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OP-ED: Biden’s first domestic task: Restore trust in the civil service

  • Published at 07:26 pm October 23rd, 2020
Biden Trump debate

The departure of Trump from the White House will not be a magic wand for de-polarization

 the time you see my words on these pages again, the United States would have elected the president who will take oath on January 20 of next year. Whether it will be Joe Biden or not, I do not know; in fact, unlike most professional prognosticators who put overwhelming odds on the former vice president’s chances in the ongoing general election, my take is far more sobering and, at best, I give him a barely an odds-are-even chance. 

That said, should Biden pull this off, the expectations thrusted on him would be anything but of a marginal nature: Upon his shoulders will come to rest the pent-up demand to return a modicum of normalcy in American politics after four years of an unpredictable, turbulent, and jarringly norm-shattering administration that has muddied the boundaries of what is acceptable in modern American political customs. 

Even as a President Biden deals with a pandemic that shows little sign of abating, there is likely to be tremendous moral pressure from civil society on him to restore trust, evidence-based decision-making, and professionalism in the sprawling federal civil service which, until the Trump administration, largely functioned as a meritocratic institution under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. 

Though protected by several sets of civil service laws, under the Trump-Pence administration the letter and spirit of the laws have been pushed to the brink (and some would argue, breached) by political appointees with little subject matter expertise and a large ideological agenda who have attempted to use departments and agencies for their own petty political purposes at a scale unseen since the turn of the 20th century.  

Such repair to the battered professionalism in the federal public service will be sorely needed across the board, including in national security focused agencies like the Pentagon, the CIA, and the FBI, where Trump’s political operatives have been brought in as “advisers” to check on appointed Republican agency heads and career operatives. 

A similar situation exists in the State Department where an army of formal and informal consultants, including the wife of the secretary of state, have (mis)managed the operations and morale of America’s vaunted and highly qualified foreign service.

Large swathes of the domestic issues-oriented bureaucracies have not been immune to such vapid politicization either. Federal departments overseeing agriculture and health have been forced to send out domestic aid to citizens with notes that falsely depict such assistance as personal gifts from the president, a patronage practice far more prevalent in African dictatorships than in the citadel of Western democracy. 

The Department of Justice -- once the proud vanguard of America’s commitment to equal justice under the rule of law -- has been busy investigating political opponents against the evidence-based counsel from career prosecutors, even as it has become the personal law firm of the president’s family, as they defend lawsuits that allege crimes ranging from rape to financial fraud to tax cheating.

President Trump’s known and understandable outrage at the corruption in what he called “Third World sh*thole countries” has been ironically turned on its head as his administration has imported ostensibly banana republic practices into the erstwhile professional and independent American federal civil service, with career public servants being expected to become extensions of the ruling coterie’s political whims.

The challenge in front of a possible President Biden to restore professionalism back into the civil service -- and some sense of normalcy back into the body politic -- will be a tough one. On the one hand, there will be public and civic pressure; on the other, the activists of his own party will be salivating for a payback and their own “turn” at running the civil service for their short term policy goals. 

The presidency of Donald Trump did not inaugurate the era of hyper-partisanship, but merely moved forward into the political realm the resentment felt by large swathes of the population in regards to globalization, demographic changes, and economic upheavals. As such, a possible departure of Trump from the White House is not a magic wand for de-polarization. Any chance to incrementally move towards a lesser polarization will depend on slowly restoring back trust in the non-political institutions that made governance possible in America, starting with the federal public service.

If a President Biden is able to deflect the inevitable and perhaps understandable pressure from his party’s vocal voices and thus eschew his predecessor’s predilection for using the bureaucracy as an instrument of perpetual campaigning, the Democratic Party base will be upset, but America may have a much-needed chance to begin the process of healing the bruised trust of the public in professionalism, credibility, and impartiality of agencies and departments that exist to serve all without fear or favour. 

Esam Sohail is a college administrator and writes from Kansas, USA. He can be reached at [email protected]