When Joe Biden, the former two-term vice president under Barack Obama and 36-year Senate veteran, took the oath of office on January 20, he became the chief executive with the most experience in public service in US history. His running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, became the first woman, first African American, and first South Asian American to serve as vice president.
The 46th president and his vice president take office amid a world-historic crisis, a pandemic that has already claimed more American lives than US soldiers who died in World War II, and has produced the highest unemployment rates since the Great Depression.
As the scale of the pandemic and its economic damage started becoming clear earlier this year, the campaign signaled that Biden wanted an “FDR-sized” administration. And as a result of the surprise Democratic sweep of Georgia’s Senate runoffs earlier this month, Biden has congressional majorities, albeit extremely narrow ones, that could enable him to realize that ambition, or at least come close. He will be able to enact not just sweeping changes through executive action, but major spending bills with the benefit of a Democratic Senate and House.
Biden will preside over the first Democratic “trifecta” since the one he and President Barack Obama led from 2009 to 2011. That trifecta also came to power at a time of crisis. In 2008, the subprime mortgage crisis had grown into a full-blown financial crisis and the largest recession since the 1930s. Obama, Biden, and congressional Democrats pushed through a large (though not large enough) fiscal stimulus package, the Obamacare health reforms, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, the New START arms control treaty with Russia, legislation authorizing the Food and Drug Administration to regulate cigarettes, and a repeal of the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay, lesbian, and bisexual service members. They also used those two years to confirm Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan.
Biden and Harris now have a similar opportunity — and likely the same brief window. Presidents very often lose seats in Congress during the first midterm elections, so Biden and Harris will have to make exceptionally good use of the time between January 20, 2021, and January 3, 2023 (when the next Congress gets seated), to pass their agenda. They will also have to think carefully about priorities when they have a mere 50 senators on their side and any one Senate Democrat could derail an entire bill.
Their campaign promises suggest that time will be busy. They have pledged to implement a plan to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic by expanding testing, fostering better coordination between states, and funding and organizing rapid development and deployment of a vaccine.
They will need to pass their plan to respond to the economic crisis created by the pandemic, with funding for cash-strapped states and localities, cash and unemployment insurance for individuals and households, and grants and loans to keep small businesses like bars and restaurants in business.
They will need to pass their legislative package to prevent the worst effects of man-made climate change, including subsidies for developing and deploying green energy, and plans to expand access to clean energy abroad.
They will also need to decide how to respond to Republican constitutional hardball on the Supreme Court, whether by reforming or actively packing the Court. They will need to agree to a package of democratic reforms, like public financing of elections; requiring all states to use independent commissions to draw congressional districts; and admitting Washington, DC, as a state and holding a binding referendum for Puerto Rican statehood.
And they will need to use these first two years to pass their economic agenda, from enabling all Americans to buy into a Medicare-like public option for health insurance to raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour to dramatically expanding subsidies for child care.
As they’re convincing Congress to do all that, they will also need to undo Donald Trump’s reversal of the Obama-Biden foreign policy by reengaging with Cuba and Iran, negotiating a new arms control deal with Russia before New START expires, and addressing the threat North Korea poses to South Korea and Japan.
And they will have to decide how to handle the legacy of their predecessor: whether to let bygones be bygones, as was the Obama-Biden attitude toward George W. Bush, or to seek to prosecute or at least investigate wrongdoing from the Trump years.
The Biden-Harris presidency is an enormous relief to the majority who voted against Trump four years ago, to those harmed by his policies from forced family separation to the botched Covid-19 response, and to the many who worried Trump harbored dangerous autocratic tendencies. To the Americans who elected Biden, it feels like the end of a dark chapter in our nation’s history, and potentially the beginning of a moment of great opportunity.
But for that opportunity to be fulfilled, Biden and Harris will need to work fast, and aggressively. They have no time to waste.
Biden and Harris’s plan to tackle Covid-19
Biden’s first task is to address the Covid-19 disaster, both from the perspective of public health and from the perspective of economic recovery. His agenda to do that, laid out on January 14, is called the American Rescue Plan. It’s a $1.9 trillion agenda that aims to vaccinate 100 million Americans against the virus in Biden’s first 100 days, send out $1,400 checks as part of a trillion dollar-plus stimulus effort, and bolster America’s family benefits in a way that the Columbia Center on Poverty and Social Policy concluded would cut child poverty in America in half.
The plan includes some $160 billion to accelerate testing and vaccine distribution this spring, on top of what Congress has already authorized under President Trump. Beyond the money, Biden’s vaccine plan is focused on making maximal use of vaccines already produced, accelerating the production of vaccines, and setting up new vaccination sites. Biden announced in a speech that he will encourage states “to allow more people to get vaccinated beyond health care workers and move through these groups as quickly as states think they can. That includes anyone 65 and older.”
He pledged to, on his first day in office, instruct FEMA to set up emergency vaccination centers, aiming to set up at least 100 by February 20, and to ensure all pharmacies across the country are able to distribute the vaccine. He has also promised to invoke the Defense Production Act to accelerate vaccine production, and production of associated materials like tubes and syringes.
Even more money, $170 billion, is set aside to enable schools to safely reopen. Biden’s goal is to reopen all of America’s K-8 schools in his first 100 days. That’s a goal that is in some tension with teachers’ union opposition to fast reopening, but the Biden team argues that reopening is relatively safe for younger grades, and important to ensure kids don’t lose crucial learning months and parents have child care relief. The money, Biden stated in a speech, will enable schools to invest in “more testing and transportation, additional cleaning and sanitizing services, protective equipment, and ventilation systems in the schools” to make reopening maximally safe. That was enough to win buy-in from the country’s two leading teacher union federations.
But the bulk of the $1.9 trillion is to be spent on economic relief, intended to go big in an effort to foster a speedier recovery than the nearly decade-long one that followed the 2007-2009 recession. Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock successfully campaigned on $2,000 checks in their runoff, so Biden includes $1,400 checks (adding up to $2,000 when including the $600 checks passed by Congress in December). That would cost about $465 billion; some Democrats on the left in Congress are already pushing for a full $2,000 in new checks, for a total of $2,600 in relief.
Beyond that, Biden wants to boost the current $300 per week unemployment insurance supplement passed in the December stimulus to $400 per week, and extend it from its current expiration point in mid-March through September. He’d offer another $350 billion to state and local governments facing huge tax revenue shortfalls due to Covid-19 lockdowns and the broader recession. He’d gradually increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $15 an hour. (Normally, this could not pass through the expedited budget process, but incoming Senate Budget Committee Chair Bernie Sanders (I-VT) has signaled he’ll try to use the budget process to pass the wage increase).
And Biden includes a one-year version of the American Family Act, a longstanding Congressional proposal that would expand the current $2,000 child tax credit to $3,000 for older kids and $3,600 for younger ones. This provision accounts for much of the Biden plan’s dramatic anti-poverty impact, according to Columbia researchers.
The Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget think tank summarizes the Biden Covid-19 proposals and their costs in this helpful chart:
The rest of “building back better”
But responding to Covid-19 is only part of Biden’s agenda. He also has an extensive list of other legislation he would like to pass after the economic stimulus plan; much of it is spending legislation that can pass the Senate with only 50 votes.
Biden wants to offer middle-class parents and caretakers $8,000 a year for child or long-term care support, achieve universal pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds, make community college free, forgive the first $10,000 in student loans, guarantee paid family and medical leave, spend $700 billion on manufacturing and R&D to expand jobs in those sectors, and make it easier to organize unions. He has a proposal to make Section 8 housing vouchers an entitlement available to all eligible families, which could dramatically reduce homelessness and, per Columbia researchers, reduce poverty in America by a fifth.
Even on health care, an issue Biden has deemphasized, he is promising big changes, like lowering the Medicare age to 60. His staff tells me that the public option he’s proposing will be available not just to people on the Obamacare exchanges, but people with employer-based coverage they dislike and to large employers that want another option (similar to the Center for American Progress’s Medicare Extra for All Plan).
His climate plan features $2 trillion in investments in clean energy and a clean electricity standard mandating that electricity production in the US not produce any carbon by the year 2035. The Sunrise Movement, which gave Biden an “F-” grade for his climate policies during the primaries, put out a statement praising the plan. Julian Brave NoiseCat, director of Green New Deal strategy for Data for Progress, called the plan “a Green New Deal in all but name.”
With the possible exception of the public option proposal, where things get a little messy, all the above legislation is passable through the “budget reconciliation” process, which allows senators to evade the filibuster. Normally, the filibuster means that legislation needs 60 Senators to pass. In budget reconciliation, legislation only needs 50 senators — which Democrats have.
Also requiring only 50 senators? Judicial appointments. Biden’s first focus will likely be on lower courts, where Trump did a tremendous amount to put in young conservatives set to serve for decades. He might also get an early Supreme Court appointment if Stephen Breyer, 82, retires this spring, as many expect. Biden will not likely be able to shift the court’s politics, absent an aggressive court-packing effort; the oldest conservative, Clarence Thomas, is only 72 and unlikely to retire under a Democrat. But he will be able to protect what liberal seats exist currently.
If Senate Democrats are willing to end or weaken the filibuster rule, they and Biden could get more ambitious still. This seems unlikely, given moderate Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-WV) opposition to changing the filibuster. But it’s possible. Former President Obama and former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid have strongly urged Senate Democrats to abandon the rule. Even relatively moderate Democratic senators like Biden’s Delaware successor Chris Coons have expressed openness to altering the filibuster rule so McConnell is not able to block the entire Biden-Harris agenda. Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer has said that abolishing the filibuster is not “off the table” in the new Congress.
An obvious place to start in a post-filibuster world is passing HR 1, the reform bill passed first by the new Democratic House in 2019, which establishes public financing of elections, re-empowers the Federal Election Commission, requires presidential candidates to release tax returns, enacts automatic voter registration nationwide and makes Election Day a national holiday, and requires all states to use independent commissions to draw congressional districts.
Congress could also admit DC as a state and set a binding referendum for Puerto Rican statehood, which would expand the Senate and likely bolster Democrats’ majority in the body. If Sanders’s effort to use budget reconciliation to raise the minimum wage fails, altering the filibuster to boost the wage could be a natural move, too.
A filibuster-less Congress would also be better prepared to tackle immigration reform, which Biden has told activists will be one of his top priorities. He has promised to immediately send Congress a bill offering a pathway to citizenship for the 11-12 million immigrants without legal status, with an expedited pathway for child arrivals and essential Covid-19 pandemic workers. That will likely require either abolishing the filibuster, attracting significant Senate Republican support, or using budget reconciliation rules more aggressively than they’ve been used before. It’s a tough road, but not an impassable one.
There’s more to life than Congress, though, and Biden’s executive powers are significant. Biden can use his executive authority to set aggressive new climate rules, expand immigration by hundreds of thousands of people per year and protect undocumented immigrants from deportation, ease the federal ban on marijuana possession, fight air pollution and factory farming, experiment with postal banking, and toughen up regulations targeting monopolies and financial companies.
On foreign policy, his executive powers are even more extensive. Biden and his team — consisting largely of longtime Obama/Biden loyalists like national security adviser Jake Sullivan, Secretary of State-designate Antony Blinken, and Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines, along with some new faces like Defense Secretary-designate Gen. Lloyd Austin — are set to quickly rejoin the Paris climate accords and Iran nuclear deal, reengage with Cuba, and reorient Middle East policy away from strict allegiance to Saudi Crown Price Mohammed bin Salman and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Biden promised to end support for the Saudis in Yemen’s bloody civil war, and incoming senior administration officials — including Blinken, Haines, Sullivan, and UN Ambassador-designate Linda Thomas-Greenfield — signed an open letter urging the same, suggesting that will be an early priority for the administration.
But even on executive action, Biden’s hands will not be entirely free. Some Trump measures, like labeling Cuba a state sponsor of terrorism, will take months or years of interagency process to undue. Reengaging on topics like the Iran nuclear deal will take years of delicate work as well. And aggressive domestic executive actions, like new climate regulations, will surely be challenged in the courts, where they will face many Trump appointees and a new 6-3 Republican appointee majority on the Supreme Court.
A new beginning
The Biden-Harris administration is going to almost immediately be faced with massive institutional impediments to the agenda it wants to implement. The key question it will face is whether to eliminate those institutional impediments or try to accommodate itself to them. If it chooses the former, it could go down in history as one of the most consequential presidencies in histories, one that cuts poverty in half, establishes housing as a human right, and begins tackling climate change in earnest. If it chooses the latter, the prospects are much grimmer.
The last four years have been consequential for the lives of Americans, from policy changes in the normal range of Republican presidencies (like Trump moving the Supreme Court markedly rightward and curtailing environmental and public safety regulations) to ones well outside it (like Trump’s enormous crackdown on legal immigration and his failed pandemic response). The public has also endured unprecedented levels of executive branch corruption and arguably criminality, not to mention two presidential impeachments.
Biden’s inauguration is America’s first step away from those changes and the people who made them. But it won’t instantly clean up the wreckage of the Trump administration, let alone the problems that enabled Trump to win and thrive in the first place.
Instead, it marks the beginning of Biden’s confrontation with a broken system and a bitterly divided citizenry. Judging by Biden’s plans for his first days in office, though, he has no intention of backing away from a fight. The new administration appears set to use the tools at its disposal to achieve as much of its agenda as possible, as fast as possible. The big question for the next two years is just how far it will go.