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I have never heard of Rochelle Walensky

Have you? If you don’t work in the world of infectious disease my guess is, “no,” but you probably hadn’t heard of Anthony Fauci a year ago either. Global Pandemics will make celebrities of the most unexpected faces.

Walensky, who was recently tabbed by President-Elect Joe Biden to lead the CDC under his administration, seems to be quite the source of relief to many epidemiological experts. When announced, her appointment was celebrated by many in the field, whom, I must assume, were disappointed her predecessor provided only the C. Everett Koop beard without the super fun name.

Of course, Walensky has a reasonably normal name and no facial hair. But she also has expertise in infectious disease and a stellar record of organizational skills and crisis management. All of that is to say she’s the ideal person to run the CDC when you’re in the middle of a once-in-a-century health crisis, even if you haven’t heard of her. 

And maybe that’s kind of the point.

With the electoral college set to confirm Biden’s election as the 46th President of the United States on Monday, the transition has truly begun in earnest despite whatever obstacles Biden’s predecessor has laid out for him. Part and parcel of that transition is the announcement of cabinet appointments and choices for various department leadership posts. Look down a list of announced and expected appointees and what you’ll see is a murderer’s row of… anonymous bureaucratic veterans?

You betcha. Neera Tanden? Anthony Blinken? Lloyd Austin? Who are these people? Among the most powerful positions, Janet Yellen and Tom Vilsack, who is reportedly in line for the same job he had in the Obama administration, are literally the only two I’ve heard of before. And I pay pretty close attention to this stuff! Most of the names appointed to positions requiring senate confirmation are unrecognizable, while positions Biden can appoint freely have been in a similar vein. Yes, you will have the occasional former Presidential candidate in the mix, but by and large Biden has eschewed doling out cabinet positions to nationally popular Democrats like so much patronage. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are nowhere to be found, and while they are extremely popular and may be eminently qualified experts depending on the post… 

Maybe that’s a good thing? 

Instead, while the transition carefully toes the line of picking the diverse set of department heads Biden has long promised, many roles are being offered to career civil servants with experience in the particular field or agency they’ve been asked to manage. This is a marked contrast from four years ago, when the incoming administration, hamstrung by a remarkable lack of preparation, cobbled together a group of appointees that basically fell into three basic categories:

This doesn’t include the special bonus category of “Appointees who had literally spent their careers attacking the department they are being appointed to lead.” In many cases, cabinet selections were deliberately chosen because they had expressed public opposition to certain departments. In a particularly famous example, Rick Perry had said in multiple debates that, were he elected President, he would disband the Department of Energy. Evidently, Perry was unaware that the Department of Energy has some pretty big responsibilities, and later called it “the coolest job” he’d ever had.

Before you call me naive, I will state the obvious: incoming administrations will always name cabinet appointees that, to some degree, fall in line with the political positions of the incoming Commander-in-Chief. This means any major roles are going to be filled by someone who probably said something nice about the President-Elect, unless, of course, this is an Aaron Sorkin show. It is not meant to be a dog and pony show of evenhandedness. 

But there should be a premium placed on the simple ability to do the job, and, to this point, that appears to be the primary focus. Unless you are super into the weedsy details of vaccine distribution logistics or immigration policy, these are not sexy picks. But even if you don’t recognize Alejandro Mayorkas’ name, you can probably recognize that prior experience as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security is a pretty strong qualification for running the department. You may not be impressed when you hear Avril Haines has been appointed to be Director of National Intelligence, but you will be when you learn she was previously Deputy National Security Adviser and Deputy Director of the CIA. 

The Biden administration, almost certainly, is naming people it knows, trusts, and who lean more left than right, but it is also naming people with appropriate resumes. Those resumes indicate an understanding of how the government bureaucracy works and, in particular, how their particular department functions. And that’s exactly what the Biden Administration is supposed to do right now. 

I never knew basic, vanilla competency could be so exciting.

Of course, competence does not necessarily mean satisfaction. Both the centrist and progressive flanks of the Democratic Party have raised concerns about some potential appointees, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The public doesn’t seem to think so either. Any LiO student can tell you a diverse field of opinions is more likely to lead to better outcomes, and many Biden administration roles are likely to be filled by veterans of an Obama Presidency that famously courted dissent in its decision-making process. Blinken, Biden’s likely Secretary of State, is known to have a distinctly more interventionist view of American power than the incoming President. The upshot? Biden and his most important cabinet minister won’t always agree. But both bring the experience and knowledge necessary for the impending debates on U.S. diplomacy to be constructive. 

Maybe that’s the right way to build your inner circle.

Inauguration Day is roughly five weeks away, but the foundations for success in governance are laid now. What we’re seeing is the foundations of an administration that is prioritizing the qualifications that can lead to that success. Those qualifications, in and of themselves, will not be a panacea at a time when we desperately need one, but they are likely to make the path toward an American revival that much smoother.

If life returns to an approximation of normal in the near future, these people, and the valuing of these qualifications, will be major reasons why. If you’re a wonky nerd like me, you’ll remember that people like Xavier Becerra, Vivek Murthy, or Rochelle Walensky were a large part of those reasons. But when most Americans take their masks off for good, they probably won’t.

Maybe that’s how it should be.

Photo credit: https://www.forbes.com/sites/monicahaider/2020/12/09/why-rochelle-walensky-is-exactly-who-the-cdc-and-america-need-right-now/?sh=276e70924694

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