Sarada Peri: Obama couldn’t fix the system. Biden must.
If Biden wins in November, he will likely face the most challenging transition in modern times. A Biden administration will confront a singularly taxing agenda, with the threefold crises of the moment layered upon the hefty portfolio any president normally inherits, including securing the nation’s nuclear weapons and managing ongoing military operations overseas. In grappling with this daunting docket, Biden will be hampered by a federal bureaucracy damaged by four years of institutional decay and, potentially, a hostile, Republican-held Senate antagonistic toward his new personnel appointments.
Biden may also face an outgoing administration that hinders his efforts, whether because of incompetence or malign intent. Planning, coordination, and information-sharing across government agencies and functions are vital to a successful transition. With an administration that remains dramatically understaffed, senior Trump officials may simply lack the bandwidth to reach into their bureaucracies to collect data on personnel and policy, collate it in neat binders, and brief its contents to successors. If the president is not reelected, and especially if he behaves as a sore loser, some of his appointees may begin shirking their responsibilities as they start searching for new opportunities and lose interest in fighting for a lame-duck agenda.
The risk of information loss is particularly acute for matters of national security—an area where the president’s pique toward the intelligence community and the so-called deep state might make him particularly resistant to cooperation. Ths is a concern prior to the election, when major-party candidates usually begin to receive horizon-scanning classified briefings on global events after their nominating conventions—and all the more so if Biden wins, as postelection briefings typically delve into sensitive national secrets such as planned military operations or covert actions, particular threats, and diplomatic secrets. Unlike the formal transition planning process, the content of intelligence briefings to presidential candidates and presidents-elect is discretionary, not legislatively mandated, creating considerable latitude for dangerous omissions.
Imagining more extreme forms of sabotage is also possible. Even as a lame duck, President Trump will remain the commander in chief until Biden takes the oath of office on January 20, 2021. Already, the Trump team is reportedly working to lock in its foreign-policy priorities by killing the Iran nuclear deal, pushing through troop withdrawals from Germany, and levying new rounds of tariffs and tech restrictions; after the election, the president could undertake more dramatic moves, such as announcing an intent to leave NATO or ordering all combat troops to depart Afghanistan. Though improbable, Trump could defy the norm of consultation with the president-elect and lead the nation into conflict with a foreign adversary such as Iran—or decline to act when faced with an imminent domestic or global threat. Even if Biden immediately reversed or denounced such eleventh-hour maneuvers, the policy whiplash would undermine America’s already-damaged credibility as an ally and an adversary.