The nation’s top health official has been a background player for much of his tenure. He says that’s about to change.
Stung by accusations that he’s been absent during a once-in-a-century public health crisis, Xavier Becerra — the country’s top health official — tells CNN he’s looking to step into a bigger public role as part of a reset a year into dealing with the dominant issue in his portfolio.
President Joe Biden has been disturbed himself with the recent string of stories, and on Friday called his Health and Human Services secretary directly from the Oval Office to say he was pleased with the work being done and that he had Becerra’s back, according to two people told about the call. This followed White House chief of staff Ron Klain reaching out to the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to reiterate support. On Sunday, the White House announced Becerra will join first lady Jill Biden Wednesday on a trip to Minnesota for a listening session on childcare provisions within the administration’s Covid relief package.
In an exclusive interview, Becerra said he thinks the federal government’s guidance on the Covid-19 pandemic has been way too confusing, and fixing that problem begins by acknowledging it.
“The American people don’t have a lot of time to try to do the science and crunch the numbers,” Becerra said. “They expect the experts to give them the answer.”
Of course, the science around the virus is constantly changing, Becerra said, but he said administration officials need to realize that the confusion caused by how hard it’s been to keep up with the guidance coming out has been counterproductive, and perhaps costing lives.
“Here’s a difference between conveying a message that’s accurate and a message that’s clear: How you say it can be the difference between understanding it and not, or following it and not,” he said. Asked if he could accurately peg the current guidance on testing, isolation, masking and more, he offered, “I probably could.”
Becerra and his allies in the administration are embarking on an effort to bulk up the secretary’s role, from having a substantive meeting with Biden, which he has never done, to appearing at White House news briefings, which he has also never done.
Though White House officials say they’re eager to see him step up — “He has the ability to communicate, and I think he values that communication,” White House Covid-19 task force director Jeff Zients told CNN — some people familiar with the internal conversations say skepticism remains that Becerra will be able to.
The attempted reboot for Becerra comes as the Biden administration faces criticism for its public health messaging on the pandemic, something sources inside the administration say the former California congressman and state attorney general could help solve.
However, Becerra’s perceived absence in the Covid aspect of his job was set in motion by his rushed appointment to the job and a structure built for the administration’s pandemic response that disempowered him. That was accentuated by dynamics that fell into place during his delayed confirmation and is now leading to growing frustration with the secretary both inside and outside the administration.
That feeling comes as top Latino leaders have been privately reaching out to senior White House aides, saying they worry that Becerra, one of the most trusted leaders in Latino politics, is being thrown under the bus in a way that’s enraging and could create deeper problems for connections with Latino voters.
If the situation doesn’t change quickly, “I would be disappointed,” said Nathalie Rayes, president and CEO of the Latino Victory Project, “but I think that he will continue playing a critical role.”
Administration officials who’ve been in meetings and virtual calls with the secretary say he’s taken a conflict-averse approach in dealing with the administration’s other Covid-19 leaders. But that can come off as the secretary rarely asking substantive questions, giving the feeling that he’s treating the calls more as briefings on decisions already made without him.
Becerra often asks if officials have the resources they need. He asks what the roadblocks are and how he can help knock them down. Still, while Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief Biden medical adviser and infectious diseases expert, and most other officials working on the pandemic technically report to Becerra, that’s not the way it feels to most, internally or externally.
Instead of pushing for a spot for himself on Covid response, Becerra has focused on the other work of his massive department, which has included a lower-profile operational role in the Covid response and traveling around the country to talk to affected hospitals and health clinics directly.
Others acknowledge that Becerra’s sensibility as a longtime politician with experience getting his message across to voters might be just what they need right now, as the administration struggles to find the balance between staying on guard about the pandemic and responding to a country that, two years into living with the coronavirus, is increasingly finished with the lockdown mentality.
How that potentially changes in the weeks and months ahead will have ripple effects — not just public health ones, but political ones, too. Becerra is potentially an important figure in the Democrats’ outreach to Latino voters. It matters for his own political prospects, if and when he heads back to California. And in some suspicious corners of the White House, how this is managed is being watched as a measure of Zients, seen as a contender to be a future White House chief of staff.
“There’s a path forward,” said one person who worked in both the Obama and Biden administrations on related issues, “but he’s got to engage and do the work. He can’t do it lightly. He needs to sit at the head of the table, and he needs to have a strong point of view and be willing to take the consequences.”
Not Biden’s first choice for the job
Even before his first day on the job, Becerra was behind.
During the transition, Biden officials had zeroed in on Gina Raimondo, the then-governor of Rhode Island, known as a technocrat, who had made a surprisingly strong impression on candidate Biden’s running mate vetting team. Biden called to talk through options, and though he didn’t commit, the conversation left her telling people she thought she’d get the offer, according to three people told about the call.
According to two people familiar with the transition, Biden’s team had to quickly recalibrate following a letter from the Congressional Hispanic Caucus that had called out a lack of Latino representation in Biden’s Cabinet after New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham dropped out of favor for the job. That letter, combined with pushback from progressives about putting the business-friendly Raimondo in that spot, scrapped the governor’s chances for the role.
Biden aides scrambled. Becerra, a former congressman who was then the California attorney general, had hoped to be considered for US attorney general but was never given much consideration for that job.
The day before he was announced as health and human services secretary, Becerra was unaware the job was an actual possibility. He was announced on the same day in December 2020 that Zients, who had helped oversee the selection process, was named as head of the White House’s Covid-19 task force and given the true power over the administration’s pandemic response.
Raimondo was shifted to Commerce, setting off a minor shuffle of other Cabinet jobs. Lujan Grisham turned down her own follow-up offer to be interior secretary.
Coming off the days of miracle drug promotion and speculation on disinfectant injections or shining a bright light to fight Covid-19 from the Trump administration, Biden insisted that the doctors and scientists be out front on the pandemic. Zients, a skilled administration player with a Mr. Fix-It reputation from saving the heathcare.gov website during the Obama administration and auditing the failing finances during Biden’s campaign, was put in charge as coordinator.
‘A low public profile’
Then Becerra’s confirmation was delayed for two months by several Republican senators complaining that he wasn’t a doctor — despite that only three previous health secretaries ever had medical degrees.
Then, almost as soon as Becerra finally got on the job, he had to prioritize an influx of unaccompanied minors at the border. By the time he could even start digging in on the Covid-19 pandemic, it was early summer, and the administration’s pandemic dynamics had been well established without him.
Arturo Vargas, the CEO of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials and a friend of Becerra’s, said avoiding confrontation and the spotlight was “his M-O.”
“He had a low public profile in Congress even though he was in leadership. He was chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; he was in leadership in the Democratic Caucus. But he wasn’t in every single press conference with the speakers and the party leaders,” Vargas said.
More muted than disengaged, Becerra has extended that approach to the parts of the job that have nothing to do with the Covid response, like when the administration announced record-breaking Obamacare open enrollment numbers two weeks ago. This included outreach efforts through nonconventional media and trusted community voices in underserved communities, via programs overseen by Becerra.
“It’s historic, but it’s not accidental, and it’s not coincidental,” he told reporters about the enrollment numbers on a call announcing the success.
HHS officials say he’s met regularly with his international counterparts among health ministers, especially within the G7 nations, and reengaged America with the World Health Organization. Officials say that partnership was particularly important in helping to better identify the Omicron variant, understand its community spread and allocate resources accordingly.
He’s drawn from his experience on the House Ways and Means Committee to weigh in on intellectual property rights issues over sharing vaccines around the world. His experience as California attorney general has come into play when he chimes in on discussions about the legal challenges the administration has been drawing over mandates. He’s pushed for Medicare premiums to be revised in light of a major price drop in a top Alzheimer’s medication.
“He’s thinking about the end user, and understanding who’s missing and left behind by domestic or global policies,” said Loyce Pace, the department’s director of the Office of Global Affairs.
Zients said Becerra’s attention to issues of equity has been a constant and valued part of their conversations, whether in their regular Wednesday virtual meetings or other check-ins along the way. As to why Becerra has had so many people speaking out against him anonymously lately, Zients said, “I don’t get it.”
But Becerra has a long way to go to assert himself.
Asked by CNN during a trip to Washington last week what she thought of the man who had gotten the job she’d wanted, Lujan Grisham said Becerra is doing “an incredible job” managing distribution despite holdups in Covid therapeutics and treatment, in addition to prescription drug access and out-of-pocket costs.
She couldn’t remember how long it had been since they’d spoken. She asked an aide standing with her. Eventually, she pegged it at “eight or nine months.”
Being asked about him, she said, reminded her that she wanted to talk to him and thought he’d be receptive, as a Latino leader who’s been focused on helping the underserved throughout his career.
“I do need to talk to him about just some ideas I have about some pilot work for high-poverty states with minority populations that might be a new equity investment, particularly in public health,” she said. “I’m hoping to get a more than sympathetic ear, but someone who really understands how important it is to deal with states who have equity issues.”
Recalibrating around what’s not working
Becerra said focusing on what has gone wrong isn’t the right way to look at what’s happened over the last year.
“When the President takes office and when less than 1% of the country has been vaccinated, and now you’re at over 250 million people with at least one shot? That’s progress,” Becerra said. “We’re not done yet, sure. But we scored some touchdowns.”
He proudly noted that when he had come in as secretary, the proportion of Black Americans and Latinos who’d gotten at least one shot was well below the number of White Americans, and that today those proportions are all roughly even, in the low 80s.
“That wasn’t accidental. That wasn’t by chance. And it wasn’t easy,” he said. “We’re not waiting for people to come to us to get a shot. We’re going to them.”
Meanwhile, Becerra has directed $18 billion in relief funds to mitigate Covid in rural communities across the country.
Now a top current concern is convincing parents to get their children vaccinated. Though vaccines for 5- to 11-year-olds have been authorized for more than two months, only about 3 in 10 parents have moved forward with the shots, with the rate declining sharply after Thanksgiving, when the first rush of eager parents lined up their children.
While some parents are desperately waiting for shots for children under 5, Becerra and other administration officials know the bigger issue is going to be convincing all the others who aren’t considering it at all.
It doesn’t seem like announcing US Food and Drug Administration approval of Covid-19 vaccines — or putting Fauci or US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky on TV to talk about how safe they are — is going to change that.
“He’s certainly able to communicate and cut through some of the clutter in a way that’s really helpful,” said Dawn O’Connell, the assistant secretary for preparedness and response, who’s been the point person on many of the Covid-19 operations.
There’s certainly appetite for change. Asked what he makes of the administration’s pandemic messaging, Colorado Gov. Jared Polis, a former Becerra House colleague and a Democrat who’s become known for his skepticism of continuing the lockdown mentality, quipped, “I can’t say I really totally know what their Covid messaging is.”
First, Becerra will have to actually get in the door more; Biden isn’t the only person he hasn’t been talking with much.
Despite knowing Vice President Kamala Harris for years in California and being appointed to her old job as attorney general after she was elected to the Senate in 2016, and their shared focus on equity issues, he says he hasn’t talked with her much either over the last year.
“Not as often as you might think — well, I don’t know how often people think you talk to the President or vice president, but they’re pretty busy,” he said, though he downplayed that as too relevant of a factor. “You want to jump anyhow, and they’re just giving you a direction on how high.”
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