By Amy Goldstein and Toluse Olorunnipa,
As President-elect Joe Biden makes fighting the raging coronavirus his most-urgent mission when he takes office next month, two figures already playing central roles in his transition are emerging as the most likely possibilities to preside over the new White House’s pandemic response.
One contender for Biden’s coronavirus coordinator, envisioned as a powerful role in setting the agenda and orchestrating the work of federal agencies, is Jeff Zients, a co-chairman of the Biden transition team who led the Obama administration’s National Economic Council. Another is Vivek H. Murthy, a co-chair of the transition’s covid-19 advisory board and a former U.S. Surgeon General.
Within Biden’s camp, the thinking appears to be evolving as to who should lead the Department of Health and Human Services, a sprawling department with moving parts crucial to bringing the pandemic under control. Murthy has been considered for that role,while New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D), had been considered a leading candidate although she is said to be out of the running. She has the emphatic support of Latino organizations and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
These names reflect the latest internal thinking, but the chess pieces are still in motion, and final decisions have not jelled, according to a variety of individuals close to the Biden transition. The individuals spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss personnel choices that have not yet been made.
According to these individuals, the president-elect is moving at a deliberate pace, wanting to be certain he assembles a competent, harmonious team for what he regards as job No. 1 among the issues he is inheriting. The individuals say that Biden believes he bought himself a little time by having rapidly formed his 13-member coronavirus advisory board for the transition.
But having announced his national security team last week and his economic team Tuesday, pressure is intensifying to reveal his health care leadership, and several individuals said decisions could be announced as early as next week.
The Biden transition declined to comment on the selections.
Max Skidmore, a political scientist at the University of Missouri at Kansas City who has studied presidential leadership during previous pandemics, said that selecting a competent team with experience in dealing with public health crises is “absolutely essential given the seriousness” of the coronavirus’ toll. Cases of covid-19, the illness caused by the virus, and hospitalizations are reaching record levels as the nation surpassed 200,000 new daily infections for the first time Wednesday. Nearly 14 million U.S. cases have been reported overall, and at least 272,000 people have died, according to data tracked by The Washington Post.
Skidmore said Biden should choose a team with the capacity to coordinate its strategy as flawlessly as possible across the government. “I think the appointing of a coronavirus czar would be a very good idea,” he said, noting that forging a unified national approach to public health “requires a team but also requires coordination of the team. Not only did the current president not have that, he abdicated responsibility to 50 state governors.”
Biden and those close to him have relentlessly slammed President Trump’s handling of the pandemic, and the president-elect intends to mount a more muscular response to try to lessen the widespread harm it has caused Americans physically and economically.
They intend to centralize more pandemic policy decisions within the White House and have emphasized that they intend to replace the Trump administration’s approach of deference to states with a strong federal hand over elements such as testing and vaccine distribution — and related policies, such as expanding insurance coverage and narrowing the racial and ethnic disparities the pandemic has highlighted.
According to people who know Zients and Murthy, including a few who have worked with both, the two men have very different skills. Biden’s team admires Zients’s management abilities — as a business executive before he joined the Obama administration, and later working for that president, as acting director of the Office of Management and Budget as well as chief economic adviser, said two individuals close to the transition.
Zients has no background in medicine or public health. But he is credited with stepping in to coordinate a repair of the Affordable Care Act’s insurance enrollment website, HealthCare.gov, when it proved so defective at the outset that some consumers could not use it to buy health plans.
Trained in internal medicine, Murthy also has been mentioned for a possible White House role as chief clinician and public communicator about the pandemic. He was an early supporter of Biden, who relied on him during the campaign to shape his health care stances, and who grew to admire him intensely, according to individuals with insight into their relationship.
Murthy has not managed large organizations before. He created an advocacy group of physicians supporting Barack Obama for president and, later, to advocate for affordable health care. He was a vice admiral in the U.S. Public Health Service and, as surgeon general, focused on efforts to address the nation’s opioid crisis. The Senate had held up his nomination for surgeon general for about a year, because of his support for gun controls.
The HHS secretary’s role also will be pivotal, since the department includes agencies critical to bringing the pandemic under control: the National Institutes of Health, the Food and Drug Administration, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the public health service.
Lujan Grisham, New Mexico’s governor, has been regarded as a leading possibility for that job. It is unclear why she is no longer in contention. The Biden team offered her the role of interior department secretary, but she declined, a source familiar with the events said. She has at least twice publicly dismissed the idea that she would have a leading health care role in the administration. “While I’m incredibly honored and flattered that my colleagues can see the work that I’m doing on the ground and know that I’ve got 40 years in comprehensive health care experience,” she told CNN this week, “I’m focused on making sure that I’m saving New Mexico lives.”
If no new candidates for HHS emerge, Murthy’s likelihood of leading the department could be heightened because “there is some sense inside [the transition] they need a doctor” to lead the department during the pandemic, according to one individual familiar with the transition’s perspective. In recent administrations, governors have often, but not always, been chosen for the job.
During a virtual roundtable Wednesday with a group of Americans who have experienced economic hardship during the pandemic, Biden praised his transition advisory council as “the leading doctors in the world.” He said “help is on the way in terms of vaccines” but stressed that delivering them, once they are approved by federal regulators, will be an expensive and difficult task.
As a result, he said, Americans need to remain vigilant for months ahead.
Yasmeen Abutaleb contributed to this report.
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