White House frustrated with Xavier Becerra over COVID response
Xavier Becerra’s appointment as health secretary has called for a second opinion – and the diagnosis isn’t good.
Biden administration officials are increasingly frustrated with Becerra’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly the Omicron variant, the Washington Post reported Monday.
The newspaper added that discontent had grown to the point where replacing the former California attorney general as head of HHS was openly discussed in the White House.
As America enters the third year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Becerra has rarely been seen or heard from — while White House senior medical adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and White House COVID-19 Response Coordinator Jeffrey Zients were the faces of the administration’s response.
Some officials speaking to the Post accused Becerra of not pushing the government’s strategy hard enough, claiming disagreements over booster shots and isolation guidelines only added more confusion.
The newspaper also reported, citing six people familiar with the matter, that Zients is among those unhappy with Becerra’s performance and has accused the HHS chief of failing to ensure the White House was following the new guidance from agencies such as the CDC is fully aware of.
Becerra “is taking too passive a role in what is perhaps the most crucial challenge facing the administration,” as a senior White House official put it.
Becerra has not appeared on a Sunday morning television show since being sworn in in March 2021. In contrast, his Trump-era predecessor Alex Azar made at least a dozen appearances on various networks in the first year of the pandemic.
A Becerra spokesman denied that the secretary held back, saying he has traveled to more than 20 states and appeared on television and radio.
“Would you rather have a secretary prioritizing TV appearances than putting tests, therapeutics and vaccines in the hands of people who need them?” asked the spokesman.
Becerra is also reportedly keeping his head down at HHS. Though he holds a morning meeting most days, he primarily listens to updates on the pandemic rather than asking questions or making contributions, according to the Washington Post.
Despite widespread dissatisfaction with Becerra, President Biden is unlikely to fire him. The report points out that a change would likely anger the congressional Hispanic caucus and other organizations that have been pushing the president to add more Latinos to his inner circle.
Quickly appointing a replacement for Becerra could also be difficult given the evenly divided Senate and the extra workload caused by the recent resignation of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.
Becerra’s appointment as head of HHS drew heavy criticism from Republicans last year, with a group of GOP senators pointing out that he “did not have significant experience in healthcare, public health, large-scale logistics, or any other area relevant to.” are critical to addressing our current 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 handling the spike 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 government has delivered a strong, coordinated COVID-19 response thanks to Secretary Becerra and HHS officials at all levels 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 working together day and night every single day of the week.”
Dawn O’Connell, assistant secretary of preparedness and response at HHS, called Becerra a “great, end-to-end partner” and said he helped her team “get going” by distributing tests, masks and other supplies.
“We’ve put these vaccines out, we have boosters available. Tests are delivered to American homes, masks are distributed. And the secretary was there just to support that effort,” she said.
Celenie Gounder, an infectious disease expert at New York University who was part of the Biden transition team’s COVID-19 task force, told the Washington Post it was unclear “how much [Becerra’s] Role or non-role will be determined by him to the White House.”
“Whether it’s him or the White House itself, there needs to be better coordination,” she said. “This does not mean that certain ideas should be suppressed, but rather a coordination of different bodies. He’s certainly a person who could do that.”
At least one adviser blamed the White House for the confusion, not Becerra.
“It is very clear to me that the White House is not looking for Becerra’s involvement,” the outside adviser said. “What you can’t do is say, ‘We’re going to run it from the White House,’ but not get involved with the agencies. Or if there is a role for Becerra, they should articulate it to him.
The White House has insisted that despite the concerns, there is constant communication between HHS and the administration.