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Biden’s Political Acumen


Biden understands something important that I don’t think Obama ever quite got–it’s more important to have people with good political skills running things than pulling in best and the brightest from the business or academic worlds. Obama was always and remains enamored of those types today. Biden, a political animal if nothing else, is far less interested in them and instead is rewarding smart politicians with leadership roles.

Politicians, governing professionals, policy specialists: All have their advantages. But especially in a sprawling department like HHS, specialists have a real disadvantage because no one can be an expert in all the necessary policy areas. Besides, the government has no shortage of people who know about pandemics. What it needs are people with the political skills to coordinate the federal bureaucracy, state and local governments, private business, a variety of hostile and friendly interest groups, and more, all while keeping Democrats in Congress happy and not giving Republicans any ammunition they can use against the president. 

Becerra’s experience at the top of a state bureaucracy seems a particularly useful background for this stage of the pandemic. Given the choice, I’d much rather have someone who knows how to make things happen in state governments than someone with a deep scientific understanding of how coronaviruses spread. Especially since one of the skills that politicians need to be successful is learning how to be briefed on a wide range of policy questions.

Cruz says: “I’ve been a lawyer for 25 yrs & a Senator for 8. Would you hire me to remove your appendix? Of course not. I’m not remotely qualified to be HHS Secretary.” To his first point: No, personal medical care is not, in fact, part of the HHS secretary’s job. To his second point? What’s needed is a skilled politician. I won’t disagree with Cruz’s implied self-assessment. 

This is also why I think that whenever Biden gets a Supreme Court nominee (retire Breyer!), he’s not going with another Harvard-Yale-Princeton type, but someone who comes from a less advantaged background and brings different skills to the job. He understands how the politics of that would work in his favor.

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