Joe Biden’s in tray: President faces daunting agenda after Trump era

Coronavirus and its economic impact biggest issues immediately facing new US president

New US president Joe Biden pleaded for unity in his inaugural address to a divided United States of America. "This is our historic moment of crisis and challenge," he said, shortly after being sworn in as the nation's 46th president. Video: C-Span

 

As Joe Biden enters the White House as president, a new era has begun in the United States. After four years of turmoil, controversy and national division that culminated with the storming of the US Capitol by supporters of a president who refused to accept his election defeat, the US is on the cusp of a very different presidency.

Biden campaigned on a platform of unity. A former vice-president and veteran of Congress where he served for 36 years, he cast himself as the responsible choice, an experienced hand with a track record of bipartisanship. Last March, after a lengthy primary campaign, Democrats coalesced behind Biden, even as some questioned whether a septuagenarian white man really reflected the party or the US.

He now begins a four-year term with a weight of expectation on his shoulders.

In one regard, the start of the Biden presidency mirrors the early days of that of Barack Obama. In 2009, Obama and Biden took the reins when the US was in the midst of the financial crisis. Within months the new administration had introduced the multibillion-dollar Recovery Act through Congress; shortly afterwards the Obama White House passed the auto industry bailout, which is widely credited with preventing the collapse of General Motors and Chrysler.

As vice-president, Biden played a key role in both rescue packages. In February 2009, Obama specifically thanked his vice-president for his work behind the scenes on securing congressional buy-in for the Recovery Act.

Biden is expected to sign a number of executive orders relating to the pandemic, including measures to expand testing and protect workers

Twelve years on, Biden assumes office as the US grapples with another crisis. The coronavirus, which has claimed 400,000 lives in the US, will be a key focus for the new president as he tries to tackle the health and economic implications of the pandemic.

This urgent domestic challenge means it is likely that foreign policy and other issues will take a back seat. Nonetheless, the Biden transition team outlined an ambitious slate of executive orders, beginning with announcements that the US will re-enter the Paris climate agreement and a rescindment of Trump’s travel ban on several Muslim-majority countries, introduced in the opening days of his presidency four years ago.  

While executive orders give a president leeway to introduce policy unilaterally and relatively quickly, effecting change through legislation is a different matter. Much of Biden’s focus, then, will be on securing support from Congress for some of his policies.

Thanks to the Democrats’ wins in this month’s pair of Senate run-off races in Georgia, Biden’s party will control the Senate as well as the House of Representatives – but only just. Both Democrats and Republicans have 50 seats each in the Senate, with vice-president Kamala Harris having the casting vote when needed, effectively giving the Democrats control.

Some legislation, however, also needs a “super-majority” of 60 votes in the upper house. Similarly, House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Democratic-majority in the House is much slimmer than in the last Congress after a disappointing performance by Democratic candidates in November’s congressional elections.

The tight numbers mean that Biden can ill afford to have any Democratic defectors. Keeping all factions within the party on board, from more liberal senators such as Bernie Sanders, to Democrats representing Republican-leaning districts such as Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, will be a tough task.

Compromises and concessions will be needed each step of the way, as Biden seeks to implement his agenda. Nonetheless, here are some of the policy areas Biden is expected to prioritise as president.

Coronavirus

Biden has made no secret of his belief that Donald Trump mishandled the pandemic, and the new president put his own strategy on tackling coronavirus front and centre of his election campaign.

As Trump held thronged political rallies, sometimes in open defiance of state restrictions, throughout the summer and autumn, Biden kept a deliberately low profile during the election campaign, eschewing traditional campaign events and instead embracing online forums.

Now, the country will be watching to see if Biden can deliver. On Thursday, Biden is expected to sign a number of executive orders relating to the pandemic, including measures to expand testing and protect workers in order to safely reopen schools and businesses.

After four years of Trump’s “America First” policy, allies are hopeful that the US will return to multilateralism as the foundation block of American diplomacy

His team announced last week a plan to roll out vaccinations across the country in specially identified sites, backed up by increased deployments of medical teams. Mobile clinics to serve underprivileged communities is also part of the plan. Biden may also tackle the shortage in vaccine supplies by invoking the Defense Production Act, though this could take time.

He has repeatedly said he wants to ensure 100 million Covid-19 vaccine shots have been administrated by his 100th day in office.

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But the challenges are significant, and Biden is likely to have to work closely with state governors to ensure a functioning vaccine rollout programme. His incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, who was the “Ebola Czar” during the Obama presidency, has predicted that there could be 500,000 US deaths from Covid-19 by February.

Economy, trade and tax

Biden’s economic policy will be strongly intertwined with his coronavirus response, given the enormous economic impact the pandemic has had on the world’s largest economy.

The first economic item on his agenda is a $1.9 trillion (€1.57 trillion) stimulus plan unveiled earlier this month. The sum is significant – by comparison, the 2009 Recovery Act was $800 billion – and comes on the back of two separate packages last year, the $2 billion programme in March, and a $900 billion relief package in December.

Included is a proposal for $1,400 cheques to be sent to individual Americans and an extension and expansion of the unemployment payment. An increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour – long a request by many on the left of the Democratic Party – as well as money for businesses, state authorities and schools is also provided for.

Incoming Treasury secretary Janet Yellen urged Congress to “act big” during her confirmation hearing on Tuesday, noting that interest rates are low. But Senate Republicans have already hit back. Pennsylvania senator Pat Toomey criticised Biden’s plan to use “borrowed money” so soon after December’s package.

On trade, Biden was tight-lipped on his specific plans during the election campaign, but he inherits a full-on trade war with China from Trump, who imposed a wave of tariffs on Beijing during his presidency.

Then US vice-president Joe Biden with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2013. The growing economic might of China and its increasing authoritarian bent will be a major focus for the incoming US administration. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/New York Times
Then US vice-president Joe Biden with Chinese president Xi Jinping in Beijing in 2013. The growing economic might of China and its increasing authoritarian bent will be a major focus for the incoming US administration. Photograph: Lintao Zhang/New York Times

All indications are that Biden will continue to adopt a tough trade stance towards China. However, he is likely to approach the challenge of rising Chinese power by working with allies such as the European Union, though its decision last month to sign an investment pact with Beijing jarred with the Biden team.

Biden has also promised to repatriate US businesses and address the concerns of workers who have seen much employment and industrial activity disappear from American heartlands. As he states in his “Build Back Better” plan: “The goal of every decision about trade must be to build the American middle class, create jobs, raise wages, and strengthen communities.”

Ireland, home to many American companies, will be watching the evolution of Biden’s trade policy closely, though his promise to incentivise investment in US manufacturing is unlikely to impact on US foreign direct investment in the near term.

Foreign policy

After four years of Trump’s “America First” policy, allies are hopeful that the US will return to multilateralism as the foundation block of American diplomacy.

In an essay outlining his foreign policy credentials in Foreign Affairs magazine last year, Biden argued that the US “must lead again”. The Biden foreign policy agenda will seek to place the US back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilise collective action on global threats. “The world does not organise itself,” he wrote.

These sentiments were echoed by incoming secretary of state Antony Blinken at his Senate confirmation hearing this week. If the US was not engaged, he said, “either some other country tries to take our place . . . or maybe just as bad, no one does”.

The appointment of Blinken, and other figures such national security adviser nominee Jake Sullivan, has reassured the US’s allies in Europe and in Nato. But while Biden is a committed transatlanticist, challenges remain. The Biden team let it be known that it was furious at the EU’s signing of the investment pact with China – widely believed to have been German-led – for not being strong enough on censuring China’s human-rights abuses.

Despite the widespread welcome in Brussels for the appointment of figures such as Blinken and Amanda Sloat to the state department, the EU-US relationship has not always been smooth. Victoria Nuland, undersecretary for political affairs, had to apologise in 2014 after she reportedly said “F*** the EU” in a leaked phone call with a US diplomat during the Ukraine crisis.

Similarly, Biden is likely to echo Trump – and Obama’s – call for European Nato members to spend more on defence.

Further afield, the growing economic might of China and its increasing authoritarian bent, as evidenced in Hong Kong and its actions towards the Uighur minority, will be a major focus for the incoming administration and, indeed, the international community at large.

Though Biden is likely to continue trade pressures on Beijing, expect a more unforgiving tone from Washington on its human-rights record. Also in the region, the threat posed by North Korea has not gone away. Biden is likely to demand more definitive concessions from Pyongyang than the high-profile summits embraced by Trump, whose policy on North Korea was guided by his on-again-off-again relationship with dictator Kim Jong-un.

The Middle East will continue to occupy the new president of the US. Biden’s strategy towards Iran will be closely watched, particularly the question of re-entering the Iran nuclear deal negotiated during the Obama presidency. This could prove more difficult than it seems. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo’s decision to impose more sanctions in the closing weeks of the Trump presidency has complicated matters, while Iran has been increasing its uranium enrichment programme. Biden will also have to overcome resistance in Congress, not just from Republicans but also from a significant number of Democrats.

Biden’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will also differ from that of his predecessor. Though the new president is very much a friend of Israel, he is likely to be less stridently so than his predecessor. But those hoping for a radical change of approach may be disappointed. Blinken told the Senate this week that one of the most controversial decisions of the Trump presidency – the relocation of the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem – will not be reversed.

A shift in Washington’s stance on Russia is also likely. Though the Trump administration introduced sanctions on Moscow, Biden is likely to put pressure on Moscow in relation to issues such as nuclear proliferation and human rights. In response to the arrest of Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny, Sullivan pledged “to work with our allies and partners to hold the Putin regime accountable for its crimes” – directly linking the Kremlin to Navalny’s poisoning last year.

Closer to home, Biden may look to re-engage with Cuba, a key focus of Obama’s foreign policy. However, Pompeo’s decision to last week add Cuba to the list of state sponsors of terrorism is likely to complicate things.

In relation to the US’s military presence abroad, Biden will need to decide on the next steps for Afghanistan, following Trump’s partial withdrawal of troops, and where nascent peace talks are under way between the Taliban and the Afghan government. Biden famously split with Obama on policy in this area when he opposed the troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009. He will now confront a similar issue 12 years on, while also facing calls from some quarters to reverse Trump’s surprise withdrawal of US troops from Somalia late last year.

A wildfire in Silverado, California, in December. Joe Biden has indicated that he wants to embed climate-change priorities throughout the federal government. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images
A wildfire in Silverado, California, in December. Joe Biden has indicated that he wants to embed climate-change priorities throughout the federal government. Photograph: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Climate change

Nothing perhaps indicates Joe Biden’s commitment to tackling climate change more than his personnel appointments. His decision to make former secretary of state John Kerry special presidential envoy for climate is an indication of the seriousness with which he is taking the issue. Kerry will also be a member of the National Security Council.

Biden also tapped former head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Gina McCarthy, to run his administration’s domestic climate agenda. The new president has indicated that he wants to embed climate-change priorities throughout the federal government in a bid to reduce the US’s carbon emissions. In addition he is expected to reverse many Trump measures that rolled back Obama-era environmental regulations.  

Biden’s focus on climate issues is no doubt a nod to the younger, more progressive elements of his party, who have proposed an ambitious “Green New Deal” investment plan. While his ambitions fall short of the kind of measures put forward by people such as New York congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, he nonetheless plans to put “green economy” policies at the heart of his infrastructure and investment plan.

In a move that will be welcomed by environmental groups, Biden is expected to cancel the contract for the Keystone oil pipeline this week. The project stretches from Canada to Texas and its construction has been highly controversial.

Immigration

Biden’s decision to introduce an ambitious immigration Bill in his first days in office took many by surprise. The new president had indicated that he would seek to reverse Trump’s block on Daca – the deferred action on childhood arrivals programme that gives protection to young people who came to the US as children.

But the move to embark on a broader reform of the immigration system was not expected. However, Biden will signal his arrival in the White House with a sweeping revision of US immigration rules. This includes offering undocumented migrants an eight-year pathway to become lawful permanent residents.

This is good news for the thousands of undocumented Irish living in the US, but is more likely to be a nod to the millions of Hispanic unlawful immigrants, many of whom abandoned the Democratic Party in November’s election.

A migrant holds a sign reading “Biden: enlight the way for a humane immigration reform” at a vigil in Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP
A migrant holds a sign reading “Biden: enlight the way for a humane immigration reform” at a vigil in Tijuana, Mexico, on Monday. Photograph: Guillermo Arias/AFP

Securing congressional agreement for immigration reform will be a tough task. The government came close to agreeing a package in 2007 and 2013, but ultimately lacked enough votes. News this week that a caravan of South American migrants is making its way through Guatemala is a reminder of how politically sensitive the issue is in the US.

Nevertheless, Biden’s bold vision puts him at odds with his predecessor, who campaigned on an anti-immigration agenda and imposed a number of travel bans. With his push to solve the citizenship question for up to 11 million undocumented people in the US, Biden is setting the tone for a more inclusive and tolerant presidency.

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