President-elect Joe Biden plans to swiftly alter the shape of the U.S. government with an aspirational inauguration speech, a legislative package aimed at coronavirus recovery and a burst of executive orders designed to signal an immediate break from President Trump.
Those moves will launch a 10-day governing sprint that will include executive actions to help schools reopen, expand coronavirus testing and establish clearer public health standards. “President-elect Biden will take action — not just to reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration — but also to start moving our country forward,” incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain wrote in a memo released Saturday.
In his first days in office, Biden also intends to send to Congress several pieces of legislation including a sweeping immigration bill. In remarks last week, he began outlining legislation that he views as most urgent — a $1.9 trillion plan aimed at stabilizing the economy.
Any president’s opening agenda provides a window into his top priorities and offers the first clues as to which agenda items will be prioritized. But Biden’s unusually sweeping list reflects not only the multiple challenges he faces, but also illustrates his desire to quickly emerge from the shadow of his predecessor, closing a dark chapter in American history marked by false claims of election fraud, an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and a second impeachment.
But Biden will face severe challenges to his attempts to turn the page: An inauguration conducted before military guards under threat from violent extremists. A West Wing largely empty because of health concerns caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And a Republican Party that largely refuses to acknowledge that Biden won the election fairly and therefore rejects his legitimacy.
Historians struggle to find parallels to what Biden is confronting: a public health crisis that has triggered an economic crisis and collided with a social crisis. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin compared it to a combination of what Franklin D. Roosevelt faced during the Great Depression and Abraham Lincoln confronted during the Civil War.
“It’s huge what he’s facing,” said Goodwin, who has written extensively about Roosevelt and Lincoln. “History has shown when you have crises like this, it’s an opportunity for leaders to mobilize resources of the federal government. ... All the presidents we remember, they dealt with a crisis. When you’re given that chance, the question is: Are you fitted for that moment?”
The moment, at noon on Wednesday, will become Biden’s.
The six-term senator and two-term vice president, who has attended nearly a dozen inaugurations, will for the first time deliver the Inauguration Address. He has been working on his Inauguration Day speech off and on for the past several weeks with speechwriter Vinay Reddy, aiming for a message of unity in a fractured era.
“People are really anxious,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), a close Biden ally. “This marks a turning point. We can see it, we can feel it. It’s a very significant break. And we will hear it in his speech. … People want to believe in their country, to feel this democracy is worth saving.”
While Biden has promoted his presidency as a return to bipartisan dealmaking, Clyburn and others have urged him not to hesitate to make liberal use of his executive powers and to consider seeking the elimination of the Senate filibuster.
“He wants to govern in a bipartisan way,” Clyburn said. “But I’ve said to him that he cannot allow his programs to get hijacked by people who have some other agenda. I advised Barack Obama again and again to use executive authority, that these people were not going to work with them.”
Clyburn said that in conversations with Biden, he has stressed that Harry S. Truman used the executive order to racially desegregate the military and Abraham Lincoln to begin dismantling slavery.
“You’ve got to lay out your vision and invite people to join you in the effort,” Clyburn said. “But if they don’t join you — whatever authority you’ve got, use it.”
Clyburn and others also emphasized the challenges Biden will face within his party, which holds only the thinnest of majorities in the House and Senate. “We’ve got a caucus that’s blue dogs, yellow dogs, moderates, conservatives, liberals. We’ve got them all,” Clyburn said. “He may have a harder job keeping us united than getting bipartisanship going.”
Former Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) warned that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been adept at stalling Democratic priorities in the past, and Reid urged Biden to take a muscular approach to working around Republicans.
“McConnell has done everything he can to damage the Senate. It’s only turned into a manufacturing site for judges,” Reid said. “They don’t do amendments, they don’t do any legislation at all.”
Reid said Biden — who served in the senate for 36 years — knows better than most how to cut deals. But he said that Biden may need to consider changing the Senate rules so that a minority cannot stop legislation from moving.
“I believe the filibuster is on its way out. It’s not a question of if; it’s a question of when it’s going to go,” Reid said. “Joe Biden has said he will see if he can work something out with McConnell to get legislation done. Maybe with all eyes pointed to McConnell, he won’t be the grim reaper he’s been in the past. But if that continues after whatever Biden thinks is a reasonable time, he may need to get rid of the filibuster.”
Biden’s team is expected to begin work Wednesday, reporting to a White House complex that many tearfully left four years earlier. His incoming press secretary, Jen Psaki, will hold a briefing that day — one that, four years ago, was marked by Sean Spicer’s falsely claiming that Trump had had the largest-ever inauguration audience on the Mall.
But many of Biden’s aides will start their tenure working from home, as they have been for months, and few visitors are expected at the White House.
Biden’s transition team has been prodigious on the hiring front, appointed 206 White House officials, a record and more than double the number of appointments President Obama had made at this point in 2009, according to the Center for Presidential Transition.
He also has already announced 44 nominees that need Senate confirmation, which surpasses Obama, who held the previous record at 42 nominations announced before the inauguration.
But though early nominations are typically swiftly confirmed, Biden may not have any Cabinet officials confirmed on his first day, the first time this would have happened since 1989.
Two of Trump’s Cabinet picks were confirmed on Inauguration Day in 2017, and President Obama had six confirmed at the start of his first term.
“I am hopeful that the Senate will move quickly, consistent with history,” said David Marchick, the director of the nonpartisan Center for Presidential Transition. “It matters more than ever today during a crisis.”
Biden is eager to signal a rapid shift from Trump at the beginning of his tenure and to tap into the jubilation some feel at Trump’s exit. But he also is conscious of marking the solemnity of the moment. His first event in Washington, expected on Tuesday night, is a memorial marking the nearly 400,000 American lives lost to the novel coronavirus.
The nation’s second Roman Catholic president is expected to attend Mass on the morning of his inauguration, along with a national prayer service the day after.
In his first weeks, Biden’s primary focus will be moving his initial stimulus and legislation through Congress. But he’s also preparing to craft a second proposal aimed at rebuilding the economy.
“If Republicans in Congress want to show they genuinely want to move forward in this moment, quickly confirming his nominees and passing a bold package is the quickest way to do that,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a close Biden ally.
During the campaign, Biden made a wide range of promises for action on “Day One” of his administration — and it is unclear whether he will get to all of it immediately.
“Day One, if I win, I’m going to be on the phone with our NATO allies saying, ‘We’re back,’ ” he told KPNX in Phoenix over the summer. “We’re back, and you can count on us again.”
He pledged to send a bill to Congress repealing liability protections for gun manufacturers on his first day and vowed to eliminate tax cuts passed under Trump in 2017.
“Right now, the president gives advantage to companies that go overseas and invest overseas by reducing the taxes they have to pay on foreign profits,” Biden said during a July interview with WNEP in Scranton, Pa. “I’d double that tax and do that on Day One.”
Among the other things Biden pledged to accomplish on his first day was to restore federal workers’ right to unionize and to issue new sweeping ethics standards that would apply to his administration.
He also said he would reinstate federal guidance, issued by Obama and revoked by Trump, ensuring that transgender students can have access to sports, restrooms and locker rooms in accordance with their gender identity.
“He is looking forward to delivering on the promises he made when running for president,” Psaki said Friday when asked about Biden’s Day One agenda items. “You can anticipate he will use the power that every president before him has used on executive action.”
But there is a long history of presidents failing, when they have their actual first day in office as president, to follow through on theoretical Day One promises they made while campaigning.
Trump said that on his first day as president, he would repeal and replace Obama’s signature health-care law (he didn’t) and begin construction of a wall on the border with Mexico (that didn’t occur).
Trump also declared that because he would be sworn in on a Friday, his first-day agenda should get an extension.
“Day 1 — which I will consider to be Monday as opposed to Friday or Saturday. Right?” Trump said in an interview with the Times of London. “I mean my Day 1 is going to be Monday because I don’t want to be signing and get it mixed up with lots of celebration.”