The appointment of Xavier Becerra as Secretary of Health and Human Services has received a second opinion — and the diagnosis is not good.
Biden administration officials are increasingly frustrated with Becerra over his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially the Omicron variant, the Washington Post reported Monday.
The paper added that discontent has grown to the point that replacing the former California attorney general as head of HHS has been openly discussed within the White House.
As America enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Becerra has rarely been seen or heard from — while chief White House medical advisor Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky, and White House COVID-19 response coordinator Jeffrey Zients have been the faces of the administration’s response.
Some officials who talked to the Post accused Becerra of not pushing the administration’s strategy hard enough, claiming differences of opinion regarding booster shots and isolation guidelines has only caused more confusion.
The paper also reported, citing six people familiar with the matter, that Zients is among those dissatisfied with Becerra’s performance and has blamed the HHS head for not ensuring the White House is fully aware of new guidance coming from agencies like the CDC.
Becerra “is taking too passive a role in what may be the most defining challenge of the administration,” as one senior White House official put it.
Since being sworn into office in March 2021, Becerra has yet to appear on a Sunday morning television program. By contrast, his Trump-era predecessor, Alex Azar, appeared at least a dozen times on various networks during the first year of the pandemic.
A spokesperson for Becerra denied that the secretary has kept a low profile, saying he has traveled to more than 20 states and has appeared on TV and radio.
“Would you rather have a secretary who prioritizes TV appearances over getting tests, therapeutics and vaccines into the hands of people who need them?” the spokesperson asked.
Becerra reportedly keeps his head down inside HHS as well. Despite holding a morning meeting most days, he mostly listens to updates regarding the pandemic instead of asking questions or offering input, according to the Washington Post.
Despite widespread discontent with Becerra, President Biden is unlikely to dismiss him. The report indicates a change would likely anger the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and other organizations who have pushed the president to name more Latinos to his inner circle.
Appointing a replacement for Becerra quickly could also be difficult in light of the evenly divided Senate and the added workload caused by the recent retirement of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Becerra’s nomination to lead HHS was heavily criticized by Republicans last year, with a group of GOP senators pointing out that he had “no meaningful experience in health care, public health, large-scale logistics, or any other areas critical to meeting our present challenges .”
Last spring, the New York Times reported that Biden himself lashed out at Becerra when he failed to answer questions about how HHS was dealing with the surge in unaccompanied migrant children at the US-Mexico border in late March.
White House spokesman Kevin Munoz dismissed the reported griping about Becerra as “anonymous gossip.”
“Since Day 1, the administration has managed a strong, coordinated COVID-19 response thanks to Secretary Becerra and HHS officials at every level of government,” Munoz told the Washington Post. “HHS is one of the most critical agencies in this fight and we have built a coordinated operation that is working together day and night, every single day of the week.”
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary for preparedness and response at HHS, called Becerra a “great, through partner,” saying that he has helped her team “hit the ground running” to distribute tests, masks and other supplies.
“We’ve got these vaccines out, we’ve got boosters available. Tests are being delivered to American households, masks are being handed out. And the secretary has just been there to support that effort,” she said.
Celenie Gounder, an infectious disease expert at New York University who was apart of the Biden transition team’s COVID-19 task force, told the Washington Post that it is unclear “how much of [Becerra’s] role or non-role is driven by him versus the White House.”
“Certainly whether it’s him or the White House itself, there does need to be better coordination,” she said. “That isn’t to say there should be suppression of certain ideas but rather coordination of different agencies. He is certainly one person who could be doing that.”
At least one advise blamed the White House for the confusion, rather than Becerra.
“It’s very clear to me that the White House is not looking for Becerra to be involved,” the outside advisor said. “What you can’t do is say, ‘We’re going to run it out of the White House,’ but not be involved with the agencies. Or if there is a role for Becerra, they should articulate it to him.”
The White House has insisted that there is constant communication between HHS and the administration, despite the concerns.