For Joe Biden, the success of the first two years of his presidency comes down to two numbers — 223 and 50. With both houses of Congress divided and the Democrats narrowly holding on to a majority, there is no margin for error. In fact, rumors are swirling that two Democratic members of the House of Representatives are fighting illnesses, which could further narrow the margin for a majority (218). Add this numerical uncertainty to the insurgency earlier this month, and you have a historic level of division. Some on the extreme right want to depose Biden, some on the extreme left want to push him toward more progressive stances and the nominal center is somehow still hoping this all settles into an uneventful term.
Even though Democrats technically control the executive branch and both houses of Congress, we can expect them to take a more conciliatory approach to their governing. Biden even floated the possibility of appointing conservatives to his cabinet in an attempt to find a middle ground in a deeply divided country. What’s more, the Democratic party is in the midst of a schism between its progressive wing and traditional moderates. All of this is to say, attempting to find a middle ground between and within parties will drive Biden’s governance.
Biden was elected on a long list of policy platforms, from environmentalism to immigration reform. But politics is a game of strategy and compromise, and the Democratic Party’s grip on power is neither unified nor secure — and with Trump’s impeachment trial all but certain in the Senate, a mixed bag of Cabinet member approvals and small steps around COVID-19 relief are the likeliest low-hanging fruit. What can we realistically expect to take precedence in the first hundred days of the new administration?
Executive Orders and Reconciliation
It was George H.W. Bush that began the slippery slope of executive orders as a way to move along a policy agenda, and Joe Biden will be no exception. Expect executive orders on climate, travel restrictions, COVID-19 restrictions, and economic reform, as well as and symbolic orders around global engagement.
But there is only so much Biden can do without Congress. And in Congress, you have two tracks to passing laws, regular order — which requires a supermajority and bipartisanship — or reconciliation — which only requires 51 votes in the Senate or 218 in the House. That will be the way most items of legislation go, but it’s a laborious process, and not every issue fits the mold.
It should go without saying that the January 6 attack on the Capitol building is cause for concern: the fact that the invasion was openly discussed on social media for weeks and yet still caught security forces flat-footed, the fact that some police forces assigned to disperse the insurgents posed for selfies during the looting of congressional offices, and the fact that anti-Semitic, racist, Confederate flag-waving and Q-anon-believing crowds were on display for the world to see.
Biden, for all his conciliatory rhetoric, is being pushed to make a show of force. Despite a spate of arrests, law enforcement has treated the attackers relatively mildly: they are being charged with disorderly conduct and theft rather than sedition, meaning that the insurgency is being treated as a misdemeanor rather than a felony. Several attackers are being released on bail and are even being indulged in their pseudo-religious demands. Many of the actual architects of the insurgency are essentially still at large, including Army Captain Emily Rainey and retired Air Force Reserve Officer Larry Rendell Brock, who are under investigation but have not yet been charged.
Last year, a draft report by DHS identified white supremacists as the biggest threat to national security. The failure of U.S. law enforcement and national security to anticipate and respond to the attack on the Capitol is now firmly in the spotlight and demands a response. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) summed up the matter succinctly: “You can bet your ass that we’re going to get to the bottom of it…there’s going to be a number of people who are going to be without employment very, very soon.”
Anything less than comprehensive reform and consequences will embolden more attacks in D.C. and state legislatures, not to mention signal weakness to enemies abroad. Biden has no choice but to stand behind a crackdown. Arrests and prosecutions are necessary to the long-term survival of our democracy, even though they will undoubtedly spark more unrest in the short term. Biden’s pick to head the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, will certainly have his hands full with restructuring to prevent future attacks, both foreign and domestic.
A Plan for COVID-19
Days after the election, Biden unveiled his pandemic response team, co-chaired by former FDA commissioner Dr. David Kessler, former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy and Associate Dean for Health Equity Research at the Yale School of Medicine Dr. Marcella Nunez-Smith. With strong qualifications and a long track record of pandemic response, the team’s priorities include vaccine distribution, increasing PPE availability, restarting packages for small businesses, and strengthening testing capabilities — including, notably, mobilizing a U.S. Public Health Jobs Corps of at least 100,000 Americans to carry out contact tracing and other protective measures. The team has also announced $1.9 trillion in new spending and efforts to help schools reopen.
But Biden’s plan for 100 million vaccines in 100 days will prove to be an unrealistic goal — Dr. Fauci may have faith in the country’s distribution capabilities, but the actual buy-in from residents will be very different. Already, we’ve seen swaths of front-line and health care workers opting out of the vaccine and distrust of the vaccine among everyday Americans is likely to match.
The true battle against the pandemic will be waged in the infosphere. Misinformation, conspiracy theories and a full-blown anti-vaccination movement are driving America’s record number of cases and deaths. Transparency and culturally-competent outreach will be necessary to convince the American people that COVID-19 is a serious threat and that the offered solutions against it are actually worth following.
Biden has pledged to end the Muslim travel ban and lift refugee admissions within the first 100 days. He has committed to ending family separations at the border, establishing a task force dedicated to reunification and perhaps supporting TPS and DACA on day one, but he is likely to back off from anything stronger than that. Comprehensive immigration reform is one of Biden’s many campaign promises, and we will see a bill to that end, but there is little likelihood that it moves in his first year, particularly so soon after the insurgency in Washington, D.C.
Trump knows that foreign policy is easy to tangle and hard to diffuse, which is why he’s moving quickly to ensure that Biden inherits a hostile playing field by elevating tensions with Iran, designating Cuba as a state sponsor of terrorism, sabotaging peace talks in Yemen by designating the Houthis as a terrorist group and so on. These issues all hit the headlines hours apart, but the consequences will span the entirety of Biden’s term and beyond.
The first hundred days will likely feature a soft power tour to signify America’s new era after the erosion of our international standing over the past four years. Rather than diving straight into negotiating the Iran deal or confronting China, Biden will focus on re-engaging institutions like NATO and the UN, where he hopes the United States will be able to regain influence. Expect a return to the Paris climate agreement to be full of fanfare. Outreach to key allies such as the United Kingdom, Israel, Japan, and Mexico will also be instrumental to signaling the return to U.S. leadership.
Thus far, Biden’s appointments for national security and foreign policy roles boil down to “the Obama foreign policy team, albeit in different positions,” which he will leverage to stress the message of a return to the pre-Trump era of multilateralism, with the U.S. at the helm. It remains to be seen if countries will bite, or if the United States will find itself permanently demoted.
I recently had discussions with the individuals that are going into the White House — folks whom I have worked with in the Obama and Clinton administrations — and their feeling about the first 100 days is one of cautious optimism. Many feel that the narrow Democratic majority in both houses of Congress will mean that going “big” with a new policy agenda will not be an option. Although the first hundred days of the new administration may not bring us everything we hope for, they will at least set a tone for what we can expect.
Seth Jacobson is the founder and principal of JCI Worldwide, a Los Angeles-based communications and research firm. He spent several years in the Carter and Clinton administrations in positions focused on economic development, foreign policy, and media relations. He is a frequent lecturer on policy and public affairs at Pepperdine University and UCLA.