WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden ran on a campaign promise to tackle a raging COVID-19 pandemic that has paralyzed the country over the past year, promising to pick up the pieces of the Trump administration.
Now as president, Biden faces the herculean task of fulfilling that pledge, one that will not only deliver relief to millions of Americans but also may shape his administration’s success.
On his second day in office Thursday, Biden laid out his plans for a federal COVID-19 strategy and declared it “a wartime undertaking.” He issued a flurry of virus-related executive orders, signaling the pandemic as his first priority and laying the groundwork of a national approach markedly different from former President Donald Trump.
Though Biden acknowledged it would take “months” for his administration to get the virus under control, experts said the rest of his agenda hinges on whether he’ll be able to deliver on his COVID-19 strategy.
There is no choice but to succeed, said veteran Democratic strategist Joe Trippi.
“Failure is not an option,” he said. “And it’s not just failure is not an option for his presidency, but for the country.”
More:Takeaways from Biden’s COVID-19 executive orders: Experts celebrate plan, warn ‘a lot of work’ is left
More:Dr. Fauci says letting ‘the science speak’ is ‘liberating’ after serving under Trump
For most presidents, the first year shapes the arc of the administration and how successful a president might be over the four-year term, said Doug Sosnik, a former White House political director for former President Bill Clinton.
“Walking into health and economic crises, dealing with containing this crisis is absolutely going to be at the core of the success or failure of the Biden administration,” he said. “It’s going to be a springboard for his presidency or it’s going to be an undertow that he’ll be fighting against for the whole four years.”
The entire premise of Biden’s presidency is not just a return to normalcy, but a promise to deliver solutions to a raft of pressing national problems facing the country, including the economic fallout from the pandemic as well as the aftershocks of the Jan. 6 assault on the U.S. Capitol, according to William Howell, a political scientist and professor at the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy.
“If he falls short, in two years Democrats stand to lose the bare majorities they now retain in Congress,” Howell said, referring to the 2022 midterm elections.
The president has issued an ambitious 198-page plan that includes a campaign to meet his pledge of administering 100 million vaccine shots in 100 days, expanding access to testing, requiring masks on most forms of transportation and providing relief to states and cities still struggling to contain the spread of the virus.
The plan’s success however, relies on Congress quickly acting to approve the president’s $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package unveiled last week, an ambitious proposal that some GOP senators remain skeptical about.
More:‘This is a wartime undertaking’: Biden signs 10 orders aimed at COVID-19 on first full day in White House
More:‘The brutal truth’: Biden emphasizes science, unity in first briefing on national plan to tackle COVID-19
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, pushed back on the proposal Wednesday and Senate Policy Committee Chairman Roy Blunt described it as a “non-starter” on Thursday.
Still, there are some aspects of Biden’s policy agenda that may curry bipartisan support and delivering some form of economic stimulus is chief among them.
“The trick for Biden is to take advantage of every available opportunity to advance change legislatively while also using his unilateral powers to undo much of Trump’s policy legacy,” Howell said.
But some Democratic strategists say there aren’t many alternatives given the scope and the scale of the pandemic, which has claimed more than 400,000 Americans in less than a year.
“The size of the problem, the urgency for so many people, and the amount of time as a country and a society that’s been lost because we’re paralyzed in our houses, you’ve got to have the entire federal government behind it and that includes Congress who is writing the checks,” Sosnik said.
Biden’s plan also calls for invoking the Defense Production Act, a wartime authority that allows him to direct industry to produce critical equipment to confront the spiraling coronavirus crisis. The president said he’ll use the DPA to address medical supply shortages and expedite vaccine production and packaging, an authority the Trump administration also used.
Trippi contended that while the White House may not get the $1.9 trillion it would like, Biden’s decades of experience and relationships in the Senate could play to his favor.
A change of hands in the upper chamber is expected to work to Biden’s benefit. Three Democratic senators were sworn in Wednesday, stripping Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of his title and diminishing his hold over GOP senators who may consider voting for the measure.
The stark absence of Trump also shifts the dynamic, Trippi said, noting the former president’s penchant for attacking members of his own party who didn’t side with him.
“You have a president who’s lowering the temperature and reaching out and a lot of lawmakers see that and know what’s at stake,” Trippi said. “This is the kind of crisis that we find out whether we have a great president or an incompetent one.”
Democratic strategist Josh Schwerin lauded the Biden administration for balancing the need for aggressive goals “with a healthy dose of honesty about the challenges we face.”
“While it’s true that how Biden deals with the pandemic will set the tone for the rest of his presidency, the American people will reward him if they see an honest and transparent effort,” Schwerin said.
“It would be in stark contrast to the last administration that lied about their goals and progress while never really making an effort to do the hard things necessary to get our country through this crisis,” he said.
White House officials have expressed frustration over the COVID-19 response they inherited from the Trump administration, which left vaccine distribution to state and local governments.
A number of states are reporting they are running out of vaccine, and tens of thousands of people who managed to get appointments for a first dose are seeing them canceled. Last week the Health and Human Services Department suggested states had unrealistic expectations for how much vaccine was on the way.
In a sobering assessment, Biden told reporters Thursday the U.S. death toll would likely top 500,000 in February, but vowed “we will get through it.”
But presidents always have tremendous incentives to act – especially in times of crisis, like the nation is facing now, said Lauren Wright, a political scientist at Princeton University.
“The risk of inaction, even if Biden falls short of these goals, is much greater, and I think Biden has seen that play out firsthand from his decades of public service and also across presidential history,” she said.
Biden and White House Chief of Staff Ron Klain have both warned the pandemic will get worse before it gets better. Coronavirus czar Jeff Zients said the pandemic response the Biden team inherited from the Trump administration was worse than they could have imagined.
Taken together, those remarks indicate that despite what might seem like ambitious promises, Biden’s strategy is actually to “underpromise and overdeliver,” Wright said.
“The administration wants to make it clear that they were left with a mess, which is a very credible and reasonable claim, considering that a majority of Americans consistently say in polls that Trump mishandled the coronavirus response,” she said.
A Washington Post-ABC News poll released Tuesday found just 1 in 10 Americans say the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S. is mostly under control.
“Hardly anyone thinks coronavirus is an unimportant issue, and most Americans have been directly impacted by it in some way,” Wright said. “So aside from historic demands from Americans for swift and transparent executive action from presidents after they are sworn in, there is a popular mandate for Biden to do as much as he can, as quickly as he can, to right the ship on the pandemic.”