Early on the morning of Wednesday, January 6, Joe Biden and the people closest to him allowed themselves some genuine optimism. For weeks, the president-elect and his team had been mapping out what they could accomplish in a divided Washington, but now — fresh off a pair of surprise wins in Georgia’s runoffs, which handed Democrats the Senate and therefore unified control of the government — a new world of possibility was in view.
Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi seemed to agree that a fresh round of stimulus checks would be on the way. Biden’s budgeteers saw a clearer-than-ever chance to expand his recovery legislation into multiple trillions of dollars’ worth of investments. The incoming president’s preexisting day-one promises — rejoining the Paris climate accord, unwinding a range of Donald Trump’s more draconian executive orders — now looked like a mere starting point. Biden himself was planning to announce some of his final Cabinet nominees the next day in Wilmington; even his more controversial picks seemed as if they might have a far easier time getting confirmed than he had once expected. “I can’t believe we pulled it off,” one Democrat near the upper ranks of BidenWorld marveled to me as the day began.
The feeling lasted a few hours. By the time right-wing extremists stormed the Capitol that afternoon in protest of Biden’s win, the former vice-president — a constitutionally cautious politician who has had to expand his to-do list every few months for nearly a year now — was watching his job change before his eyes yet again as he waited for reports from friends locked inside the building where he had worked for 36 years. Now, just days from his inauguration, he and his team are strategizing about how to weave his much-needed recovery agenda through a Washington that is about to be increasingly distracted — if not consumed — by the re-impeachment of Donald Trump.
“We have three tasks before us right now,” Democratic senator Tim Kaine of Virginia told me. “The super-urgent one is to deliver an inauguration that, to all Americans and the entire world, looks entirely different from what they know of the Donald Trump administration.” The second, he said, was “starting the Biden administration off right” with Cabinet and agency confirmations and the approval of a significant COVID emergency-response bill. Hours before Kaine called, the country recorded more than 4,300 COVID deaths from the previous day, the highest number yet. As we discussed pandemic relief, the House had just gotten started on impeachment. “Goal three is accountability for the perpetrators of the mayhem,” Kaine said, pointing not just to Trump but to other lawmakers who had a hand in stirring up the violence. “I think we need to do a 9/11-style commission.”
But first, Biden must become president. In Kaine’s eyes, “there will not be a starker contrast in handoffs between two administrations in history.”
As the pandemic raged on last year, Biden, who had campaigned primarily on a promise to restore the country to a version of pre-Trump normalcy, started talking about his vision in grander terms. He would be the first president with serious Capitol Hill chops in half a century, he and his allies figured, and maybe he could use them to muscle through the kinds of ambitious programs Democrats had been dreaming of for years in response to a web of national crises.
But Biden, who has seen nine presidents up close since he was first elected to the Senate, has also long viewed the office as a singularly powerful pedestal for national moral leadership and, when necessary, emotional comfort. During his campaign, he often implied that the very presence of his empathetic self in office would begin to bring about some desperately needed civic healing. Now, however, the moment demands much more.
Biden will need to run a functional government, to start. That part, at least, has been in the works for months. In June, his longtime right-hand man Ted Kaufman tapped Yohannes Abraham, a then-34-year-old Obama-administration veteran, to run the day-to-day operations of the Democratic nominee’s transition. Abraham, working in secrecy, was tasked with executing a hiring spree of thousands, evaluating the state of every government agency, and mapping new White House policies to make sure Biden could start fixing Trump’s messes with a fully prepared team on January 20. From his home in suburban Virginia, Abraham worked hand in hand with Jeff Zients, Obama’s former National Economic Council director, to manage the staffing and planning sprint, no matter what the outgoing president had to say about it.
“Since our earliest days, we baked into our planning the likelihood that Trump would not recognize the results of the election,” Abraham told me. His team aimed to lock in more appointees by the end of Biden’s first 24 hours in office than any other recent administration had done by the end of its first 100 days. Delivering on that massive hiring plan meant prioritizing COVID-response jobs and roles that wouldn’t require the Senate’s stamp of approval. For months, members of the team had been running background checks and full vets on potential hires without alerting the prospective staffers for fear of a leak.
Abraham worked with a trio of government veterans — Suzy George, Gautam Raghavan, and Cathy Russell — to make sure a small army of staffers could report to work below the Cabinet level once Biden was sworn in; the team identified 4,000 jobs to fill and by mid-January had conducted 7,500 interviews of more than 3,000 candidates. Still, some agencies’ head counts were hundreds of people lower than in the Obama years, and the state of other overlooked parts of the Trump government — say, the EPA — shocked many incoming Democrats, who hadn’t expected so much attrition, such low morale, and such an abandonment of government processes after just four years. “It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know that the agencies have been hollowed out,” Abraham said, sighing.
The trickiest stretch, though, came when parts of Trump’s government looked determined to stop Biden’s team from moving in. When the usually boring and headline-averse General Services Administration declined for weeks to formally “ascertain” Biden’s win, Abraham’s team couldn’t access funds or resources and didn’t have permission to coordinate with outgoing Trump aides. Abraham’s backup plan: If the Bidenites couldn’t coordinate with current agency staffers, they could still consult with Capitol Hill aides who interacted with them, former officials, and some recently departed Trump workers who were willing to help. Even after the GSA relented, some administration foot-dragging got in the way: Each night at the height of the agency-review process, Abraham received a report enumerating the day’s problems — a hostile Trump official, an overly cautious aide, a suspicious bureaucratic hurdle. In two cases, he raised alarms publicly about information-sharing disputes that, at the Office of Management and Budget, risked potential delays in the COVID-relief and government-budget processes and, at the Defense Department, hindered the Biden team’s understanding of a recent Russian hack. “I was not surprised,” Abraham said, “but still disappointed, particularly given how central OMB and DOD are to core priorities that are nonpartisan and just sort of bread-and-butter issues of governance.”
“The Biden transition has faced challenges that no other recent presidential transition has had to confront,” Chris Lu, the longtime senior Obama aide who ran his 2008 transition, said, arguing that Abraham deserved credit for setting Biden’s administration up for success. (Abraham will soon become the chief of staff to the new administration’s National Security Council.) Then again, maybe that was all the relatively easy part.
What’s not clear, in the wake of the Capitol Hill chaos, is how all of the effort so far will position the new president to take the helm of a capital that — like Biden himself — is still processing last week’s violence. Plenty of new hires will show up to work on January 20 ready to get started on Biden’s massive rebuilding project. But Biden is still likely to enter office with fewer of his Cabinet secretaries confirmed than many of his predecessors had. The delay is owed in part to Trump’s temper tantrum over his loss and the late date of the Georgia runoffs. But further delays are now likely, thanks to the current need to balance Senate confirmation hearings on the same schedule as another impeachment trial. Although some Republican senators agreed to move a few of Biden’s defense-focused nominees’ confirmation hearings up after the attack, it may be a while before Biden will have enough of his team in place to even run a productive Cabinet meeting.
Not that Biden is objecting to the reasoning behind the jammed schedule. His preoccupation with fixing the country’s interlocking crises swiftly is necessary for an effective start to his term, but so is holding people accountable for the siege. Five days after the attack, after getting his second vaccination on-camera to demonstrate its safety to the public, he insisted to journalists who asked about his protection, “I’m not afraid of taking the oath outside.” Still, he soon canceled a planned Amtrak ride to Washington on Inauguration Day and postponed the entire event rehearsal, the threat level now too high to risk it.
Out loud, Biden is talking only about pandemic relief these days. It’s the most pressing matter and the one on which he’ll be judged. On the evening of Thursday the 14th, he introduced the outline of his nearly $2 trillion opening proposal. The legislation would mandate $1,400 checks, extend emergency paid leave to over 100 million more Americans and eviction moratoriums to others, and raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour. The plan would aim to reopen schools with a $130 billion investment and set up community vaccination sites with the goal of reaching 100 million shots at the end of his first 100 days in office.
Democrats across the party immediately embraced the wide-reaching plan, but it will still likely need some Republican buy-in to pass. As Biden wound down his speech, he acknowledged the treacherous road ahead. “The decisions we make in the next few weeks and months will determine whether we thrive in a way that benefits all Americans or whether we stay stuck in a place where those at the top do great while economic growth for most everyone else is just a spectator sport,” he said.
His sights have widened yet again before his presidency even begins, with dreadful necessity intervening once more. Trump perpetrated “an assault through the front door of American democracy. We either stop it, or we’ve lost it,” Sean Patrick Maloney, the New York congressman who was only feet from the rioters before escaping, told me minutes before he voted to impeach him. “There’s an expression I’ve learned from some friends who served in Iraq: ‘Embrace the suck.’ ” As the new chief of the House Democrats’ campaign wing, he will work closely with Biden to keep Democrats in power. “Every president has to deal with the circumstances they inherit,” Maloney said. “You can spend time focusing on how unfair it is, or you can get to work fixing it.” (“I know it’s been nearly a year that’s tested us beyond measure,” Biden said on Thursday night. “Out of all the peril of this moment, I want you to know I see all the promise as well.”)
But there’s much to be done before this promise is apparent to Americans. “When I hear someone talking about uniting the country, I think about how, when you seek to heal a wound, you first have to clean the wound. You have to remove the infection that is threatening further injury to the body,” Maloney said when we spoke. “Truth has to come before reconciliation. Accountability has to come before healing.” The Biden years will now begin with the Trump era on trial. As he walked away from the lectern in Wilmington on Thursday, the incoming president didn’t answer one reporter’s shouted question: How can D.C. do it all at once?
*This article appears in the January 18, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!