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The Daily 202: Experts assess Biden on the pandemic, the border and bringing ‘normal’ back

with Mariana Alfaro

Welcome to The Daily 202 newsletter! One year ago today, the U.S. passed 1 million confirmed coronavirus cases, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Tell your friends to sign up here.

Let’s be clear: The “100 days” standard is an entirely contrived benchmark for assessing a young presidency, a “Hallmark Holiday” for the political press, one warily embraced, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by new administrations.

But with President Biden poised to mark the occasion with his first speech to a joint session of Congress, The Daily 202 reached out to a handful of experts to get their sense of how he has done on a handful of key challenges, from the pandemic to the economy to immigration.

We have separated their responses and will be running them in two waves, today and tomorrow. Their contributions have been edited for clarity and length.

My colleague Annie Linskey takes stock here of Biden’s record on the pandemic, noting he’s met many of his metrics of success, but new challenges loom.

We also asked Jay Varkey, an infectious disease specialist and hospital epidemiologist at Emory University, to reflect on this aspect of Biden’s record.

“I am cautiously optimistic about several of the steps the new administration has taken in response to the pandemic,” Varkey said, zeroing in on the officials staffing the White House pandemic response team, a “long overdue” cash injection for state and local health departments, and a “highly impressive” vaccination plan.

Still, “much more work needs to be done,” Varkey said by email, pointing to “embarrassing disparities” in American health care, noting that Blacks and Latinos are several times more likely to suffer severe coronavirus complications requiring hospitalization or to die from the infection.

There is no biological reason to explain this — it is reflective of the structural racism that exists in society and the severe disparities in socioeconomic status, access to health care, and occupational exposure that exist in the United States (as an aside — the disparities have been obvious to generations of infectious diseases physicians who often care for persons with HIV, Hepatitis C, and tuberculosis —infections that disproportionately affect the poor),” he said. 

Varkey said the administration will soon need to shift from mass vaccination sites to emphasizing “equitable access in physician offices and community clinics” most likely to reach — and convince — Americans still hesitant to get the vaccine.

“Lastly, I hope the administration prioritizes an epidemic that has been smoldering for years prior to the COVID pandemic: Burnout among physicians, nurses, and all health professionals,” he said.

“I hope the administration takes concrete action to improve the well-being of all health professionals and restore the joy of our work caring for people who need it.”

The president gets generally solid marks on the pandemic and the economy, but considerably less so on his handling of immigration, especially the southern border  his worst-polling issue. My colleague Nick Miroff recently looked at how Biden has managed what Nick described as the predictable crisis there.

Nick writes: “As experts had warned for months, a massive influx of migrants has arrived at the border in recent weeks, including a record number of teenagers and children traveling without their parents who need to be sheltered for weeks. Last month, 172,331 migrants were taken into custody by U.S. Customs and Border Protection, the highest total in nearly 20 years.”

And my colleague Marianna Sotomayor reports

President Biden will recommit himself to overhauling the immigration system Wednesday during his first address to Congress, while signaling openness to Congress passing smaller parts of his agenda that have bipartisan support, including guaranteeing a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children.

We reached out to Ali Noorani, president and CEO of the nonpartisan National Immigration Forum, for his perspective.

“Treating vulnerable migrants with compassion and providing effective border security have not been mutually exclusive goals for the first 100 days,” he said. 

“By working closely with international organizations in Mexico and faith-based institutions on the U.S. side of the border, over 8,800 individuals have crossed in a safe, secure and humane fashion,” Noorani said. “This approach can be applied to the processing of unaccompanied children and the eventual end of the Title 42 public health restrictions on border crossings.” (Title 42 refers to President Donald Trump's use of a statute enabling authorities to cite the pandemic to expel undocumented immigrants.) 

Faced with a sharp increase in the numbers of unaccompanied children, “the administration has scrambled to establish the infrastructure, logistics and processes” to ensure those minors are cared for, he said.

“While the system seems to be on track to reduce the amount of time minors spend in government facilities, additional staff and funding are needed to fully address the situation,” Noorani said. As Biden stops using Trump’s pandemic health order to send children back to their countries of origin, “the administration should engage organizations on both sides of the border to plan for an orderly process that keeps asylum applicants safe from cartels.”

Noorani also pointed to Biden’s budget request for funding to modernize ports of entry, “where the majority of drugs, guns and money are smuggled across our border” and Vice President Harris’s “efforts to take on corruption, violence and impunity in Central America.” Those are among the forces pushing people to undertake the dangerous journey north. “The Biden administration needs to stay the course,” he said.

My colleagues Jeff Stein, Danielle Douglas-Gabriel, Laura Meckler and Caroline Kitchener drill down on the centerpiece of Biden’s speech:

The White House on Wednesday unveiled a $1.8 trillion spending and tax plan aimed at dramatically expanding access to education and safety-net programs for families, the latest effort by President Biden to try to turn some of his campaign promises into new policy.

Jeff, Danielle, Laura and Caroline note the suite of proposals require congressional approval a heavy lift when Republicans seem ready to deny the White House any votes.

This part is important: “Biden’s plan proposes a suite of domestic policies that would collectively represent a marked change in how Americans interact with the federal government.”

We asked Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti a Democrat and a Biden political ally to weigh in on domestic policy and the relationship with the administration.

“The past 100 days have marked a sea change," Garcetti said via email. 

"Even before they were sworn in, the President and Vice President asked us, in L.A. and other cities, what would help us move our communities closer to the end of the pandemic. We said we needed a more coordinated vaccine distribution program, and a Cabinet who would take our calls on everything from disaster relief to transportation funding to housing. We said hard-hit Angelenos needed money in their pockets now. And when the American Rescue Plan [Biden’s $1.9 trillion stimulus package] was up for debate, we said we needed direct funding to refill our city budgets, so we could respond and recover.

"The White House listened. They kept us informed. They got the job done –– and now, there’s light at the end of the COVID-19 tunnel. Next up is the American Jobs Plan [aka the $2.3 trillion infrastructure package]. L.A. has plenty at stake in this proposal, and as this legislation comes together, we will remain focused on making sure Congress and the Administration hear us out. So that our city and state can receive our fair share of investments for our transit network, our clean energy and sustainability efforts, our broadband connectivity, our water systems, our housing stock, and our home care workforce. Given the track record of the past 100 days, I have no doubt our message will get through.”

What’s happening now

The Biden administration is expected to announce a plan to ban menthol cigarettes. The action has been “urgently sought by tobacco opponents and civil rights groups that say African Americans have been disproportionately hurt by the industry’s aggressive targeting of Black communities,” Laurie McGinley reports. “The administration also is poised to say it will seek to ban menthol and other flavors in mass-produced cigars, including small cigars popular with young people.”

The Justice Department ended Trump-era limits on grants to “sanctuary cities.” “In an internal memo seen by Reuters, acting head of the Office of Justice Programs Maureen Henneberg said that prior grant recipients, including cities, counties and states that were recipients of the department's popular $250 million annual grant program for local law enforcement, will no longer be required to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement as a condition of their funding.” 

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Lunchtime reads from The Post

  • Tim Scott seeks to balance role as dealmaker on policing and critic of Biden agenda in Wednesday night address,” by Mike DeBonis and Paul Kane: “When Sen. Scott delivers the GOP response to Biden’s first address ... he will again find himself trying to manage a tricky political balancing act. As the Senate’s only Black Republican, Scott (S.C.) loyally defended Trump’s policies while speaking out against some of his most egregious statements. For the past year, he has led the difficult task of negotiating police reform legislation with Democrats. Now, with the GOP still reckoning with its path back to power and its approach to race, he has been tapped by party leaders to make the case against a popular new president.”
  • Support for new gun laws falls from peak after Parkland shooting, Post-ABC poll finds,” by Emily Guskin and Scott Clement: “The Post-ABC poll finds 50 percent of Americans support enacting new laws to reduce gun violence, down from a peak of 57 percent after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. Just over 4 in 10, 43 percent, of Americans say protecting the right to own guns should be a bigger priority, up from 34 percent in 2018.”
  • Lower-than-expected state population totals stoke concerns about the 2020 Census,” by Tara Bahrampour, Kate Rabinowitz and Ted Mellnik: “Former attorney general Eric Holder, chairman of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, raised the possibility that the lower-than-expected counts in Florida, Arizona and Texas could be due to an undercount of Hispanics resulting from the Trump administration’s ‘shameful’ handling of the decennial census, including its attempts to include a citizenship question.”

… and beyond

  • The secret footage of the NRA chief’s botched elephant hunt,” by the New Yorker’s Mike Spies: “For three decades, [Wayne] LaPierre has led the N.R.A.’s fund-raising efforts by railing against out-of-touch “élites” and selling himself as an authentic champion of American self-reliance and the unfettered right to protect oneself with a gun. But the footage, as well as newly uncovered legal records, suggest that behind his carefully constructed Everyman image, LaPierre is a coddled executive who is clumsy with a firearm, and fearful of the violent political climate he has helped to create.”
  • “‘There is tension there’: Publishers draw fire for signing Trump officials,” by the New York Times’s Elizabeth Harris and Alexandra Alter: “Things were already strained at Simon & Schuster. After backing out of a deal with Senator Josh Hawley ... the company announced this month that it would publish two books by former Vice President Mike Pence. ... On Monday, editors and other employees at Simon & Schuster delivered a petition to management demanding an end to the deal. ... Most were probably not aware that the company has also signed the former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway ... a move that is sure to throw gas on the fire."

More on the first 100 days

Biden’s speech will be a “guidepost for the next year,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said. 
  • "It's a huge moment, a huge night and a big opportunity for President Biden, but it is not the totality of every issue he will focus on, work on, care about as president," Psaki told ABC News’s “Powerhouse Politics” podcast. "It's really meant to be a guidepost for the next year and an update for the American people in a very high-profile way," she added.
  • "The two people sitting behind the president will be women for the first time in history," Psaki said. "He'll certainly note that."
  • “Ahead of the speech, Biden will meet privately with career staff members of the Capitol who were there during the attack by a pro-Trump mob on Jan. 6,” Colby Itkowitz and John Wagner report.
Mitch McConnell says Biden and his administration have provided “catnip for their liberal base,” not unity, in first 100 days
  • The Senate minority leader offered the sharp critique while speaking on the Senate floor, but added he will be present for the address. “I’ll be curious to hear how the president tries to square his rhetoric with his administration’s actions over the past 100 days,” McConnell said. “Back in January, many Americans hoped they could take the incoming president at his word.” Instead, McConnell said, “the first 100 days have left much to be desired,” John Wagner reports.
The vice president, 100 days in, is trying to move from history-maker to Biden’s heir apparent. 
  • “As Harris has begun to settle into her new role, many who have interacted with her since Jan. 20 ... and some longtime supporters say the coming months will provide clarity on a question hovering over her tenure: whether the nation’s first non-White female vice president will emerge as the clear heir apparent to lead the Democratic Party and win the presidency in a post-Biden era,” Cleve R. Wootson Jr. reports. “For now, those in touch with her say, the best way for Harris to prove her mettle is to simply embrace the job she was elected to do.”
  • “Some people were wondering whether she will be the heir apparent, and I think that’s the wrong consideration,” said the Rev. William Barber, a North Carolina civil rights leader, told Wootson. “If you want to be an heir apparent, the real issue is if you’re dealing with what’s apparent now.”
Our colleagues checked in on whether Biden has kept his promises at the 100-day mark.
  • “Biden hasn’t matched condemnations of racism with similarly forceful action,” Sean Sullivan writes. “Until a jury found [Derek] Chauvin guilty of killing [George] Floyd, overhauling policing practices was not at the top of the president’s agenda. His reluctance to embrace eliminating the Senate filibuster, a legislative practice he said he agrees is a relic of the country’s racist past, has prompted some activists for communities of color to question his commitment to landmark legislation on voting rights, immigration and the minimum wage.”
  • “There was never much doubt that Biden would meet his goal of reopening most schools by his 100th day in office, especially after he made clear that he was only talking about K-8 schools and that ‘most’ meant 51 percent,” writes Meckler. “The country was almost there in January, when Biden took office, federal data shows. Since then, data from several sources shows school districts have been on a steady march toward more in-person learning. ... But the trend toward reopening, while significant, obscures vast unevenness across the country.”

Some of Biden promises in his first 100 days, visualized

More on the Biden presidency

The Senate Judiciary Committee will consider Biden’s first batch of judicial nominees. 
  • “Committee Chairman Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) called it a ‘historic day’ for the Biden administration as lawmakers begin reviewing the president’s first batch of judicial nominees, including two Black women for appeals court openings in Washington and Chicago,” Ann Marimow reports.
  • “Much of the hearing Wednesday is expected to center on the two circuit court picks: Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, nominated to replace Attorney General Merrick Garland on the influential U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, and Candace Jackson-Akiwumi, a former public defender who is up for the Chicago-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit.”
  • “In his opening remarks, Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), the panel’s ranking Republican, praised Jackson-Akiwumi for her service on the U.S. Sentencing Commission. He also suggested that he would press her about the clients she represented as a public defender and on the issue of combating violent crime.”
Biden’s three nominees to the Postal Service’s governing board won approval from the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
  • Sen. Rob Portman (Ohio), the ranking Republican ... voted in favor of all three nominees: Ronald Stroman, a Democrat ... Anton Hajjar, a Democrat and former general counsel to the American Postal Workers Union; and Amber McReynolds, an independent,” Jacob Bogage reports.
Donors, friends and former aides are expected to be on Biden’s first slate of high-profile ambassadors. 
  • “The process has been complicated by sensitivity to naming candidates other than the coterie of well-connected White people, most of them men, who have been the mainstay of Biden’s political circle,” Tyler Pager and Anne Gearan report. “The selection process has taken longer than it has for Biden’s predecessors because of that issue and because Biden ‘knows too many people and he has too many friends.’”
  • The list includes Cindy McCain for envoy to the World Food Program, a United Nations body, and former Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel for ambassador to Japan.
  • David Cohen, a Comcast executive who hosted Biden’s first official 2020 presidential fundraising event, probably will be nominated as ambassador to Canada. Former interior secretary Ken Salazar is in line to be the ambassador to Mexico. Denise Bauer, who led a women’s support network for Biden, is expected to be nominated for the post in France. Biden adviser Mark Gitenstein is expected to be named E.U. ambassador, while former adviser Julie Smith is expected to become the U.S. ambassador to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer is waiting for a recommendation on a Supreme Court expansion. 
  • “Schumer is staying neutral at the moment on court expansion, which his colleagues Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler (D-N.Y.) support,” the Hill reports. “Look, the bottom line is that I’m waiting to hear what President Biden’s commission says about the Supreme Court and they’re going to look at many different aspects,” Schumer told reporters.

Tracking Biden's nominees, 100 days in

The Post and the Partnership for Public Service are tracking Biden's appointees including Cabinet secretaries, chief financial officers, general counsels, ambassadors and other critical leadership positions.

The pandemic

In India, illness is everywhere. 
  • “I’m sitting in my apartment waiting to catch the disease. That’s what it feels like right now in New Delhi with the world’s worst coronavirus crisis advancing around us. It is out there, I am in here, and I feel like it’s only a matter of time before I, too, get sick,” writes the Times’s India bureau chief Jeffrey Gettleman.
  • “Although New Delhi is locked down, the disease is still rampaging. Doctors across this city and some of Delhi’s top politicians are issuing desperate SOS calls to India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, on social media and on TV, begging for oxygen, medicine, help.”
The U.S. is sending over 500 canisters of oxygen and a strike team, among other supplies, to help India. 
  • CDC Director Rochelle Walensky told Good Morning America that “the situation there is horrifying, and our hearts go out to the entire country. … We are deploying a strike team this week to go and assist,” she said. “We are working to send over 500 canisters of oxygen to start and working to send supplies as soon as we can."
Tony Fauci said the world has failed so far in tackling the global nature of the pandemic with a suitably global response. 
  • “The only way that you’re going to adequately respond to a global pandemic is by having a global response, and a global response means equity throughout the world,” Fauci told the Guardian Australia. “This is something that all the countries that are relatively rich countries or countries that have a higher income have to pay more attention to,” he said. “We’re all in this together. It’s an interconnected world.”
Biden’s coronavirus team is split over the decision to send millions of AstraZeneca’s vaccine doses abroad. 
  • After the White House announced that Biden had made the decision after talking to Modi, many Biden officials argued that “the government cannot reduce its stockpile of doses on hand given recent disruptions in U.S. vaccine production,” Politico’s Erin Banco and Adam Cancryn report. “The sudden decision, made at the highest levels, came after more than a month of intense internal debate. Senior officials in the White House and National Security Council had repeatedly rebuffed requests from leaders of health agencies, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to send doses abroad.”

Quote of the day

“If I’m able to pull this off and we are able to shut this down for the small price of $27.5 million … I would tell those critics to kiss my butt,” said West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice (R) about his plans to give a $100 savings bond to every young person in his state who gets the coronavirus vaccine. 

Hot on the right

Republican lawmakers who also happen to be medical professionals released an ad encouraging Americans to get the coronavirus shot. “The video, organized by the 18-member GOP ‘Doctors’ Caucus,’ stresses the safety of COVID-19 vaccines and the U.S. government’s ‘rigorous and transparent’ process of overseeing their development,” HuffPost’s Igor Bobic reports.

Hot on the left

The New York Post reporter who wrote an unfounded story claiming the Biden administration was giving out Harris’s books to migrant children quit the tabloid. “Today I handed in my resignation to my editors at the New York Post,” the reporter, Laura Italiano, posted to Twitter. “The Kamala Harris story — an incorrect story I was ordered to write and which I failed to push back hard enough against — was my breaking point. It’s been a privilege to cover the City of New York for its liveliest, wittiest tabloid — a paper filled with reporters and editors I admire deeply and hold as friends. I’m sad to leave.”

Commentators continued noting that this is how the disinformation machine works:

And WaPo columnist Karen Tumulty pointed out some irony: 

Today in Washington

Biden’s joint address to Congress starts at 9 p.m. 

Looking ahead: Biden will travel to Atlanta tomorrow to discuss how “he has delivered on his promises to the American people.” On Friday, he will go to Philadelphia to celebrate Amtrak’s 50th anniversary. Harris will mark the administration’s 100 days in Baltimore and travel to Cincinnati on Friday.

In closing

Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told Stephen Colbert she’s still angry at Republican Sens. Josh Hawley (Mo.) and Ted Cruz (Tex.):