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117th Congress Preview: Transition

By Elizabeth Hart Thompson

A core principle of American democracy and one of the most hallowed hallmarks of our nation is the peaceful transition of power following our presidential elections.  And while Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. was sworn-in yesterday as the 46th President of the United States of America, the roughly 74 days of his transition defied convention.

A transition period is normally a time of communication, cooperation, and collaboration between outgoing and incoming leaders that—most importantly—is geared toward ensuring the successful conveyance of vital information required to ensure our national security.  It is also a period during which predecessor public servants help to prepare their successors to take on new duties and challenges, thus ensuring that the government can serve the domestic needs of the American people effectively and seamlessly.

After a transition marked by uncommon intransigence, President Biden began his presidency confronted by four simultaneous crises: health, economic, social justice, and political—arguably the most significant existential challenges to our nation since President Lincoln.  Nevertheless, guided by an internal team of Washington veterans who have deep experience in governing, the Biden transition will be recorded as both sophisticated and highly organized.

Having anticipated a slower confirmation process, President Biden filled more than 200 of the White House positions at his discretion before the inauguration.  It is the largest, most senior team in place of any White House in history and the most diverse.  U.S. Presidents have the power to make 4,000 political appointments—approximately 1,000 of which require Senate confirmation.  And while the first confirmation hearings began yesterday and were underway during inauguration, President Biden took office with the fewest number of cabinet officials poised to be confirmed in modern American history.

By week’s end, Biden’s nominations for secretaries of Treasury, Department of Transportation, Homeland Security and Defense will have all received confirmation hearings.  Last night, Avril Haines, the first woman to lead the US intelligence community, was approved in the Senate by 84 to 10 as the next Director of National Intelligence.

American presidential transitions turn the figurative page to new, unwritten chapters of our political history.  And while the President may devise the outline, as President Biden said in his inaugural address, “the American story depends not on any one of us, not on some of us, but on all of us, on we the people who seek a more perfect union.”

Before even stepping foot in the Oval Office, President Biden had announced his intention to immediately begin tackling a long list of issues on which he campaigned, including signing at least 15 Executive Orders on matters ranging from fighting the COVID pandemic to combatting climate change, to advancing racial equity.

Executive Orders alone, however, can only accomplish so much.  The success of long-term policy initiatives will demand a legislative strategy, rooted in compromise, that can bridge real ideological chasms in Congress and among the electorate.  And while President Biden brings deep institutional knowledge and long-held relationships—with an evenly split Senate and a razor-thin majority in the House—the challenges ahead in governing will be real.