As his first full week in the White House begins, Joe Biden already faces critical early tests of a presidency premised on political compromise and uniting Washington to fight the pandemic.
The President’s team Sunday appealed for two things that may ultimately be elusive: time to stand up an aggressive attempt to finally turn around the Covid-19 nightmare and Republican buy-in for his $1.9 trillion economic relief plan.
In the week ahead, Biden is expected to unleash a new blitz of executive actions to deliver momentum to his new administration — on Monday, for instance, removing the ban on transgender people serving in the military.
The President plans to move aggressively later in the week, taking steps to boost US workers, address racial inequality and combat climate change.
But true, lasting change and the nation’s hopes of finally overcoming the pandemic will rely on Biden’s ability to leverage years of experience to forge common ground in the scorched earth of the capital.
The task gets tougher by the day, partly due to the unprecedented challenge of former President Donald Trump’s impeachment trial, which will begin in two weeks. The Republican Party is tearing itself apart in the post-Trump era, narrowing political space for GOP lawmakers who might think about helping a new Democratic President in a time of crisis. And on the Sunday talk shows, there appeared to be much less appetite for compromise among rival lawmakers than in the Oval Office.
It’s a tough reality that Biden, who follows a President who often ignored the coronavirus crisis, is already parrying questions about whether his vow to deliver 100 million vaccine doses in 100 days is sufficiently ambitious.
But it’s a measure of the desperation in the country, with normal life an increasingly distant memory, amid worrying new warnings about more infectious and possibly more deadly viral strains.
‘The plane is in a nosedive’
Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee for Health and Human Services Secretary, on Sunday addressed tension between the President’s push for urgent action to fight Covid-19 and the fact it will take months for improvements to show.
“I believe President Biden is making it very clear, the plane is in a nosedive, and we have got to pull it up. And you aren’t going to do that overnight. But we’re going to pull it up,” Becerra said on CNN’s “State of the Union” on a day when the US death toll of the out-of-control disaster approached 420,000.
Speaking to Dana Bash, Becerra was unable to answer the question everyone wants to know: how much longer will it be until sufficient supplies of vaccines bring the days of social distancing to an end? Already, hopes of deliverance for the country by early summer look premature.
White House chief of staff Ron Klain defended Biden’s 100 million target — which means only 50 million people will be fully vaccinated, given the two-dose regimen, during the period in question — as “a very bold and ambitious goal.”
And he tried to clear up confusion of the administration’s own making after the government’s top infectious diseases specialist, Dr. Anthony Fauci, contradicted claims by anonymous White House sources that the new administration had to start from “scratch” on a vaccine distribution plan after being left nothing by Trump.
“As everyone in America has seen — the way in which people get vaccine is chaotic, it’s very limited,” Klain told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”
White House appeals for Republican buy-in for rescue package
Stepping up the White House effort to swiftly pass the pandemic rescue bill, Brian Deese, the director of the White House’s National Economic Council, hosted a call with as many as 16 senators Sunday afternoon. Eight Democrats and eight Republicans were invited in a core group of power players who will be crucial to Biden’s ambitions of bipartisan action on many fronts.
There was strong agreement on the need to push hard on money for vaccine distribution, Jared Bernstein, a member of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, told CNN’s Pamela Brown on “Newsroom” Sunday.
“That doesn’t mean everybody is going to agree on every detail,” Bernstein said, before billing Biden — who served in the Senate for more than three decades — as the key cog in the process in the coming days.
“Joe Biden has a long history with working on those types of negotiations.”
The extent of the new President’s task was made clear when Utah Sen. Mitt Romney, one of the GOP senators seen as open to compromise, appeared to raise questions about the speed and the size of the economic rescue bid.
“How has the first $900 billion we just passed a couple weeks ago, how has that been distributed? Most of it hasn’t yet,” Romney said on “State of the Union.”
“It’s important we don’t borrow hundreds of billions, actually trillions of dollars from the Chinese for things that are not absolutely necessary. This is a time to act with prudence and care.”
GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine said in a statement on Sunday evening that she, too, had reservations about the Biden plan and wanted it to be better targeted.
“It seems premature to be considering a package of this size and scope,” Collins said.
Given the urgency of the situation, Democrats are already prepping a plan to use a rare and controversial procedural tactic known as reconciliation to pass major parts of the package if Republicans try to block it or water it down. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi told donors on a Thursday Zoom call that she was ready to pass the bill in two weeks using the tactic, a source told CNN.
The problem with using reconciliation to pass the bill with narrow Democratic majorities is that it could scupper Biden’s hopes of a bipartisan plan and set back his longer-term plans for defusing the poison in Washington. But the search for support from Republicans could also force the new President to dilute his ambitions for the Covid-relief measure and make it less successful — a serious consideration at the start of a presidency that will be defined by his capacity to end the pandemic and restore the economy.