Biden is a reassuringly straightforward man, but his mandate is complicated. His presidency will be about restoring order and normalcy after the manic binge of the Trump years, capped by an open insurrection. But Biden’s task will also be driving change on huge issues — restoring health and economic growth after a devastating pandemic, delivering real action on racial and economic justice, and arresting climate change.
I’ve talked in recent days with many of Biden’s top aides as they prepare for power. The Biden advisers think they can make a fast start, with more officials nominated on Day 1 than Barack Obama had on Day 100. But when the FBI is circulating warnings of armed protests throughout the United States, Inauguration Day may feel more like the D-Day landing than the usual walk down Pennsylvania Avenue.
After Biden takes office, he will confront a paradox: The new president and his inner circle are most experienced in foreign policy, but the urgent problems facing the country now are domestic. The agenda for 2021 is obvious — stemming the spread of covid-19, rebuilding the economy and dismantling the domestic terrorist insurgency. But Biden and his team must quickly implement their rescue policies using the rickety machinery of a divided, semi-dysfunctional federal government.
The centrality of domestic policy is illustrated by the fact that Jake Sullivan, the incoming president’s national security adviser, had been hoping until mid-November to head the National Economic Council. He helped write Biden’s domestic recovery plan, “Build Back Better,” and wanted to carry it out. But when Biden tapped former investment banker and Obama adviser Brian Deese to head the NEC, Sullivan opted for the more familiar terrain of foreign policy.
For the first year, at least, Sullivan and his colleagues plan to treat foreign and domestic policy as interchangeable. Biden’s slogan, “Foreign Policy for the Middle Class,” may sound like empty rhetoric, but Biden plans to push his own version of “America First” by assessing trade, tax and currency issues through the lens of whether they’ll create domestic jobs and prosperity.
The transcendent issue on Day 1 is containing the domestic insurgency that exploded with such unexpected fury last Wednesday. Biden starts with some experienced hands: He plans to keep Christopher A. Wray as FBI director. His attorney general, Merrick Garland, ran the Justice Department investigation into the 1995 bombing of the federal center in Oklahoma City that killed 168 people.
Biden and his aides must wonder, as they watch images of the unruly mob at the Capitol: Which faces are the future incarnations of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber? Who are the leaders of the assault on the United States, and who are merely bystanders and wannabes?
Every administration begins with imbalances and potential points of friction, and that’s true for this White House. Biden will have an experienced chief of staff in Ronald A. Klain, who has been a close adviser for more than 30 years. And he’ll have an unusually strong foreign policy team under Sullivan, including Asia czar Kurt Campbell and Mideast director Brett McGurk.
A strong White House means policy coordination and strategic direction from the center — and potential frustration at the Cabinet agencies charged with implementing policy. Antony Blinken, Biden’s choice for secretary of state and perhaps his closest aide, won’t have trouble getting the boss’s attention. But life won’t be easy for assistant secretaries of state.
Then there’s the problem of Biden’s relationship with a fragmented Democratic Party. His Cabinet will include some nominees who campaigned against him. But his inner circle — Klain, Sullivan, Blinken and domestic policy chief Susan E. Rice — see the world in the same centrist terms Biden does. That’s as it should be: The party had a chance to nominate a progressive, but it didn’t. It chose a centrist, and Biden should govern like one even if that produces occasional howls from the left.
The spotlight will settle Jan. 20 on Biden himself. He will succeed a reckless president whose final weeks amounted to an attack on the republic. It will help that Biden is a sane, charitable, genial man, with none of the bully in him. But that won’t be enough.
Putting this dazed country back together will require true greatness in leadership. The likable Biden may possess that quality, and showed flashes of it during the crisis last week. But his test is just beginning.