By Alan Resnick
Competence is soothing. It’s disciplined and controlled, rather than unbridled and chaotic. It is calming and reassuring, rather than distressing and petrifying. And while not necessarily entertaining, competence can be very refreshing, depending on what has preceded it.
But competence can also be boring, and I’m feeling a little bit bored after President Biden’s first week in office. He certainly has done nothing wrong in my eyes, and the political pundits that I follow seem to feel that his administration has “hit the ground running.” But it’s been done without the tumult and bombast that we’ve experienced if not come to accept as normal over the last four years.
Compassion isn’t flamboyant. It demonstrates empathy and caring rather than indifference and callousness. It is other-directed rather than inner-directed. And it is perceptive and sensitive rather than emotionally tone deaf.
On the eve of their inauguration, President Biden and Vice President Harris led the nation in a brief service of national mourning for the more than 400,000 of our fellow citizens who have lost their lives to COVID-19. It was restrained, respectful, and elegant, and I found myself far more moved than I anticipated, given that I have not lost a friend or loved one to this horrific disease. This small, dignified ceremony communicated more sympathy for the grieving families in 20 minutes than had been demonstrated in the ten months since the time the pandemic was first identified.
Treating others as responsible adults is a sign of respect. It involves being honest, rather than lying or offering alternative facts. It involves sharing uncomfortable truths rather than shielding your constituency from reality or engaging in magical thinking. And it involves taking ownership for formidable situations rather than sloughing the blame off on others.
President Biden has devoted a significant amount of his first week in office to the pandemic raging around the world. He has not sugar-coated the fact that it is likely more than half a million Americans will die from coronavirus by the end of February. He has stated a clear objective that there will be more 150 million doses of vaccine available in the first 100 days of his administration. And on January 21, his office published “The National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness,” a 200-page document that lists seven goals and plans for how they will be achieved. The first goal? “Restore Trust with the American People.”
Science isn’t terribly riveting. It involves data and formulas and probabilities and false positives and false negatives and double-blind testing and placebos, rather than much simpler ideas like ingesting hydroxychloroquine, punching back a gallon of Clorox, or cracking a glow-stick and using it as a suppository. And listening to a scientist explain a bar graph or pie chart can be pretty dull, compared to the prattle of a politician or former reality TV host.
As part of the strategy outlined for restoring trust with the American people, the President’s new Covid-19 report states: “The federal government will conduct regular, expert-led, science-based public briefings and release regular reports on the state of the pandemic.” Dr. Anthony Fauci has re-emerged, and can now be seen standing at the podium sharing information and fielding questions from reporters. Neither President Biden nor Vice President Harris are in the background hovering over him.
White House press briefings are intended to keep citizens abreast of key happenings in the federal government, or at least they were prior January 20, 2017. The White House Press Secretary’s Office provides daily briefings for the media on the president’s actions and agenda. The press, in turn, is expected to disseminate this information to the American public.
Kayleigh McEnany, President Trump’s fourth press secretary, held her first press conference on the afternoon of May 1, 2020, a mere 417 days after the last formal press briefing. During her introduction to the media, an AP reporter inquired: “Will you pledge to never lie to us from that podium?” McEnany replied: “I will never lie. You have my word on that.”
And so the lying began, continuing in the grand tradition established by her predecessors, Sean Spicer, Sarah Sanders, and Stephanie Grisham. Under the previous administration, what were traditionally civil events morphed into World Wrestling Federation cage matches, with the mutual distrust and contempt that each party held for the other palpable.
Jen Paski is President Biden’s new press secretary. She held her first press briefing on January 20, the day that the President was sworn in, and has held one each weekday since. “I have deep respect for the role of a free and independent press,” she announced. “We have a common goal, which is sharing accurate information with the American people.” In covering this briefing, the New York Times commented: “Ms. Psaki dodged questions she didn’t want to answer and engaged on the ones she did. The takeaway: A calm, boring press briefing wasn’t necessarily a bad thing.”
Staffing decisions for the Executive Office of the President and for the Cabinet, while tedious and time-consuming, are essential to any administration success. They involve identifying individuals with past experience and expertise, rather than opting for family members, individuals who have made large campaign donations, or people who “look the part” such as former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. They require choosing individuals whose primary allegiance is to the Constitution, rather than to their father, father-in-law, or boss. They demand selecting individuals who will respectfully challenge your thinking, rather than merely agreeing with you or parroting back what you want to hear. And they necessitate finding people who view loyalty as reciprocal, rather than something that is given but is not returned.
Some of these positions are appointed, like the White House Chief of Staff, Ron Klain, who previously served as chief of staff to Vice President Al Gore during the Clinton administration and to Biden during his tenure as Vice President. Other positions, like those comprising the Cabinet, require Senate confirmation, a process currently in progress. All nominees appear to be well-qualified for their roles as well as people with whom Biden trusts based on personal experience.
Perhaps this is just a continuation of the “swamp,” or of Washington insiders selecting other Washington insiders for key government positions. But if these nominees and appointees are swamp creatures, they strike me as more akin to those found in a petting zoo on a rustic farm, rather than the previous menagerie of miscreants, mutants, and misfits typically found in a chicken-wire exhibition pen behind an off-brand gas station off an Interstate exit ramp in Florida.
It’s far too early to predict how successful President Biden will be, but competence, compassion, truthfulness, science, civil pressers, and an experienced and capable Oval Office staff strike me as a fine set of building blocks. It hasn’t been flashy, but I’m good with what I’ve seen after one week.
Alan Resnick is an industrial psychologist with over 40 years of professional experience. He and his wife are sheltering at home in Farmington Hills, Michigan. He is passing the time by cooking, exercising, catching up on friends’ recommendations of must-see TV and writing.