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COVID-19’s impact on the 2020 presidential transition

December 22, 2020

The Biden-Harris administration will inherit several crises when it takes office, including the COVID-19 pandemic. A smooth transition can help the president-elect respond effectively, but the pandemic has made transition planning more challenging than in years past.

The pandemic has impacted—and will continue to impact—how the Biden-Harris team makes several critical policy, budgetary and personnel decisions in the lead-up to Inauguration Day and early in the new administration’s first term.

The budget, policy and executive orders

A president’s budget typically signals the administration’s long-term goals, but President-elect Biden will need to weigh his policy agenda with the immediacy of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic.

In addition to addressing the pandemic, the new administration will have to consider which of the executive orders issued by President Trump it wants to reverse, a task made more complex by recent controversial directives that have reshuffled federal job classifications and sought to limit diversity, equity and inclusion training in government.

The pandemic may also limit opportunities to issue executive orders on matters unrelated to the COVID crisis – even though new presidents often rely on such orders to achieve quick policy wins in a number of different areas.

GSA activities and agency review

The General Services Administration provides essential services, facilities, supplies and funding to presidential candidates and presidents-elect during the transition period.

After GSA Administrator Emily Murphy ascertained—or officially recognized—Joe Biden as the 2020 election winner, the Biden-Harris transition team began agency review, the process of gathering information about the missions and operations of the federal government’s many departments.

In August, Mary Gilbert, the federal transition coordinator for GSA, spoke with Center for Presidential Transition Director David Marchick on the Transition Lab podcast. On the podcast, Gilbert mentioned that agency review teams will have the option to conduct their work remotely or in person.

“There will be an option for in-person meetings as long as it’s safe,” she said. “We will make sure that our agencies understand what they need to do to be prepared.”

Prioritizing staff safety during the pandemic, the Biden-Harris transition team is managing agency review virtually. The incoming administration is participating in digital-only briefings with White House staff, interviewing job applicants remotely and forming larger agency review teams to account for the possibility of staff getting the coronavirus.

Health and security personnel

Only a week after Election Day, President-elect Biden announced the members of his White House coronavirus taskforce, demonstrating his commitment to staff government with critical public health personnel.

Facing an Ebola virus health crisis in 2014, President Obama appointed a temporary Ebola “czar” to lead the effort to stop the spread of the disease in both the U.S. and West Africa. The Biden administration, however, may find it preferable to create a more permanent executive body that would enable leaders across government to more regularly access the expertise and institutional knowledge of health experts and advisers.

To learn more about presidential transitions, visit the Partnership’s Center for Presidential Transition, the nation’s premier nonpartisan resource for helping presidential candidates and their teams prepare for a first or second term in office.

This post is authored by Cora Martin, an intern on the Partnership’s Communications team.