WASHINGTON, DC: US President Joe Biden (third right)and First Lady Jill Biden (second right), with Vice President Kamala Harris (second left) and her husband, Second Gentleman Doug Emhoff, watch the virtual Presidential Inaugural Prayer Service hosted by the Washington National Cathedral, in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, DC, on Friday.—AFP

WASHINGTON: Camped out in bare offices, President Joe Biden’s new White House team has spent its first three days scrambling for things like binder clips and IT support-oh, and trying to save the country from multiple crises. They took over leadership of the world’s most powerful, wealthy and innovative nation on Wednesday. But after a nasty transition period from the Donald Trump administration, incoming staff face some of the problems an ordinary renter might face in a new apartment.

The entire premises got a deep cleaning job that CNN reported cost $500,000 and the Oval Office has been revamped. But rows of empty shelves and walls stripped of decoration make a less than homely atmosphere in the warren of offices occupied by Press Secretary Jen Psaki and her media operation.

On her first full day, Meghan Hays, director of message planning, had to write on her cellphone because the computer didn’t work. Another staffer asked if anyone had seen binder clips, before rummaging unsuccessfully through an assortment of office supplies in a big cardboard box. Yet even if Biden’s crew haven’t had time to hang pictures, they’ve already transformed the White House.

Masked up
Visually, the most obvious difference is that everyone now wears masks against COVID-19. A picture of Biden at the Resolute Desk on his first day, sporting a black mask, defined the new era. Trump almost never wore a mask in public, fearing it would send a message of weakness. He certainly never wore one publicly in the Oval Office, wondering aloud what “presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens” would think of such a thing.

COVID screening has also been toughened, another dramatic shift at a building which became a viral hotspot under Trump. The number of journalists allowed in, for example, has been reduced to a strict 80 people a day and they must not only wear masks, but undergo a rapid test.

Science is back
The clampdown reflects Biden’s number one priority-defeating a pandemic that has already killed 400,000 Americans and hobbled entire sectors of the economy. To assist him, he has brought back the renowned infectious diseases specialist Dr Anthony Fauci who was essentially banished under Trump for speaking plainly. Gone are the days when the president might come to the briefing room podium and suggest that people inject bleach to counter the coronavirus, as Trump did during a wild press conference last April.

Gone too are the days when the president loomed behind the experts, frequently interrupting or simply overriding what they were trying to say. Recalling those moments on Thursday, Fauci said they were “uncomfortable because they were not based on scientific fact.” To be back in the briefing room and “let the science speak-it is somewhat of a liberating feeling,” mused the veteran scientist.

Volume down
Along with a promise of openness, the Biden administration is telling Americans to expect a quieter, calmer mood. No more tweet storms, no more insulting journalists on national television, no more insults full stop. “If you’re ever working with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot,” Biden told staff on the first day. Psaki is channeling that vibe with a resurrection of the daily press briefing.

For years, this was an integral part of the White House messaging system, an almost hallowed ritual. But under Trump, the sessions largely died out, replaced by the boss’s preference for endless tweets and hour-long interviews with friendly hosts on Fox News and right-wing radio. When the briefings did happen, particularly under Kayleigh McEnany, they became less briefings than sarcasm-filled monologues against the media.

In the first three days, at least, Psaki has turned back the clock. The change of tone under Biden points to deeper goals, said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond’s School of Law. “It goes beyond style but style is also important,” he said. “I think they’ve been very clear that they want to dramatically change the way the fed government works.” “It’s a radical departure from Trump, who delighted in busting all of the norms, all of the rules, all of the laws, all of the customs, right up to the very end,” he said. – AFP