Joe Biden’s first month: Presidency in a Covid climate
He’s had some early wins but his ambitious economic and immigration plans face resistance
US president Joe Biden makes his way to his vehicle in the snow, after attending Mass at Saint Joseph on the Brandywine Church in Wilmington, Delaware on February 7th. Photograph: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images
It’s a month since the United States and the world watched Joe Biden being sworn in as 46th US president. Standing on the steps of the US Capitol, the site of a violent riot three weeks before, the former vice-president promised a new era for a country still reeling from the divisions of the Trump years.
“Democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile. At this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed,” he said under the cold January sky.
“We will be judged, you and I, for how we resolve the cascading crises of our era. Will we rise to the occasion? Will we master this rare and difficult hour?” he asked.
A month into his presidency, it may be too early to formulate a definitive answer to those questions, but the eyes of the nation are upon Biden. Ever since Franklin Roosevelt’s extraordinary accomplishments in his first 100 days in office when he pushed through many of his New Deal reforms, US presidents have been measured by that yardstick.
Biden himself frequently alluded to the 100-day framework during his campaign for president – promising everything from administering 100 million Covid vaccines to tackling gun crime and criminal justice reform, to an economic relief plan.
Biden is not facing the same scale of challenges that confronted FDR when he took power in 1933. The Democratic president then confronted a 25 per cent unemployment rate, bank collapses and desperate farmers, as the Great Depression took hold. But Biden views this time in the US as a “historic moment of crisis and challenge” as the world’s largest economy struggles with the Covid-19 pandemic, and a deep reckoning over racial injustice in the country following last summer’s protests over the death of George Floyd.
Top of Biden’s agenda as he has taken the reins at the White House has been the Covid crisis and its economic consequences. He has appointed a Covid-19 response team, including well-known figures such as Dr Anthony Fauci, to oversee the rollout of vaccinations across the country.
Biden’s – and his inner circle’s – primary legislative focus has been the economic recovery plan. The $1.9 trillion proposal is likely to be the signature policy of Biden’s first year in office.
The scale is enormous. While the rescue package signed by Barack Obama at the height of the financial crisis in 2009 was $800 billion, Biden is proposing a $1.9 trillion package, on top of the $900 billion agreed by Congress in December and $2.2 trillion last March.
It proposes sending cheques for $1,400 directly to millions of Americans, an increase in jobless benefits and child tax credits, and small business grants.
Democrats’ control of both the House of Representatives and the Senate give Biden a distinct advantage as he tries to seek congressional support for his proposal. But the Democratic majority is small in both chambers, so he cannot afford to lose any dissenters from within the party’s ranks.
Already, Republican resistance to the inclusion of an increase in the federal minimum wage to $15 threatens to alienate the liberal wing of the party in the House.
In the Senate, Bernie Sanders has been appointed chair of the Senate budget committee, leaving many Republicans aghast. Sanders has vowed to keep the proposal in the final package, even though it was omitted from a procedural vote on fast-tracking the legislation through the Senate this month.
Several economists warned that more stimulus could lead to inflationary pressures and risk overheating the economy
While Biden has said he would prefer Republican support for the Bill, he is burned by the experience of 2009 when Democrats reduced the size of the rescue package at the behest of Republicans who then voted against it anyway.
Biden also recently criticised Republicans who “all of a sudden” have rediscovered fiscal restraint and concern for deficits, having presided over a rise in the national debt and deficits during the Trump years.
Another threat to the plan has also emerged, this time from the academic establishment.
Former treasury secretary and doyen of the Democratic establishment Larry Summers recently penned an article in the Washington Post, questioning the need for such a massive package, arguing that the current economic situation is less acute than the financial crisis of 2009. Help, he wrote, should be targeted at those who need it.
The Economist magazine agreed. “America is not in a normal recession that is best solved by a calibrated slug of government spending,” it stated in a leader. Worse, several economists warned that more stimulus could lead to inflationary pressures and risk overheating the economy.
The Biden team hit back. Treasury secretary Janet Yellen, who has urged Congress to “act big”, told CNN that she had “spent many years studying inflation and worrying about inflation... but we face a huge economic challenge here and tremendous suffering in the country. We have got to address that. That’s the biggest risk.”
Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell also pushed back on fears that the economy could overheat. Like governments throughout the world, the low-interest-rate environment has helped justify the decision to shore up Covid-hit economies.
Biden hopes to finalise his package with Congress next month, but in the meantime is pressing ahead with other priorities.
In terms of foreign policy and climate change, Biden has used the full power of the presidential executive order to follow through on many of his campaign objectives.
Within days of his inauguration he had committed to rejoining the Paris climate change agreement and the World Health Organisation. He also undid many Trump-era measures, reversing his travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries and the ban on transgender people serving in the military.
But many of his most substantive policy changes in office must be achieved through legislation. On climate change, for example, he used executive orders to rejoin Paris and stop construction of the Keystone pipeline – a controversial move opposed by most Republicans and some Democrats in states with local energy interests.
But real progress in reforming America’s energy policy – the country remains the world’s second-largest emitter – will need approval by Congress. In an indication of the challenges ahead, as Texas was plunged into a power crisis this week due to an unusual arctic snap, governor Greg Abbott turned his ire on frozen wind turbines. Though these constitute a tiny percentage of the state’s energy source, Abbott claimed the events showed that the Green New Deal put forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and other Democrats would not work for the US.
On foreign policy, the Biden administration is facing an array of challenges, though the president has always indicated that his priority in his first month in office would be domestic affairs.
Nonetheless, work is under way in the national security and foreign policy sphere, with Biden gathering his advisers, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, at Camp David last weekend.
Newly installed secretary of state Antony Blinken – who was confirmed by the Senate just two weeks ago – has been reaching out to counterparts, including Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney last weekend.
The past week has seen a pick-up in public engagements by the administration with the global community.
Among the top issues looming for the Biden administration is a decision on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal
On Friday, Biden was due to participate in a virtual G7 meeting, hosted by Britain, ahead of a summit in Cornwall in June. He also addressed the Munich Security Conference on Friday.
Though Biden has spoken repeatedly about reducing transatlantic tensions, a key challenge will be securing EU buy-in for US strategy on China. The Biden team was unhappy about Brussels’ decision to sign an investment pact with Beijing in December. The relationship is under strain in other ways. The Biden administration is weighing sanctions to stop the controversial Nord Stream 2 energy project embraced by Germany. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said this week that the president believes it is “a bad deal for Europe”.
Among the top issues looming for the Biden administration is a decision on rejoining the Iran nuclear deal – a topic of discussion between Blinken and Coveney last weekend, following Ireland’s appointment as facilitator of the agreement at the UN Security Council.
Iran has been increasing its uranium stockpile and has warned the Biden administration it may ban short-notice inspections by UN inspectors next week if it doesn’t see “actions, not words” from the United States. Securing congressional buy-in for rejoining the deal will be difficult, with many Democrats – as well as Republicans – opposed.
May 1st is also looming. It is the deadline for withdrawing US troops from Afghanistan as part of a deal between the Taliban and the Trump administration.
Biden has long been a critic of deployments to the country, but there are concerns that withdrawing the remaining 2,500 US troops could benefit the Taliban.
This week also saw Biden fire the opening salvo on immigration reform. On Thursday Democrats in Congress presented the contours of a comprehensive immigration reform package. It includes a path to citizenship for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants, including thousands of Irish.
But securing agreement on the package is another matter. The legislation would need 60 votes in the Senate, which is currently split 50-50 between Democrats and Republicans.
While Biden’s aim is comprehensive immigration reform, he indicated this week that he would be open to smaller, stand-alone Bills that would tackle immigration issues on a piecemeal basis.
Given the politically sensitive issues around immigration, this may be the most likely outcome. Securing agreement for a comprehensive reform of America’s immigration system may be a step too far for the current president.