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Analysis: Tests of Biden's leadership come quickly

WASHINGTON - The opening days of President Joe Biden's administration produced a stack of executive actions and a $1.9 trillion legislative proposal focused on the coronavirus pandemic and the weakened economy. With those initiatives come two early tests. Can Biden make the executive branch function effectively and will his appeals for unity bear fruit? 

The executive actions collectively were designed to show a change in course after the presidency of Donald Trump, but the principal focus of the first days is on job one: dealing with the pandemic. Biden's challenge is to replace Trump's mismanagement of the health crisis with a national strategy to suppress the virus and deliver hundreds of millions of vaccination shots.

As the president said Thursday, the pandemic will get worse before things get better. The COVID-19 death toll could reach 500,000 next month, after topping 400,000 on Tuesday. Mutations of the virus that are more transmissible could accelerate the number of new cases contracted, which inevitably would lead to more hospitalizations and more deaths.

The number of people receiving vaccinations has risen from the halting pace of late last year and is close to 1 million shots a day being administered - or about equal to what seemed to be Biden's ambitious pledge to administer 100 million vaccinations in his first 100 days.

Whether the administration needs to raise that target is an open but important question. The availability of the vaccine still appears to be far short of demand, and the distribution schedules have been disappointing to many state and local officials and confusing to people eligible for shots.

Biden said Thursday that the vaccine rollout has been "a dismal failure," and others in the administration have drawn a dire portrait of what Trump's team left behind. How much that reflects real conditions or is an effort to lower expectations and buy time is not yet clear.

Until enough people are vaccinated to allow a return to something closer to the kind of normal life that existed before the pandemic, the challenge for Biden will be to persuade as many people as possible to observe the guidelines for wearing masks and practicing social distancing.

Trump was a dismal failure on that front. Through his own dismissals of the use of masks, he helped to turn a safe health practice into a politically divisive issue. This is now Biden's problem. His early executive actions will require the wearing of masks on federal property and on airplanes, trains and buses traveling between states. He has also asked for a 100-day commitment by Americans to wear masks.

Biden stands to gain considerably if he is successful implementing an effective strategy to deal with the pandemic and persuades those resistant to the wearing of masks or practicing socially distant behavior. To do that he will have to turn words into results, but the payoffs for the health of the country and for Biden politically could be large. As the leader of the party of government, Biden needs to demonstrate that government can work.

Executive actions are limited and imperfect tools. Biden can use them to signal policy changes - rejoining the Paris climate agreement or stopping construction on a border wall - or to try to move the bureaucracy. But only through legislation can he, like other presidents, enact major changes. That's where his $1.9 trillion rescue package becomes central to judgments about his presidency.

The package he has proposed comes soon after Congress approved a $900 billion package of economic assistance and in addition to the $2 trillion relief act signed last year by Trump.

Biden's package has the support of Kevin Hassett, an economic adviser to Trump, but it has met immediate resistance from congressional Republicans who are balking at the size of the proposal.

On Friday, Biden said the country is in the midst of a "national emergency" and argued that there are both moral and economic imperatives to act. Brian Deese, director of the National Economic Council, told reporters that the greater risk to the economy is doing too little at this moment rather than too much.

Many Republicans claim Biden's initiative amounts to too much stimulus and too much new debt (returning to a fiscal position many of them abandoned to pass major tax cuts and earlier pandemic relief legislation during Trump's presidency). They say it comes too soon after the $900 billion package just enacted at the end of last year.

Beyond their opposition to the details of the plan, some Republicans already are claiming that, in the guise of preaching unity with centrist rhetoric, Biden is pushing forward a liberal agenda, whether through executive action - stopping the Keystone XL pipeline, for example - or with a legislative package that includes a minimum wage of $15 per hour.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki has repeatedly said the administration is open to discussions about the shape of the relief package, noting that rarely does a White House initiative come back for a presidential signature after enactment in the same shape as the original. That suggests the administration is open for compromise. Just how much is another question.

Administration officials, including the president, White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain, Deese and others, are engaged in discussions with lawmakers of both parties, probing where there are real opportunities for GOP support. But they do not have unlimited time, given the urgency of the moment.

Already, there is talk among some Democrats about overcoming Republican opposition to the package by using the budgetary tool known as reconciliation to pass the Biden plan with a simple majority, rather than the otherwise-needed 60 votes. Reconciliation has been used by presidents of both parties to enact major policy priorities.

Few people in the administration understand the dynamics of all this better than Biden. He knows the legislative process intimately, having worked it from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. He also recognizes the economic necessities of moving quickly from the work he did in the early weeks of the Obama administration as officials pushed the president's stimulus package through Congress.

But Biden has nothing comparable to the Senate and House majorities that Barack Obama enjoyed at the start of his administration. There is minimal room for maneuvering or for political misjudgment. Hard decisions are coming early.

A compromise package that jettisons some of what Biden has proposed to gain Republican support would help to show he is serious about governing in ways that bring people together. But at what cost to the overall impact of his initiative and to his conviction that his package meets the needs of the moment?

A decision to pursue a Democrats-only strategy would preserve a package that Biden argues is needed to assure the funding he says is needed to fight against the coronavirus and ease the financial strain on millions of people. But at what cost to the tone of unity he set in his inaugural address?

This test, however, isn't just for Biden: Unity is not a one-way discussion; it's also a test for Republican lawmakers who responded positively to Biden's inaugural message and pledged their cooperation.

Biden and the Democrats won the election. What price will or should Republicans pay if they demand far more in concessions from Biden than they are prepared to give in return? Having fallen in line behind Trump, and having opposed Obama in near-unanimous fashion, do they now feel any responsibility to help create a new political climate? Or are they primarily focused on winning the 2022 elections?

This is the thicket through which Biden and his team are navigating in the first week of the new administration. All presidents confront these choices, but rarely as quickly and acutely as they have presented themselves to Biden.

 

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