Inside the headquarters of the Department of Commerce in downtown Washington, D.C., just around the corner from the White House, sits an expansive suite of offices reserved for the American government-in-waiting. The space, managed by the General Services Administration, can accommodate more than 500 people, and in the weeks before a new president is inaugurated, it would ordinarily be a whirl of activity—hosting dozens of daily policy briefings, outreach meetings, and job interviews for the 4,000 positions that come open in the federal government every four or eight years.
Today, however, that transition office sits nearly empty; just a handful of people from the incoming Biden administration have even stepped inside.
That the offices have gone unused is not, as one might assume, a consequence of President Donald Trump’s refusal to concede his election defeat to President-elect Joe Biden, or of his directive that his administration not cooperate with Biden’s transition team. The Biden campaign, under federal law, has had access to the transition space since September. But the former vice president has chosen not to use it—a decision made in deference to the coronavirus pandemic and his commitment to prioritizing the safety of his staff during a public-health crisis.
Biden won the presidency with a largely virtual campaign, forgoing most in-person canvassing and traditional rallies. But building a new administration in the span of 11 weeks is a far taller order. Imagine a start-up company that must hire 4,000 people, including 1,200 who must be shepherded through the gantlet of Senate confirmation. It’s a project that, even in normal times, no modern presidential transition team has come close to finishing by Inauguration Day. By former President Barack Obama’s 200th day in office in 2009, he had filled just over one-quarter of those positions—and his transition to the White House is widely considered to be the smoothest transfer of power from one administration to the next in decades.
Four years ago, Obama symbolically launched his own transition out of office by welcoming Trump to the White House days after the Republican’s surprising election win. The two men spoke for an hour and a half—much longer than planned—before sitting awkwardly for a photo op with reporters. The outgoing president pledged his full cooperation with Trump’s team, but his assistance did not prevent a much bumpier beginning for the new president, who had thrown out the carefully written plans his own transition team had prepared before the election.
No such meeting has taken place between Trump and Biden this year, and one isn’t likely anytime soon. Biden’s team will have to contend with not only an uncooperative outgoing administration but an ongoing economic and public-health crisis that is complicating an already Herculean challenge.
The thought that the Biden team will be tackling the bulk of that endeavor on Zoom is unthinkable to Obama-administration veterans such as Patrick Gaspard, who helped lead that transition’s hiring efforts before joining the White House staff. A dozen years ago, Gaspard arrived in Washington the day after Obama’s election victory to begin staffing his government at the Commerce Department’s headquarters. “There were constant streams of people coming in, both for interviews but also for briefings, for prep sessions, to give advice and counsel,” recalled Gaspard, who would go on to lead Obama’s Office of Political Affairs before serving as the ambassador to South Africa. “It was a constant hive of incessant activity.”
When I asked him to contemplate managing a presidential transition during a pandemic, he just laughed. “There are extraordinarily brilliant folks who are leading all of this, but man, I can’t imagine it,” Gaspard told me. “I just can’t.”
The Biden team does have certain advantages that the Obama transition lacked. In 2008, Democrats had been out of power for eight years, and the president-elect had served in Washington for less than four. Biden, by contrast, has been out of office for just four years and brings nearly half a century in government experience to the White House. The man he’s chosen to lead the transition, former Senator Ted Kaufman of Delaware, is a co-author of the federal law governing the modern transition process.
“This is a team that is filled with people who understand government, who have been there before,” said Max Stier, the CEO of the nonpartisan Partnership for Public Service, who has advised transition teams of both parties over the years, including Biden’s. Led by Kaufman, the Biden transition began working behind the scenes months before the election. “It's a very challenging thing to do this right, but they’ve started better than anybody so far,” Stier told me.
The pandemic, of course, isn’t new by now, and the Biden campaign, like businesses across the country, is used to interviewing job applicants remotely. Many of the people who will likely form the White House staff, for example, have already been working together remotely for months. (The transition team uses Google software for video meetings, rather than Zoom.) And in some cases, incoming members of the Biden administration might be able to start their jobs virtually too. The increase in telework throughout the government this year meant that many new employees took their oaths and completed their onboarding paperwork remotely.
But many jobs are too important to fill without an in-person meeting. “I would want to sit across the room from the president-elect before I'm going to take a job in his Cabinet,” a person close to the transition told me on the condition of anonymity because Biden’s team is under strict orders not to speak with the media. “So a lot could be done on Zoom, but some can’t.” (The former vice president reportedly conducted his search for a vice-presidential running mate this summer through a mix of in-person and virtual interviews.)
Nor can many other aspects of the transition proceed entirely remotely. Transition teams will need to physically enter government buildings to review classified documents at the Pentagon, the Department of Homeland Security, and other federal agencies. Biden officials have set up strict COVID-19 protocols—and says it reviews those requirements every two weeks—for when those teams begin meeting in person with their counterparts in the Trump administration. And the president-elect’s staff has named larger agency review teams than usual to account for the possibility that members could become infected or need to quarantine during the transition.
“Like many organizations around the country, the Biden transition team will continue to do our work remotely,” the team said in a statement. “While we have access to GSA space, the number of staff needed inside the office will be limited.”
Conducting so much sensitive planning remotely could also raise cybersecurity concerns, especially because the Biden team is not yet using government networks, and commercial platforms such as Zoom were plagued by security issues over the summer. The Biden transition team said it has “invested in best-in-class IT systems and processes,” including briefing staff members on using security keys and other best practices.
Beyond the pandemic, the bigger threat to a successful transition, according to the people I interviewed, is the Trump administration’s continued refusal to cooperate with the incoming Biden team. Federal agencies are waiting for the General Services Administration to formally “ascertain” that Biden has won the election, a move that will release millions in federal funds and allow transition landing teams to meet with outgoing Trump administration officials. Biden advisers have warned that the delay could prove deadly during the pandemic, since it will hamper the new administration’s ability to swiftly distribute vaccines that appear poised for federal approval. “As knowledgeable as they are, they're still on the outside,” Stier said. “It’s a real limitation.”
The delay has other national-security implications: The FBI cannot begin processing permanent security clearances for incoming Biden officials, which could result in crucial agencies being understaffed in the event of a terrorist attack. It was the 9/11 attacks during the eighth month of President George W. Bush’s first term that helped prompt an overhaul of the presidential-transition process so that new administrations would be better prepared in the future.
The combined effects of the delayed transition and the pandemic could be less obvious but felt more widely throughout the new administration. One of the most important but often overlooked aspects of a presidential transition, Stier told me, is the integration of a new administration’s many political appointees into a career federal workforce that must carry out its policies. “They are the engine room of the government. They are ultimately the ones that know the most and get the stuff done,” he said. “There’s been a lot of turmoil, and turmoil is not good for organizational performance.”
The fact that many federal employees won’t get to meet their new overseers in person only adds to the challenge. “It's much easier to maintain existing relationships than to create new ones, especially relationships of trust,” Stier said.
The Biden team might find some advantages to a pandemic transition. It likely won’t have to devote as much time or money to planning an enormous presidential inauguration, as that will almost certainly be much smaller in scope than usual. And it could choose to preserve or even expand teleworking across the federal government, which has led, in some cases, to higher productivity as employees forgo long commutes to and from work. One former Obama-administration official who no longer lives in the Washington area told me they are eager to see whether they can rejoin the government from afar.
Gaspard told me he wasn’t worried about the long-term effects of a remote transition on the workings of government in the Biden administration. But he said a certain “dynamism” would be lost. It’s a missing ingredient undoubtedly familiar to millions of people who haven’t seen their office in months, but one whose absence is only magnified when the task at hand is building a new presidential administration. “There’s an ad-hocracy in a transition,” Gaspard said, chuckling at coining a new word, “that’s not possible in the virtual world.”