The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden

The five biggest challenges facing President-elect Biden
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President-elect Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips Five House members meet with Taiwanese president despite Chinese objections Sunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist MORE won’t take office until Jan. 20, but many of the challenges he will face are already clear.

Here are five of the largest issues he will need to tackle as he takes over from President TrumpDonald TrumpStowaway found in landing gear of plane after flight from Guatemala to Miami Kushner looking to Middle East for investors in new firm: report GOP eyes booting Democrats from seats if House flips MORE.

Fighting the pandemic

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The COVID-19 pandemic has utterly reshaped American life in 2020. More than 260,000 people in the United States have died, and total cases number more than 13 million.

After a lull in late summer and fall, rates are rising rapidly again. Right before Thanksgiving, the national daily death toll was up about 60 percent from two weeks prior, and the number of daily new cases was up more than 40 percent.

Biden’s campaign trail promises included improving track-and-trace procedures and asking governors to impose mask-wearing mandates. Biden has also emphasized that he will listen to the best scientific advice available — a clear jab at Trump, who often distanced himself from Anthony FauciAnthony FauciSunday shows preview: New COVID-19 variant emerges; supply chain issues and inflation persist NY governor declares state of emergency to prepare for omicron US to restrict travel from eight African nations over new COVID-19 concerns MORE and other experts and floated unproven treatments. 

There is good news on the horizon, with three different vaccines having delivered strong results in trials.

Widespread vaccination is likely to take several months, however. 

The coronavirus is plainly the biggest issue facing the nation. Any missteps here could cost Biden badly.

The economy

COVID-19 has exacted a huge price on the economy as well as on the nation’s physical health.

The national unemployment rate in October was 6.9 percent. Even though this was 1 percentage point lower than the previous month and way below the pandemic peak of 14.7 percent in April, it was still almost double the 3.5 percent rate in February, right before COVID-19 hit hard. 

Economists are concerned about the prospect of a double-dip recession, even with vaccines on the horizon. 

The worry is that spiraling rates of coronavirus infection will prompt much tighter restrictions — a process that is already underway in some cities and states — and that this will in turn inflict further damage on workers and businesses.

Meanwhile, consumer confidence has dropped recently, suggesting Americans may be less inclined to spend — a dynamic that would further deepen economic gloom.

Congress has so far failed to pass any new stimulus measure related to the pandemic. Democratic leaders including Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiFive reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season Bipartisan success in the Senate signals room for more compromise The GOP's post-1/6 playbook is clear — and it's dangerous MORE  (D-Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Charles SchumerChuck SchumerSchumer mourns death of 'amazing' father Feehery: The honest contrarian Biden administration to release oil from strategic reserve: reports MORE (D-N.Y.) have wanted far more aid than Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellRepublicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves Graham emerges as go-to ally for Biden's judicial picks Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (R-Ky.) has been willing to countenance.

There are some things Biden can do via executive order, such as extending protections for renters and mortgage holders.

And there is one bright spot — the stock market has performed very strongly since it slumped in late February and March.

If Biden can get the economy humming again, he will reap rich political rewards. But such an outcome is far from guaranteed.

Polarization

Biden pledged during the campaign that he would restore “the soul of the nation.” But this will be easier said than done. 

The United States has been growing increasingly polarized for decades, moved in that direction not just by politicians but by cultural forces such as cable news and social media.

Then came Trump, who catered to his base, outraged his opponents and often seemed more interested in stoking the fires of discord than extinguishing them. 

In recent weeks, Trump’s promotion of conspiracy theories to suggest the 2020 election was fraudulent have had an effect. In the latest Economist-YouGov poll, 80 percent of Republicans and 45 percent of independents said they did not believe Biden’s victory was legitimate.

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Biden has some assets as he tries to bring the nation together, not least a centrist image and a long record. 

But the forces pushing the nation toward the extremes will not be easily vanquished.

Dealing with Congress

Biden knows he will at least have a Democratic House to work with come January, but the fate of the Senate hinges on two runoff elections in Georgia. 

Even in the very best-case scenario for Democrats, where they won both those seats, the Senate would still be split 50-50. Democrats would have a de facto majority because the casting vote in a Senate tie goes to the vice president — but it would be far too close for comfort. 

Will Republicans be willing to work with Biden? It seems questionable at best. McConnell has often pursued a hard line in the Senate. He famously said in the middle of former President Obama’s first term that he hoped to make him a one-term president. As Obama’s time in office ticked down, McConnell blocked the president’s last Supreme Court nominee, Merrick GarlandMerrick GarlandGarland orders DOJ to prioritize violence on airplanes Buttigieg has high name recognition, favorability rating in Biden Cabinet: survey DOJ seeks to block merger of major sugar companies MORE, from getting a hearing. McConnell did not pay a noticeable political price for such moves.

Biden has some advantages, including his own long career in the Senate. As vice president, he at times served as Obama’s emissary to Capitol Hill, and he takes great pride in his ability to reach across partisan lines.

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His detractors on the left, however, contend that his views are outmoded and that the kind of good-natured comity he is searching for is a thing of the past.

Biden’s first year in office will provide plenty of clues as to who is right.

Defining his presidency

The basic rationale for Biden’s presidential campaign was pretty clear — he was a vehicle to oust Trump from office.

That proved to be more than enough. He defeated Trump by about 4 percentage points, or 6 million votes, nationwide.

But it is not quite clear that there is any big idea animating the Biden presidency, beyond the amorphous hope of repairing national morale.

There are plenty of policy areas that Biden could move on — not just the pandemic or the economy but also health care, the environment and climate change.

But will he be able to weave those threads together to give his presidency a coherent meaning?