During his 50-year political career, U.S. President Joe Biden earned a reputation as a cautious incrementalist, sticking to the political centre and slowly building support for legislation before acting. Throughout the election campaign, he pitched himself as a moderate, constructing a big-tent voting coalition unified mostly by its opposition to Donald Trump.
But since taking office Wednesday, Mr. Biden has bolted out of the gate. He has signed no fewer than 30 executive orders and actions, covering everything from climate change to food aid to COVID-19 vaccinations. He has unveiled a US$1.9-trillion economic relief bill and sweeping immigration legislation. And he has laid out a wide-ranging strategy for fighting the pandemic.
Far from his usual middle-of-the-road style, Mr. Biden is pursuing a historically ambitious program of reform during the opening days of his term.
“It is a time for boldness,” he declared in his inaugural address, “for there is much to do.”
The President, however, faces significant obstacles. With narrow margins in both houses of Congress, he will need his entire Democratic caucus to line up behind him. And his bills will compete for the Senate’s time with Mr. Trump’s impeachment trial.
Mr. Biden has framed his big plans as necessary to tackle the crises – pandemic, racism, climate change, recession – in which the country finds itself.
The President’s agenda is also designed to go farther and faster than former president Barack Obama did when Mr. Biden served as vice-president. Mr. Biden is partly responding to his party’s move to the left in recent years – and partly to criticisms that Mr. Obama wasn’t ambitious enough, said John Hudak, a governance studies expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington.
“This is the most progressive presidential agenda we’ve had in history,” Mr. Hudak said. “It’s partly driven by a need to change course from what the Trump administration had done for four years, and also to build on the Obama legacy and correct some of [its] errors and shortcomings.”
Mr. Biden, for instance, has promised to expand Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act by adding a “public option,” in which the government would create a voluntary health insurance system to compete with private plans.
The President is also crafting a comprehensive climate strategy that would include trillions of dollars for green infrastructure. And in contrast with the detentions and deportations that defined Mr. Obama’s policy toward undocumented immigrants, Mr. Biden has proposed legislation that would give undocumented people a path to citizenship.
And while Mr. Biden has made overtures to congressional Republicans, Mr. Hudak said, he also appears to be determined to avoid Mr. Obama’s mistake of wasting time in negotiations with them. Instead, Mr. Biden will try to pass as much legislation as possible while he has majorities in both houses of Congress.
“He knows that Obama got manhandled by a Congress that was, frankly, outwitting him or capitalizing on his own naiveté,” Mr. Hudak said. “Biden is going to approach dealing with Congress differently. He watched how committed to Obama’s defeat congressional Republicans were.”
If Mr. Biden does speed his left-wing policies through as quickly as possible, it will be a departure from the way he’s operated for most of his time in Washington.
As a senator, for instance, he carefully built support over the course of years for major legislation, such as the Violence Against Women Act in 1994. He also helped Republicans pass a slew of big-business-friendly bills, including the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking Act and the Financial Services Modernization Act, which loosened regulations on banks and insurance companies, and the Bankruptcy Abuse Prevention Act, which made it easier for creditors to get money from broke debtors.
Mr. Biden will now have to put all his Capitol Hill experience to work. Lisa Murkowski, a moderate Republican senator from Alaska, has already cast doubt on Mr. Biden’s economic plan, saying it was too expensive, coming one month after Congress passed a US$900-billion pandemic package. And Joe Manchin, the most conservative member of Mr. Biden’s Senate caucus, criticized the President’s plan to send US$1,400 cheques to most Americans.
The Senate, meanwhile, will receive the article of impeachment against Mr. Trump on Monday. His trial will start Feb. 9, leaving a small window for the Senate to deal with Mr. Biden’s legislation first.
Mr. Biden also faces an uphill battle in controlling the pandemic. Among other things, he is attempting the twin goals of vaccinating people as quickly as possible while also ensuring the shots reach the people who most need them – imperatives that may at times conflict.
“There seems to be a huge trade-off between equity, fairness and ethics, and actually rolling out vaccinations. Places where they’ve just offered the vaccine to anyone have had more success than places that have been more focused on people who really need the vaccine,” said Nina Yamanis, a public-health expert at American University in Washington.
Mr. Biden himself has tried to temper expectations this week, warning that “things will get worse before they get better,” and that the U.S. death toll would likely rise from 400,000 to 600,000.
Still, he has charged forward with numerous measures Mr. Trump did not take. His orders oblige people to wear masks on government property and interstate transportation; invoke the Defense Production Act to compel factories to make vaccines and other medical supplies; and mandate travellers to the country to test and quarantine.
“It’s certainly a great direction,” Prof. Yamanis said. “It’s a huge signal this administration is taking it very seriously.”
Mr. Biden has also vowed similar resolve on foreign policy, promising to return the U.S. to its place as a global leader after four years of former president Donald Trump’s isolationism. To start, Mr. Biden has reversed Mr. Trump’s departure from the Paris climate accord and the World Health Organization.
His first call to a foreign leader as president came Friday afternoon, when he spoke with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, two days after Mr. Biden cancelled the Keystone XL pipeline. The pair discussed working together on climate policy, a White House summary of the call said, and made plans to talk again in a month.
“We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again,” he said at the inauguration. “We will be a strong and trusted partner for peace, progress and security.”
The Globe and Mail
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