The most immediate challenge Joe Biden will inherit when he assumes office January 20 will be the coronavirus pandemic, which has now killed more than 280,000 Americans in less than a year, ravaged the economy, and rapidly worsened in recent weeks. On Monday, the president-elect announced the health team he’ll rely on to address the intensifying crisis, as well as the longstanding flaws and inequalities in the nation’s healthcare system it has brought even further to the fore.
His top-line pick is an unusual one: The president-elect will nominate Xavier Becerra, the California attorney general, to lead the Health and Human Services department. Previously seen as a top contender to lead the Justice department, Becerra’s selection to succeed Alex Azar at HHS was unexpected—and, given their preference for someone with direct medical or public health experience, some health experts appeared skeptical of the pick after it was reported by the New York Times Sunday evening. But Biden picking Becerra might make more sense than immediately apparent: A longtime crusader for expanded access to healthcare, the California AG has been a leader in pushing back against Donald Trump’s efforts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Having also expressed support for Medicare for All, Becerra may find broader appeal among healthcare advocates and progressives who want Biden to take bolder action. “We’ve already seen his commitment to health and equity,” Dr. Ada D. Stewart, president of the American Academy of Family Physicians, told the Times, “and those things can’t be overlooked.”
If confirmed, Becerra would be the first Latino to lead the department. But as a strident supporter of women’s health and reproductive rights, some Republicans have already come out against him. “Xavier Becerra spent his career attacking pro-life Americans and tried to force crisis pregnancy centers to advertise abortions,” Senator Tom Cotton wrote of his nomination. “I’ll be voting no, and Becerra should be rejected by the Senate.” There have already been plenty of signs of a tough road to confirmation for some of Biden’s nominees, especially if Democrats lose the Georgia run-offs next month and Republicans maintain their grip on the Senate. Some in the GOP have said they’ll approve Biden’s nominees if they are “mainstream,” but they have also telegraphed strong opposition to some of his picks—particularly Neera Tanden, his Office of Management and Budget nominee, who has also been scrutinized by progressives and government watchdogs for her corporate ties and other issues.
Tanden and her nuclear tweeting aside, Biden’s Cabinet and administration choices have largely been uncontroversial figures, seen as at least palatable across much of the Democratic Party, and who have a chance of being confirmed regardless of the Senate makeup. “Biden does coalition politics and figures out who are the people who will offend the least number of coalition interest groups,” Sean McElwee, co-founder of the progressive Data for Progress think tank, told NBC News. Indeed, Biden has appeared to strive for consensus and competence, as well as diversity, in his nominations, as his other health team appointments underscored. Also Monday, Biden announced infectious disease expert Rochelle Walensky to lead the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has been weakened under Trump and has suffered a crisis of confidence during the pandemic. “In selecting [Walensky,] Biden has chosen one of the most respected infectious disease docs in the world,” Jen Kates, senior vice president at the Kaiser Family Foundation, tweeted after Politico reported the pick Sunday. “She has a long history working on HIV and has, in the past year, become a tour de force in addressing COVID. She’ll take the helm of CDC at perhaps its most critical moment.”
In addition to Becerra, Walensky, and Dr. Anthony Fauci, who will be Biden’s top health adviser, Biden’s team includes Obama administration alums Vivek Murthy, his nominee to serve again as surgeon general; Jeff Zients, his pick to lead the government’s COVID response; and Natalie Quillian, who will serve as Zients’ deputy. Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith, professor at the Yale School of Medicine and founder of its Equity Research and Innovation Center, will chair Biden’s COVID-19 Equality Task Force. “This team of world-class medical experts and public servants,” Biden said in a statement Monday, “will be ready on day one to mobilize every resource of the federal government to expand testing and masking, oversee the safe, equitable, and free distribution of treatments and vaccines, re-open schools and businesses safely, lower prescription drug and other health costs and expand affordable health care to all Americans, and rally the country and restore the belief that there is nothing beyond America’s capacity if we do it together.”
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