency that under law facilitates the handoff from one administration to the next, the Trump administration has already authorized the GSA to give guidance to each agency about how to interact with the incoming Biden team, according to a source familiar with the planning.

Next up: tackling an exhaustive list of necessary appointments that the team has already triaged. Officials say rather than a “waterfall approach” that starts with the Cabinet level and works down, the team will instead work to ensure that agencies are fully staffed by the time the Senate-confirmed leadership arrives.

"We've gone agency by agency and analyzed from the ground up what appointments and nominations are most important for his future agenda,” Abraham said.

Asked what percentage of the 4,000 federal postings have already been filled, Abraham said zero.

But “we've tried to put in place a framework to facilitate decisions by the president-elect and vice president-elect and their senior teams,” he said.

Officials pointed to the Obama 2008-09 transition as a model for the timeline of when the most high-profile Cabinet announcements might come, noting that the first nominees were named in early December. For now, the focus will be on both West Wing jobs, as well as the roughly 2,800 administration posts that don’t require Senate confirmation.

Transition officials say they’ve had regular contact with the Biden campaign to ensure the government-in-waiting reflects his priorities, without burdening the president-elect himself. Their No. 1 rule to this point: “Do not interfere with the campaign.”

But Kaufman “has thought more deeply about transitions than just about anyone on earth. He knows the vice president intimately,” Abraham said. “[He] had a really clear vision about how this transition should look that ended up being central to our work."

After a campaign in which Biden carefully navigated his relationship with his party’s left flank, officials say Abraham has taken a lead in outreach to progressives who have made clear they expect to be represented in the administration. The team built a massive database of potential appointees and worked to ensure that it reflects the diversity Biden has repeatedly said would be reflected in his administration.

"A lot of the positions that we are most focused on are — nothing's apolitical, but are relatively apolitical, because they are about execution and expertise,” a transition official said. “We care deeply about who the FEMA administrator is. It's not a job that gets a whole lot of play in the back-and-forth parlor games, but there's hundreds of positions like that that sort of exist outside of the left-right spectrum that are really important to delivering on Day One.”

Officials say they are also working to ensure a balance of federal government veterans with fresh perspectives, especially from state and local government.

"There's a lot of very interesting thinking on governing that has gone on over the past half dozen years at the city and state level that we were really committed to making sure gets integrated into this government,” the official said.

The pandemic has not only shaped how Biden’s team is preparing for Jan. 20, but also affected how it has operated. Under law, the GSA provided Biden’s team with a 10,000-square-foot office in the Department of Commerce. Once the GSA ascertains Biden as president-elect, it would make available even larger space — 175,000-square-eet, room for up to a thousand staff, pre-pandemic.

But up until now, the transition has been operating almost exclusively virtually, with regular virtual meetings to keep the team hitting its marks. Abraham and Zients only met in person for the first time about a month ago, in Washington to sign paperwork required of the Biden transition.

David Marchick, director of the Partnership for Public Service’s Center for Presidential Transition that has worked with incoming and outgoing administrations for decades, including in this transition, said Biden’s transition has “not only followed best practice, they have developed new best practices which will be studied by many future transition teams."

“The Biden transition team is the best-organized, the most well-resourced, and the most laser-focused transition team ever, commensurate with the challenges that Biden will face on Jan. 20,” he said.

But a key challenge will be navigating a potentially Republican-led Senate, which could block or significantly slow Biden’s ability to install high-level officials.

"The speed of getting people in their seats is absolutely paramount for the effectiveness of an administration, and hopefully the Senate will move quickly on confirmations,” Marchick said.

Even as the Biden team awaits the GSA to formally designate the former vice president as president-elect, officials say the level of cooperation with career officials in the Trump administration has been good, and that Trump’s team has met all of its requirements under law to help facilitate the transition thus far.

“They’ve done a great job under the law, the career people, of reaching across and doing the things that they have to do,” Kaufman said. "The career people really care about the government.”