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With the drama of Donald Trump’s last presidential gasps – and the urgency of his pending post-presidential impeachment trial for inciting insurrection – it’s been easy to gloss over the fact that in four days there will be a new president with very different priorities.
The latest in the Trump drama is his aggravation at comparisons to Richard Nixon.
Joe Biden is looking to move on.
He gave a prime-time address from Wilmington, Delaware, on Thursday and laid out the first of his relief plans: a $1.9 trillion package of temporary measures and help for the unemployed attached to a permanent hike in the minimum wage to $15 per hour.
A second speech on Friday outlined his plan to ramp up the production and distribution of vaccines. He’ll rebrand the troubled Covid vaccine effort and promises a national strategy to combat the disease, a 180-degree turn from Trump’s Covid denial, and he’ll hire 100,000 federal health professionals to help build up the country’s capacity.
He’ll need Congress to help with that and other plans. He’s also inheriting some headaches, especially when it comes to foreign policy. On Taiwan and China, Cuba and Yemen, the Trump administration is handing Biden major policy changes he doesn’t agree with but that he’ll have trouble undoing.
What Matters talked to CNN’s Dan Merica, who covers Biden for CNN, about what we can expect in the days and weeks after Biden takes office. The email conversation, lightly edited, is below:
What comes first?
WHAT MATTERS: What do we know about what Biden will do Day One as president?
MERICA: One of Biden’s most common promises on the campaign trail was that he would tackle a certain issue on Day One – a pledge he usually made to contrast himself with Trump. Now that he has won, he has to pick what he can actually do via executive order on his first day in office.
The list of promises is long and ranges from climate change policy and union rights to trust in government and foreign policy issues like rejoining the Paris climate accord and rescinding Trump’s targeted travel bans. Right now, it’s a little unclear what exactly Biden will sign on Day One. What is clear: He made a lot of promises, so January 20 could be a very busy day.
What’s the timeline for his top priority?
WHAT MATTERS: He’s announced the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package as his first priority. What’s his timeline to get this passed into law?
MERICA: This is Biden’s most pressing priority heading into his first days in office. Biden, in his prime-time speech on Thursday night about this plan, stressed the need to move “quickly” and in a bipartisan fashion, sounding hopeful about the prospect that his relationships on Capitol Hill, along with the pressing needs across the country, will compel action.
There are clear political ramifications to all this. Biden promised to administer 100 million shots in his first 100 days and his team knows they will be swiftly judged by their ability to hit that target.
Is he thinking past the relief bill?
WHAT MATTERS: What are his second and third priorities after the Covid bill?
MERICA: The list of issues he has promised to tackle is long, but the sequencing is a bit of a mystery.
Biden has mentioned wanting to prioritize something that could receive bipartisan agreement near the start of his term – making something like a sweeping infrastructure measure more likely. But with slim majorities in the Senate and House, what Biden prioritizes beyond coronavirus will be a space to watch.
What permanent changes is he proposing beyond the $15 minimum wage?
What Matters: One permanent element of the relief package is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour. What are the other immediate permanent changes he’s eyeing?
MERICA: The plan does not include many permanent changes beyond the $15 minimum wage – with the proposal primarily focused on beefed-up, but temporary, stimulus payments, unemployment aid and a temporary eviction moratorium. The plan would send $350 billion to state, local and territorial governments to stem public-sector job losses, add $15 billion to an existing grant program to help child care providers and provide $15 billion to create a new grant program for small business owners, but much of that is in response to the coronavirus crisis and less of a permanent response.
This plan is only for the first half of Biden’s coronavirus response – focused on rescuing the nation. During his speech on Thursday, Biden said he would unveil his “Build Back Better” recovery plan during his first joint session of Congress address in February. That will likely have more permanent changes.
How will he deliver on his core promise?
WHAT MATTERS: So much of Biden’s campaign was about being the anti-Trump. What’s going to be his biggest obstacle in delivering on this most basic promise?
MERICA: Biden has already started to try to deliver on this promise and his speech on Thursday was the best example. Where Trump has largely ignored the ongoing coronavirus crisis in the close of his administration, Biden’s speech took on the issue, and the tone of the remarks aimed to bring as many Republicans and Democrats together as possible to pass something.
This stood out as a very un-Trumpian thing for Biden to say: “There will be stumbles,” Biden said on Thursday of his Covid plan. “But I will always be honest with you about both the progress we’re making and what setbacks we meet.” Trump would never admit to failings of his own administration.
So it appears that being the anti-Trump – at least in tone and tenor – will likely be one of the easiest promises for Biden to deliver on.
Does he have a plan to balance Republicans and progressives?
What Matters: How will Biden balance the need for compromise (he’ll need Republican votes in the 50-50 Senate to get anything permanent done) with the need to satisfy progressives who turned out to elect him and now want systemic change?
Merica: This will be the constant tension of the Biden presidency. He prides himself on being able to work with Republicans on Capitol Hill, but doing so will certainly mean legislation that does not meet every desire of progressives who helped elect him. Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders has argued that getting Biden elected was the first hurdle, and it is up to his progressives to make sure he follows through on his more liberal promises. Some progressives were enthusiastic about Biden’s coronavirus package – and Sanders issued a complimentary statement on Thursday night. Others were more critical and skeptical about its passage.
How will Biden keep the impeachment trial from taking over?
WHAT MATTERS: By delaying the impeachment trial into the Biden administration, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, guaranteed that Democrats will own that process. What will Biden do to make sure his first days in office are not dominated by accountability for Trump?
MERICA: Biden privately resigned himself to the fact that impeachment will be yet another issue facing his incoming administration. It certainly seems like he would rather have avoided the issue, especially because he regularly promised to “turn the page” from Trump. But that ship has sailed, and now Biden is pushing for a bifurcated approach to impeachment – meaning the Senate would focus on impeachment for half the day and confirming his top administrative posts for the other half of the day.
Getting his Cabinet into place is going to be a major undertaking. Splitting the day is a big lift for the Senate and would surely slow the process of getting Biden’s team confirmed. And the Biden team has made clear they want impeachment to get done quickly – “Hopefully the trial won’t be a lengthy trial,” incoming chief of staff Ron Klain told The Washington Post today. The subtext is that they want to get this done and move on.