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Is Cancer Task Force Another Placebo?

Biden is heading up Obama's task force to fight cancer. The group will meet this week. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

History suggests the White House’s new high-level task force to fight cancer could prove more placebo than antidote, despite its broad bipartisan support.  

The same Republicans who sat dismissively as President Barack Obama ticked off a wish list of stalwart Democratic policy desires during his final State of the Union address joined Democrats in a standing ovation when he announced he was placing Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. in charge of a new task force charged with curing cancer in 10 years.  

In doing so, Obama added to a long list of such groups he has created during his presidency. But the use of presidential task forces and their big brother, the presidential commission, is as old as the office itself. Electronic searches show presidents as far back as William Howard Taft have turned to these hodgepodge, government-wide entities to get something or, in most cases, nothing done. “Usually, a president says, ‘I don’t know what to do, so let’s create a task force,'” Lawrence Korb, a former Pentagon official now at the Center for American Progress, said on Jan. 29. “Most of them don’t amount to much.”  

Obama is by no means alone in turning to task forces on complicated issues, but he certainly has created his fair share of them.  

There are little-known ones such as his Pollinator Health Task Force and his Task Force on High-Tech Patent Issues. Then there are higher-profile ones, such as his Task Force on 21st Century Policing and his Task Force on Puerto Rico, that appear to have had little impact beyond the Washington Beltway.  

Korb pointed to a pair of recent presidential task forces that helped bring about change. One was a Clinton administration task force aimed at ensuring the federal government "works better, costs less, and gets results Americans care about.” And another was Obama’s task force that helped his team craft the policies that helped stave off a complete collapse of the U.S. auto industry.  

The latter, he said, shows that presidential task forces typically are most effective when they are responding to a crisis that needs remedies quickly. By Obama's own definition, the cancer group has 10 years to meet its goal.  

Obama’s predecessor, George W. Bush, also was a fan of the presidential task force. He established one on Citizen Preparedness in the War on Terrorism and one on environmental and resource management in the Great Lakes region aimed at getting agencies to work together better because those bodies of water are a “national treasure.”  

When these kinds of ad hoc groups are viewed through a lens that factors in the complexities of the issues on which they are focused and the challenges of pulling in resources from multiple agencies, “it can seem like not much at all,” said Janet Marchibroda of the Bipartisan Policy Center.  

One reason such task forces fail, experts said, is that presidents become focused on other issues and those left to run them face the daunting task of “trying to get all these agencies to actually work together,” Marchibroda said.  

On cancer research, for instance, “just think about how much data resides within the Department of Defense or the FDA or the National Institutes of Health,” she added. “Figuring out how to ensure that data gets shared will alone be a really big job.”  

Many of the presidential task forces launched by Obama and his several recent predecessors had a much smaller scope than Obama’s newest one, which senior White House officials call a “moonshot.” Task force members typically are chosen due to the expertise on and resources devoted to that issue that resides within their respective agencies or offices. There are 14 senior officials, including Biden, on this one.  

In guidance released Thursday, Obama directed the group of officials from nearly 20 federal departments and offices to “work with a wide array of executive departments and agencies that have responsibility for key issues related to basic … and clinical research, therapy development, regulation of medical products, and medical care related to cancer.”  

It also must by the end of the year come up with a “detailed set of findings and recommendations" on a range of cancer-related issues. Specifically, he ordered the group to propose ways to improve the “prevention, early detection, treatment, and cure” of the disease, and ways to “improve patient access and care.”  

Korb, a longtime Washington hand, doubts a task force handed with such a daunting long-term goal will be successful. “I suspect they’ll come up with some recommendations that aren’t legally binding. They’ll put some more money into it,” he said. “But they’ll basically have some feel-good recommendations that won’t amount to much.”  

A White House spokeswoman referred a reporter to Biden's Jan. 28 Medium post .

"We’re going to continue to meet in the months to come  — and lay the groundwork for the next administration," he wrote. "We’ll build around a few key areas where there seems to be consensus from the cancer community."

"We’re not trying to make incremental change here. We’re trying to get to a quantum leap on the path to a cure. That’s the goal of this moonshot," Biden, whose son Beau died from cancer last year, wrote in a section the White House spokeswoman described as him "setting quantifiable goals."  

Korb himself has history with presidential task forces, being appointed to one by former Defense Secretary Casper Weinberger during the Reagan administration.  

That group's work failed to even make much of an impression on Korb.  

“I’ve forgotten what it was on!” he said. "It’s been so long since I thought about it. We had all these meetings. There would be an agenda, and we would talk through it. But nothing ever came of it.”  

Contact Bennett at johnbennett@cqrollcall.com and follow him on Twitter at @BennettJohnT. Related: On Cancer ‘Moonshot,’ Time is Ticking for Biden See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. NEW! Download the Roll Call app for the best coverage of people, politics and personalities of Capitol Hill.