Biden’s first week: flurry of executive orders and frustrations of governing

Joe Biden had just signed a latest round of executive orders on Thursday when he revealed his impatience with one aspect of his budding presidency. 

After setting down his pen, the new president tapped on the Oval Office’s Resolute desk four times to stress the urgency of his $1.9tn coronavirus stimulus plan, whose fate remains up in the air in Congress. “We’ve got a lot to do. And the first thing I’ve got to do is get this Covid package passed,” said Mr Biden. 

Mr Biden is just over a week into his presidency, and is already confronting the predictable travails and frustrations of governing in an era of multiple overlapping crises and a noxious political climate.

His most visible actions — punctuated with fairly scripted daily public appearances — have been a series of executive orders fulfilling campaign promises to make a clean break with his predecessor Donald Trump.

On issues from environmental regulations to the social safety net, US participation in the multilateral global order and the ban on transgender service members in the military, Mr Biden has taken steps to undo some of most controversial policies of the past four years, mostly satisfying his base.

But on the pandemic and the economy, the two issues on which Mr Biden’s success will be measured, the new president still faces big obstacles. Mr Biden is under huge pressure to speed up the rollout of vaccinations even above and beyond the target of administering 100m shots in the first 100 days, before the variant of the disease could spread further.

The fiscal package — which Mr Biden unveiled two weeks ago before taking office, remains stuck in a political impasse — with no easy solution or compromise in sight.

 “While much of the country is relieved that the turbulence of the Trump administration is beginning to fade, that doesn’t mean that Democrats and Republicans are poised to come together to enact sweeping policy change,” said William Howell, professor of American politics at the University of Chicago. “He’s going to confront some real resistance and so the question is, you know, ‘how is he going to respond?’”

Mr Biden’s preference is still to go down the bipartisan path for the time being — an objective he has been repeatedly pointing to in recent days. Yet he is encountering difficulty on that front. Republicans want him to water down and break apart the relief bill to make it more palatable to them, reducing the price tag and stripping out a number of measures, including a minimum-wage increase.

This would put the new president in a bind with his party’s left, which would be sorely disappointed with such an outcome. As an alternative, now that Democrats have control of the US Senate, albeit thanks to the tiebreaking vote of vice-president Kamala Harris, Mr Biden could try to push the stimulus bill through with Democratic votes alone — which many in his party are advocating.

“Members of Congress — they’re not wallflowers. They have different points of view. They have lots of ideas. They’re going to bring those forward,” said Jennifer Psaki, the White House press secretary, defending Mr Biden’s approach but not showing his cards. “We’re hearing them, and we’re just eager to move things forward as quickly as we can. But we’re on day eight, so we’re confident we’re still on a pretty rapid pace here,” she said.

Mr Biden begins his presidency in fairly good graces with the US public, given the fierce divisions of the 2020 campaign. Fifty-four per cent of Americans approve of Mr Biden’s job, while 30 per cent disapprove, according to a Monmouth University poll released on Thursday.

This is a better performance than Mr Trump had at any point while he was in the White House. Meanwhile, 68 per cent feel Mr Biden will propose policies that are “very likely” or “somewhat likely” to help the middle class, a better score than both Mr Trump and Mr Obama ever achieved. 

Mary Anne Marsh, a Democratic strategist in Boston, said Mr Biden was off to a strong start. “The more he shows people that he’s keeping his word, the more he’s acting on his promises, the more people are going to trust him. And when the inevitable hiccups come, they’re going to give him the benefit of the doubt.”

Among Republicans, however, the new president is already being criticised for not being conciliatory enough.

“I think there have been some missed opportunities. I think that the executive order related to the Keystone XL pipeline was a mistake. I think it would have been great to see at least an effort to get a Republican in the cabinet,” Michael Steel, a former Republican congressional aide now at Hamilton Place Strategies, a consultancy. “And I think that I would love to see a more concerted effort to work with Republicans on additional Covid relief legislation.”

Mr Biden’s first days in office have certainly represented a big stylistic change compared with the chaos of the Trump years, as the president and his team have sought to project calm and competence over disruption. Since his inaugural address, Mr Biden has made few memorable public interventions but that may not count against him. 

“The rest of the country have plenty to entertain them and keep them occupied. They don’t need their leaders in Washington to be part of their entertainment diet,” said Jay Campbell, a partner at Hart Research, the polling company. “I think that people are looking for predictability, I think they are looking for stability.” 

Mr Howell from the University of Chicago added: “He’s not a great orator and he’s not going to wow you with his rhetoric. But where the Democrats are going to be judged, frankly, depends less on his style and more on what he’s able to actually accomplish.”

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