Joe Biden’s administration will begin Wednesday at a perilous moment for a country facing nearly unprecedented challenges to public health and national security.
Biden will take over the federal response to a coronavirus pandemic that is surging amid fears that a new more contagious strain will be dominant in March.
He’ll face the challenge of stimulating an economy showing new signs of buckling, and a vaccination effort that has thus far fallen short of targets set by the Trump administration.
He will also do so weeks after an assault on the Capitol by a right-wing mob, amid signs that domestic terrorists want to unsettle his inauguration and the early days of his presidency.
He’s likely to have none of his Cabinet officials confirmed on his first day in office, and will be seeking to unify a badly divided and polarized country scarred by the ugly scenes at the Capitol, and bracing for a Senate impeachment trial for President Trump.
Biden is counting on Congress being able to split its time between impeachment and legislative work on a stimulus package and confirmations.
The team Biden leads is experienced in Washington, leading some to think it will be able to capably handle challenges unique in U.S. history.
“They can hit the ground running and they can effectively oversee a vast federal government that has, for the most part, been in disarray and suffered from demoralization for the last four years,” said Charles Kupchan, a senior official on President Obama’s National Security Council.
Biden in recent days has made it crystal clear his focus remains the coronavirus.
He has unveiled an ambitious rescue plan that includes more than $400 billion to support expanded testing and contact tracing, the reopening of schools and a nationwide vaccination program to more quickly inoculate Americans from the virus. Biden aims to have 100 million Americans vaccinated in the first days of his presidency.
Outside observers say Biden will need to hope for a patient public.
“You have to hink of this as an ocean liner in a big sea,” said Lawrence Gostin, a public health law professor at Georgetown University. “It’s very hard to turn it around quickly. So, nobody should expect to see dramatic improvement when Biden comes in. It’s going to take time.”
The president-elect has worked to set expectations. In an address Friday laying out his vaccine plan, Biden warned that “things will get worse before they get better” and promised to always level with the American public.
“We’re in a terrible race with the virus right now and many of the issues that the Biden plan will address are going to take time,” said Michael Osterholm, a member of Biden’s COVID-19 advisory board and director of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota. “The big concern is going to be managing expectations by communities throughout the country as to what is being done.”
Congress will be key to the new president’s efforts. Biden will need the House and Senate, which will be narrowly controlled by Democrats, to approve his $1.9 trillion relief proposal that includes money to combat the virus and deliver economic assistance to those who need it.
The Senate, which reconvenes a day before the Jan. 20 inauguration, also needs to move through Biden’s Cabinet nominees.
The first confirmation hearings will be held Tuesday and Biden is not expected to have any members of his Cabinet confirmed by the time he takes office, despite efforts in the past to ensure at least some members of a president’s national security are confirmed when he takes office.
This is in part due to the delay in the transition process as President Trump disputed the election results, as well as the uncertainty over the 2021 Senate majority, which was only finalized after two Georgia runoff elections, both won by Democrats, on Jan. 5.
“It’s an unusual circumstance given that the ongoing challenge and efforts to overturn the election lasted so long and the Georgia race lasted until January,” said Julian Zelizer, political history professor at Princeton University.
The incoming administration is expected to appoint acting agency heads when Biden takes over, according to personal familiar with the situation. The transition team has identified career government officials and a few Trump appointees who Biden plans to make the head of each agency until his nominees are confirmed, the person said.
Politico reported that Biden would ask current deputy defense secretary David Norquist to temporarily lead the Pentagon until the Senate confirms retired Army Gen. Lloyd Austin, his nominee for Defense secretary.
Zelizer surmised that Biden, a former senator from Delaware, would be able to make use of his already established relationships on Capitol Hill to ensure the nominations are quickly processed.
“I think he can get up to speed on this,” Zelizer said.
Incoming White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Friday that officials are confident the Senate can split its work between impeachment and legislative business, noting that the chamber held hearings while also handling Trump’s first impeachment trial last year.
“The precedent is clear — the Senate can do its constitutional duty while continuing to conduct the business of the people,” she said.
Biden will also inherit a host of national security and foreign policy challenges, including navigating the response to the cyberattack that officials have attributed to Russia. He intends to reverse some of the Trump administration’s actions, including by seeking to rejoin the Iran nuke deal, walk back the withdrawal from the World Health Organization, and reenter the Paris climate accord.
Still, domestic issues are likely to take priority, given the fragile state of the U.S. economy and the raging public health crisis.
“I think that, given what the country has just been through, there is a keen awareness that the top priorities are at home, and that if we don’t get a handle on the pandemic and we don’t get the economy back on its feet and we don’t address the discontents of large portion of the American electorate, we are going to be in trouble and it will be very hard to address foreign policy problems if we don’t get our own house in order,” said Kupchan.
“That doesn’t mean there will not be time or resources for foreign policy. There will be, there has to be,” he continued.