What Biden Can Do

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden

Yes, liberals and progressives did not get all they hoped for Election Night. Yes, Mitch McConnell likely will remain Senate majority leader, engaging in what he does best — obstructing. And, yes, Democrats shockingly and surprisingly lost seats in the House, though they still retain control of the lower chamber.

But, Joe Biden is president-elect.The former vice president won a convincing victory in the popular vote and likely will end up with 306 electoral votes, precisely the number Donald Trump received in 2016. President Trump can bellyache about the results, throw hissy fits falsely complaining he was cheated, and prevent a smooth transition, but when the sun sets on January 20, 2021, Joe Biden will be in the White House and Donald Trump will be facing myriad legal difficulties. Does his tailor do orange?

President Joe Biden will be the most powerful person in Washington. The president sets the agenda, and while McConnell and his cohorts in the Republican caucus will, no doubt, obstruct as much as they can, Biden will have enormous power to undo much of the damage Trump caused in his four years in the Oval Office. Biden’s actions as president can influence broad changes in American society.

President-elect Joe Biden wearing a mask in public

Confronting and controlling the coronavirus is the most immediate and pressing problem facing Biden. No one should doubt that Biden’s approach to the pandemic will be much more muscular and strategic than Trump’s leave-it-to-the states plan, insofar as the current president even had a plan. Biden already has posted on his website the broad outlines of how he will tackle the pandemic, and he has created a coronavirus task force, a clear signal that the virus is his top priority.  Biden intends to invoke the Defense Production Act — a legacy of the Korean war that allows presidents to order the manufacture of products necessary for national defense — to build up necessary supplies such as masks and protective gear and equipment for healthcare workers. The Biden team has concluded that the president lacks authority to impose a national mask mandate, but he can encourage mask-wearing by example, and he can require, by executive order, masks on federal property and interstate transportation. Biden will oversee — I suspect far more efficiently and expeditiously than the Trump administration — the distribution of a vaccine, when it becomes available, as well as setting the schedule of who gets inoculated in what order.

All of this will send a clear signal that the Biden administration believes in science and scientists. Biden will lift the gags on government health agencies — such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health — allowing them to make decisions based on evidence and not the political whims of the president. Biden will also demonstrate his trust in science by returning the United States to the Paris climate accord. A far-reaching attack on climate change requires the buy-in of Congress, which is not likely now, but Biden can issue a number of executive actions that slash greenhouse emissions and restore environmental regulations eviscerated by Trump.

Biden will issue a number of executive orders on Day 1, just as his predecessors did. Expect Biden to revoke immediately the global gag rule that prohibits federal funding for foreign organizations that even discuss abortion. This regulation is a political ping-pong ball, imposed by Republican presidents since Ronald Regan and repealed by Democratic leaders, in turn. Other likely early executive actions include reversing Trump’s withdrawal from the World Health Organization, repealing the travel ban on people from Muslim-majority nations, and reinstating the program that allows “dreamers,” immigrants brought to America as children illegally, to remain. 

Addressing economic inequality in the United States will require strong Democratic majorities in Congress as well as control of the Executive Branch, so Biden will not be able to accomplish a lot in alleviating poverty. But, even here, the president can do much without Congress. 

A crucial matter is a stimulus package for an economy battered by the pandemic

One pressing economic issue is another stimulus package, already passed by the House but stalled in the Senate. McConnell may or many not allow stimulus legislation to go forward, but if not, Biden can take some actions, including forgiving parts of student loans, raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour on federal projects, and repurposing unspent funds from earlier stimulus measures. 

Biden will not be able to fulfill most of his promise to levy trillions of dollars of tax increases on high earners and corporations, but he can raise taxes some by changing regulations governing how Trump’s 2017 tax law is carried out. For example, the incoming president can remove regulatory decisions the Trump team made regarding the tax liability of multinationals. There are a few other tinkering adjustments that can be made on corporate income. Also expect Biden to undo much of the regulatory changes Trump imposed that weakened federal oversight of banks and other financial institutions.

The General Services Administration has refused to certify Biden as president-elect

Trump and his minions will do whatever they can to frustrate Biden’s entry into the presidency. Trump’s frivolous lawsuits citing electoral fraud are drawing out the process, and they are an indication of his unwillingness to assist in a smooth transition. Already, the lack of cooperation between the outgoing and incoming administrations has been telegraphed by the refusal of a Trump appointee — the head of the General Services Administration — to sign a letter allowing the president-elect to receive millions of dollars earmarked for the transition, as well as giving Biden’s assistants access to government officials and office space and equipment authorized for the transfer of power. The signing of the requisite letter within hours of media projections has been customary since the 1960s.

But, Biden will survive Trump’s peevish tantrums. While the new president will not be able to accomplish a bold agenda, there is much he will be able to do. And, if nothing else, having an empathetic, decent, and moral president, one who recognizes the existential problems of our time — the persistence of racism, economic inequality, climate change, and the current pandemic — will be a breath of fresh air.

If nothing else, Joe Biden will lead by example.

Posted November 10, 2020

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