Welcome to POLITICO’s 2021 Transition Playbook, your guide to the first 100 days of the Biden administration
In its opening days, the Biden administration set a new rule to allow Dr. ANTHONY FAUCI to make more mainstream media appearances, after being effectively muzzled during the waning months of the Trump administration.
“It’s great to see Dr. Fauci on @Maddow — and anywhere else where he wants to speak his mind,” White House chief of staff RON KLAIN tweeted on Jan. 22.
The Biden administration is finding out the hard way, however, that the doctor does not really do White House talking points.
On Wednesday, Fauci went decidedly off-message on the question of vaccines for school teachers, leading to a muddle of messaging.
From a health standpoint, the issue is clear. The CDC’s school reopening guidance issued last week says that “access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction.”
The politics, however, are not so simple. Aware that many teachers unions oppose returning to the classroom without vaccinations, the Biden team has been dodging the question of whether they agree with the CDC.
Their go-to line has been to express support for a different provision in the guidance: that states should “consider giving high priority to teachers” during the vaccine rollout. President JOE BIDEN told CNN last night that teachers ought to be “on the list of preferred to get a vaccination.”
Vice President KAMALA HARRIS reiterated on “TODAY” this morning that “the president has said it, and we’re all really clear, teachers should be a priority.”
Host SAVANNAH GUTHRIE pressed twice more —”I don’t want to beat it to death, but I know there are teachers listening,” she said — only for Harris to repeat, “We think they should be a priority.”
Harris spokesperson SYMONE SANDERS was also unwaveringly on-message this morning. “It is the administration’s position, the president and vice president believe, that teachers should be prioritized for vaccinations,” she told an exasperated JON BERMAN on CNN, who said, “It’s not a trick question and I feel like you guys have treated it like a trick question.”
Enter Fauci, who went on “CBS This Morning” today and said what Biden and Harris have been unwilling to say.
“To make it a sine qua non that you don’t open a school until every teacher is vaccinated I think is not workable,” he said.
Hours later, the White House was singing Fauci’s tune. Asked if teachers need to be vaccinated before they go back to school, press secretary JEN PSAKI said “No, neither the president nor the vice president believe that it is a requirement.”
It is the latest instance of Fauci straying from the Biden administration’s preferred narrative on confronting the Covid-19 crisis.
The morning after Biden’s inauguration, anonymous Biden sources told CNN that when it comes to vaccine distribution, “There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch.” Another source said they would have to start from “square one.”
But asked at the White House press briefing later that day, “Is the Biden administration starting from scratch with the vaccine distribution effort?,” Fauci contradicted the anonymous Biden sources. “No, I mean, we certainly are not starting from scratch because there is activity going on in the distribution,” the nation’s premier infectious disease expert replied.
Republicans have tried to use the daylight between Fauci and the administration to try to create headaches for the White House.
“Psaki v Fauci,” went one subject line from Senate Minority Leader MITCH McCONNELL’s office in January.
Today, the Republican National Committee blasted out an email to reporters highlighting how both Fauci and Biden’s own CDC director have said “vaccination of teachers is not a prerequisite for safe reopening of schools.”
To be clear, Fauci is simply giving the kind of unvarnished expert takes on the science that made him a Covid-era celebrity among Democrats — including Biden — and a major irritant for the Trump White House.
Now, funnily enough, some of the people who sympathize with Biden officials on the Fauci dynamic are former Trump administration officials who grappled repeatedly with these kinds of news cycles.
Said one Trump White House official who’s worked with Fauci: “I don’t think he intends to make his boss — whether it’s the president or the HHS secretary — look bad but I sometimes think it’s in his nature to pat himself on the back rather than give credit and deference to the policy that’s been set.”
Fauci’s defenders argue that he is doing just what Biden has promised his administration would do: following the science.
Do you work in the Biden administration? Are you on the White House senior staff’s morning call? Are you MATT HILL? We want to hear from you — and we’ll keep you anonymous: firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also reach Alex and Theo individually if you prefer. We’ve mentioned Matt before but he didn’t leak. The call-outs will continue until you start dishing, Matt.
In the the Oval Office with some “close friends,” as Biden put it: RICHARD TRUMKA and LIZ SHULER of the AFL-CIO; JAMES CALLAHAN of the International Union of Operating Engineers; ERIC DEAN of the Ironworkers International Union; ROBERT MARTINEZ JR. of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers; SEAN McGARVEY of the North America’s Building Trades Union; MARK McMANUS of the United Association; TERRY O’SULLIVAN of the Laborers’ International Union of North America; KENNETH RIGMAIDEN of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades; and LONNIE STEPHENSON of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. They discussed infrastructure.
With Biden in the Oval Office.
We’ve got a question about a temperamental president today, courtesy of the Library of Congress: Which president hated their painted portrait and had it burned?
(Answer is at the bottom.)
SECOND HEARING SET FOR BECERRA CONFIRMATION —The Senate Finance Committee has scheduled a hearing on Feb. 24 to consider XAVIER BECERRA’s nomination as Health and Human Services secretary, ALICE MIRANDA OLLSTEIN reports. The announcement comes a day after the Senate HELP Committee announced its hearing with Becerra will be Feb. 23rd. He will be Biden’s first health official to face confirmation hearings.
THE WEST WING
BIBI GETS HIS PHONE CALL —Biden told reporters he had a “good conversation” with Israeli Prime Minister BENJAMIN NETANYAHU today, nearly a week after Israel’s former permanent representative to the United Nations criticized Biden on Twitter for giving the nation’s longtime leader the cold shoulder. Biden and Netanyahu spoke for an hour and discussed Middle East peace accords, Iran and “regional challenges” according to an Israeli readout of the call NAHAL TOOSI shared with us.
Biden “emphasized U.S. support for the recent normalization of relations between Israel and countries in the Arab and Muslim world,” according to an admnistration readout of the call — referring to the “Abraham Accords,” which Trump touted as a signature achievements of his presidency.
DOES BIDEN DO LENT?: Biden received ashes for Ash Wednesday from Rev. BRIAN O. McDERMOTT at Georgetown University’s Wolfington Hall. But is Biden, only the second Catholic president ever, going to give up anything for Lent?
Psaki told reporters today that “I will have to follow up with you on that particular question.” We followed up but no word yet. Stay tuned.
THE END OF THE MOE VELA ERA?: A few weeks back, we wrote a top about MOE VELA, the most eager person in town to be quoted as a former Biden aide.
Since then, we haven’t received an email pitch to talk to Vela. We just thought it was us but several reporters told us that the Vela pitches have stopped completely. What have we done!? Come back Moe!
IT’S NOT JUST T-SHIRTS: Buildingoff of her successful Phenomenal t-shirt line, Vice President Harris’ niece MEENA HARRIS is making some moves into the beauty influencing space.
Vanity Fair, which unironically described Harris as a “reluctant influencer,” wrote this week about Harris’ new role as a “MONDAY Muse,” which is what the haircare brand MONDAY is dubbing their “real-world role models,” the magazine wrote.
A source also forwarded us an invite for a virtual event with beauty product maker Naturopathica that read: “Sensitive is Beautiful Launch Event with Meena Harris & Naturopathica.”
FILLING THE RANKS
BIDEN SETTLES ON CMS HEAD — Biden will nominate seasoned Democratic health policy maker CHIQUITA BROOKS-LaSURE to helm the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, ADAM CANCRYN, SUSANNAH LUTHI and RACHEL ROUBEIN report.
If confirmed, Brooks-LaSure, an Obama administration veteran who oversaw implementation of Obamacare, will play a leading role in crafting Biden’s plans to expand on the health care law – and unwind much of the Trump administration’s efforts to minimize it.
BIDEN APPOINTS ABRUZZO TO TOP NLRB SLOT: The Biden administration is tapping JENNIFER ABRUZZO to serve as the National Labor Relations Board general counsel, the top slot on the federal labor board, REBECCA RAINEY reports. Abruzzo, an attorney with the Communications Workers of America, also previously served as a former NLRB deputy general.
Biden also announced that he would rescind the Trump administration’s executive order establishing an industry-led apprenticeship program — a move that attempted to peel back the federal government’s role in those training opportunities.
FORGIVE US OUR DEBTS, AS WE FORGIVE THOSE WHO …Biden ruled out cancelling $50,000 of student loan debt per borrower Tuesday night at a CNN town hall in Milwaukee, telling an audience member he was “prepared to write off a $10,000 debt, but not 50.” Today, his White House suggested that even the modest package may not happen — at least not anytime soon, ace education reporter MICHAEL STRATFORD tells us.
Psaki told reporters that Biden planned to hold off on making any decisions on executive action on student loan debt until his appointees at the Justice Department had a chance to review the issue. That legal review will happen alongside a review by Biden’s domestic policy advisers, she said. Only then would he take action.
Senate Majority Leader CHUCK SCHUMER and Sen. ELIZABETH WARREN (D-Mass.), who have backed progressives’ push to cancel $50,000 of student loan debt, acted as if they hadn’t tuned into Biden’s CNN town hall on Tuesday night.
“The Biden administration has said it is reviewing options for cancelling up to $50,000 in student debt by executive action, and we are confident they will agree with the standards Obama and Trump used as well as leading legal experts who have concluded that the administration has broad authority” to cancel the debt, they said in a statement.
MORE TESTS: The White House today announced a multipronged effort to bolster Covid testing in schools and homeless shelters, increase domestic manufacturing of testing supplies such as pipette tips and boost genomic sequencing efforts needed to understand the spread of virus variants, DAVID LIM reports.
BIDEN TREADS CAREFULLY ON REPARATIONS: As a presidential candidate, Biden backed the idea of creating a commission to study reparations for slavery. And his vice president, KAMALA HARRIS, co-sponsored legislation to create such a commission when she was in the Senate. But now that Biden is in the White House, he has stopped short of fully endorsing the Congress’ latest reparations bill, MAYA KING reports.
“It’s working its way through Congress,” Psaki said today when asked if Biden would sign the bill if it passed. “We’d certainly support a study, but we’ll see what happens through the legislative process.”
ANNALS OF PUBLIC OPINION —Fifty percent of Americans approve of Biden’s job performance so far while 38 percent do not, according to a new Quinnipiac University poll. That’s in line with FiveThirtyEight’s weighted polling average, which finds that 54.5 percent approve of Biden’s performance and 37.8 percent do not.
Biden’s job approval ratings remain higher than Trump’s at any point during his presidency — but lower than President BARACK OBAMA’s during his first weeks in office.
WHAT WE’RE READING
Biden might name a Horn of Africa special envoy (Foreign Policy)
Biden’s potential ambassadors to China: Rahm Emanuel, Nicholas Burns (Bloomberg News)
McDonough inherits Trump’s troubled VA accountability office (The Washington Post)
THE OPPO BOOK
The Doors and legendary frontman JIM MORRISON provided the soundtrack for climate czar JOHN KERRY’s time servingin the Vietnam War. Kerry “would blast ‘Light My Fire’ and ‘Love Me Two Times’ while patrolling the Delta rivers,” historian DOUGLAS BRINKLEY wrote in “Tour of Duty,” his book on Kerry’s military career and subsequent rise to prominence as an anti-war protester.
But while he was a fan of The Doors’ music, Kerry did not embrace the band’s counterculture lifestyle. Kerry told Brinkley he liked “the lyrical intensity of The Doors. Morrison was a poet, in my opinion. The drug part didn’t interest me.”
(Kerry acknowledged later in Brinkley’s book that he did, in fact, inhale a few times after he returned from Vietnam.)
THEODORE ROOSEVELT. Roosevelt chose to have his portrait done by French artist THEOBALD CHARTRAN, but according to Chartran, the president couldn’t sit still while he was painting. Roosevelt reportedly disliked the painting so much, he kept it hidden in the hallway of the White House until he burned it.