WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President-elect Joe Biden, inheriting a collection of crises unlike any in generations, plans to open his administration with dozens of executive directives on top of expansive legislative proposals in a 10-day blitz meant to signal a turning point for a nation reeling from disease, economic turmoil, racial strife and now the aftermath of the assault on the Capitol.
Biden's team has developed a raft of decrees that he can issue on his own authority after the inauguration on Wednesday to begin reversing some of President Donald Trump's most hotly disputed policies.
Advisers hope the flurry of action, without waiting for Congress, will establish a sense of momentum for the new president even as the Senate puts his predecessor on trial.
On his first day in office alone, Biden intends a flurry of executive orders that will be partly substantive and partly symbolic.
They include rescinding the travel ban on several predominantly Muslim countries, rejoining the Paris climate change accord, extending pandemic-related limits on evictions and student loan payments, issuing a mask mandate for federal property and interstate travel and ordering agencies to figure out how to reunite children separated from families after crossing the border, according to a memo circulated on Saturday (Jan 16) by Ron Klain, his incoming White House chief of staff, and obtained by The New York Times.
The blueprint of executive action comes after Biden announced that he will push Congress to pass a US$1.9 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) package of economic stimulus and pandemic relief, signalling a willingness to be aggressive on policy issues and confronting Republicans from the start to take their lead from him.
He also plans to send sweeping immigration legislation on his first day in office providing a pathway to citizenship for 11 million people in the country illegally.
Along with his promise to vaccinate 100 million Americans for the coronavirus in his first 100 days, it is an expansive set of priorities for a new president that could be a defining test of his deal-making abilities and command of the federal government.
For Biden, an energetic debut could be critical to moving the country beyond the endless dramas surrounding Trump.
In the 75 days since his election, Biden has provided hints of what kind of president he hopes to be - focused on the big issues, resistant to the louder voices in his own party and uninterested in engaging in the Twitter-driven, minute-by-minute political combat that characterised the last four years and helped lead to the deadly mob assault on the Capitol.
But in a city that has become an armed camp since the Jan 6 attack, with inaugural festivities curtailed because of both the coronavirus and the threat of domestic terrorism, Biden cannot count on much of a honeymoon.
Deep ideological divisions
While privately many Republicans will be relieved at his ascension after the combustible Trump, the troubles awaiting Biden are so daunting that even a veteran of a half-century in politics may struggle to get a grip on the ship of state.
And even if the partisan enmities of the Trump era ebb somewhat, there remain deep ideological divisions on the substance of Biden's policies - on taxation, government spending, immigration, health care and other issues - that will challenge much of his agenda on Capitol Hill.
"You have a public health crisis, an economic challenge of huge proportions, racial, ethnic strife and political polarisation on steroids," said Rahm Emanuel, the former Chicago mayor who served as a top adviser to Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
"These challenges require big, broad strokes. The challenge is whether there's a partner on the other side to deal with them."
Biden's transition has been unlike that of any other new president, and so will the early days of his administration. The usual spirit of change and optimism that surrounds a newly elected president has been overshadowed by a defeated president who has refused to concede either the election or the spotlight.
Biden spent much of this interregnum trying not to be distracted as he assembled a Cabinet and White House staff of government veterans that look remarkably like the Obama administration that left office four years ago. He put together a team with expansive diversity in race and gender, but without many of the party's more outspoken progressive figures, to the disappointment of the left.
"He's obviously prioritised competence and longevity of experience in a lot of his appointments," said Representative Ro Khanna, a national co-chairman of Senator Bernie Sanders' primary campaign.
But he said Biden's team had reached out to progressives like him.
"I do hope we'll continue to see progressives who tend to be younger and newer to the party fill a lot of the undersecretary and assistant secretary positions even if they're not at the very top," Khanna said.
Biden more self-assured
At the very top will be one of the most familiar figures in modern American politics but one who has appeared to evolve in recent weeks. After a lifetime in Washington, the restless, gabby man of consuming ambition who always had something to say and something to prove seems to have given way to a more self-assured 78-year-old who finally achieved his life's dream.
He did not feel the need to chase the cameras over the past 10 weeks - indeed, his staff have gone out of their way to protect him from unscripted exposure for fear of any stumbles, a goal that will be harder once in office.
"He is much calmer," said Representative James Clyburn, a close ally. "The anxiety of running and the pressure of a campaign, all that's behind him now. Even after the campaign was over, the election was over, all the foolishness coming from the Trump camp, you don't know how all this stuff is going to play out. You may know how it's going to end, but you're anxious about how it plays out. So all that's behind him now."
Throughout his career, Biden has been a divining rod for the middle of his party, more moderate in the 1990s when that was in vogue and more liberal during the Obama era when the centre of gravity shifted.
A 'fingertip politician'
He is driven less by ideology than by the mechanics of how to put together a Bill that will satisfy various power centres. A "fingertip politician," as he likes to put it, Biden is described by aides and friends as more intuitive about other politicians and their needs than was Obama, but less of a novel thinker.
While he is famous for foot-in-mouth gaffes, he can be slow to make decisions, with one meeting rolling into the next as he seeks out more opinions. Each morning, he receives a fat briefing book with dozens of tabs in a black binder and reads through it, but he prefers to interact with others.
During the transition, he has conducted many of his briefings using Zoom at his desk in the library of his home in Wilmington, Delaware, or at the Queen, the nearby theatre where a large screen has been set up.
He relishes freewheeling discussion, interrupting aides and chiding them for what he deems overly academic or elitist language.
"Pick up your phone, call your mother, read her what you just told me," he likes to say, according to aides. "If she understands, we can keep talking."
Aides made a point of editing out all abbreviations other than UN and Nato.
As one former aide put it, Biden was the guy in college who was always leading study groups in the dorm, using notecards with his friends, constantly interacting, while Obama was the monastic, scholarly student with oil lamps sitting in a room alone poring through books.
Like Obama - and notably unlike Trump - Biden watches little television news other than perhaps catching Morning Joe on MSNBC while on the treadmill or the Sunday talk shows. Aides recall few times he came to them with something he picked up from television.
A more tribal Washington
Biden will be the first true creature of Capitol Hill to occupy the White House since President Gerald Ford in the 1970s. More than recent predecessors, he understands how other politicians think and what drives them. But his confidence that he can make deals with Republicans is born of an era when bipartisan cooperation was valued rather than scorned and he may find that today's Washington has become so tribal that the old ways no longer apply.
"Joe Biden is somebody who understands how politicians work and how important political sensitivities are on each side, which is drastically different than President Obama," said former Representative Eric Cantor of Virginia, who as the House Republican leader negotiated with Biden and came to like him.
"I would think there may be a time when Washington could get something done," said Cantor, who lost a Republican primary in 2014 in part because he was seen as too willing to work with Biden.
"At this point, I don't know, the extreme elements on both sides are so strong right now, it's going to be difficult."
Biden's determination to ask Congress for a broad overhaul of the nation's immigration laws underscores the difficulties. In his proposed legislation, which he plans to unveil on Wednesday, he will call for a path to citizenship for about 11 million undocumented immigrants already living in the United States, including those with temporary status and the so-called Dreamers, who have lived in the country since they were young children.
The Bill will include increased foreign aid to ravaged Central American economies, provide safe opportunities for immigration for those fleeing violence, and increase prosecutions of those trafficking drugs and human smugglers.
But unlike previous presidents, Biden will not try to win support from Republicans by acknowledging the need for extensive new investments in border security in exchange for his proposals, according to a person familiar with the legislation. That could make his plan far harder to pass in Congress, where Democrats will control both houses, but by a slim margin.
All of which explains why Biden and his team have resolved to use executive power as much as possible at the onset of the administration even as he tests the waters of a new Congress.
In his memo to Biden's senior staff on Saturday, Klain underscored the urgency of the overlapping crises and the need for the new president to act quickly to "reverse the gravest damages of the Trump administration."
Travel ban, masks and climate
While other presidents issued executive actions right after taking office, Biden plans to enact a dozen on Inauguration Day alone, including the travel ban reversal, the mask mandate and the return to the Paris accord.
As with many of Trump's own executive actions, some of them may sound more meaningful than they really are. By imposing a mask mandate on interstate planes, trains and buses, for instance, Biden is essentially codifying existing practice while encouraging rather than trying to require broader use of masks.
On the other side, Biden risks being criticised for doing what Democrats accused Trump of doing in terms of abusing the power of his office through an expansive interpretation of his executive power. Sensitive to that argument, Klain argued in his memo that Biden will remain within the bounds of law.
"While the policy objectives in these executive actions are bold, I want to be clear: The legal theory behind them is well-founded and represents a restoration of an appropriate, constitutional role for the president," Klain wrote to his staff.
On Biden's second day in office, he will sign executive actions related to the coronavirus pandemic aimed at helping schools and businesses to reopen safely, expand testing, protect workers and clarify public health standards.
On his third day, he will direct his Cabinet agencies to "take immediate action to deliver economic relief to working families," Klain wrote in the memo.
The subsequent seven days will include more executive actions and directives to his Cabinet to expand "Buy America" provisions, "support communities of color and other underserved communities," address climate change and start an effort to reunite families separated at the border.
Klain did not provide details about the executive actions, leaving unclear whether they will be merely statements of intent, like many of Trump's executive actions. And he conceded that much of the agenda developed by Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would require action by Congress.
Congress has been largely gridlocked for years, and even with Democrats controlling both the House and the Senate, Biden faces an uphill climb after this initial burst of executive actions. Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a former Senate Democratic leader who worked with Biden for years, said the incoming president had an acute sense of the challenges he faced and the trade-offs required.
As leader, Daschle recalled that when things went wrong for him and he would complain, Biden would joke, "I hope that's worth the car," referring to the chauffeured ride provided the Senate leader. Now, Daschle said as Biden prepares to move into the Executive Mansion, "I'm almost inclined to say, well, whatever he's facing now, I hope that's worth the house."