Little chance of honeymoon for Joe Biden amid crises

Mr Joe Biden will be inheriting twin crises when he takes over as President: controlling Covid-19 and providing more relief for Americans struggling in the battered economy.
Mr Joe Biden will be inheriting twin crises when he takes over as President: controlling Covid-19 and providing more relief for Americans struggling in the battered economy.PHOTO: AFP

WASHINGTON - When Joe Biden takes power amid an unprecedented ring of security in a country bitterly divided, he will hardly have the chance to enjoy a honeymoon.

The 78-year-old is inheriting twin crises which require immediate intervention: to control Covid-19 and provide more relief for Americans struggling in the battered economy.

A new NBC poll has shown that more than seven in 10 voters believe the country is on the wrong track, another seven in 10 think the next four years will remain politically divided, and a majority say they are worried and pessimistic about their country's future.

As President Donald Trump did, Mr Biden will in many instances rely on executive orders to fast-track his response.

Immediately after taking the oath of office on Wednesday (Jan 20), Mr Biden is expected to sign roughly a dozen orders addressing the pandemic, vaccination, the climate crisis, racial inequality and the environment. The US will rejoin the 2015 Paris agreement on climate change.

In subsequent days, he reportedly plans to quash the hugely controversial multi-billion-dollar Keystone XL oil pipeline, which President Trump championed.

In the near term, curbing the pandemic and job restoration are inextricably linked. The fate of the first may be known in 100 days; Mr Biden's vaccine plan is "100 million in 100 days".

But he must depend on Congress, where the Democratic Party has only razor thin majorities, to quickly pass a US$1.9 trillion (S$2.5 trillion) funding Bill to alleviate what he last week called a "crisis of deep human suffering in plain sight".

He also needs to manage different forces in his own party. His promise of a US$15 nationwide minimum wage as part of the US$1.9 trillion package is opposed by moderate Democrats.

Wall Street investors seem optimistic. Economists are forecasting that growth will exceed 4 per cent this year. Many analysts see pent up demand contributing to a surge in growth in the second half of 2022.

But that depends on the fixes working. "Neither the President-elect, nor I, propose this relief package without an appreciation for the country's debt burden," Dr Janet Yellen, Mr Biden's nominee for Treasury Secretary, said in her prepared statement at her Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday.

"But right now, with interest rates at historic lows, the smartest thing we can do is act big," the statement read. "In the long run, I believe the benefits will far outweigh the costs, especially if we care about helping people who have been struggling for a very long time."

Currently there are close to 10 million unemployed. If by the middle of this year, the economy starts recovering, it will still be restoration rather than growth in jobs - and mostly in service industries, like hotels and restaurants which took a new hit in December.

Restoring those jobs will bring back the feel-good factor. But Mr Biden has to create deeper and wider job growth, and that will be slower. Small businesses are not expected to rebound so quickly.

Mr Biden is optimistic that one key agenda plank - addressing the climate crisis - will itself create more than 10 million jobs, but nobody expects that to happen soon. Already the 2022 mid-term elections loom; some analysts say Republicans will regain control of the House and then be in a position to slam the brakes on the President's agenda.

Another issue is the trial in the Senate, of outgoing President Donald Trump, following his impeachment in the House for inciting insurrection - the Jan 6 storming of the Capitol.

The trial will deepen, not assuage, the country's polarisation. Mr Biden himself has never been a vocal supporter of it.

Last week, when asked by reporters if the trial would be a distraction from his agenda, he replied: "Can we go half-day on dealing with the impeachment and half-day getting my people nominated and confirmed in the Senate, as well as moving on the package?

"That's my hope and expectation," he said.