The presidential conversation last week moved swiftly from who is going to win to what will be the priorities in the first 100 days of Joe Biden’s presidency. In victory speeches Saturday night, President-elect Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris answered the question.
Projecting a sense of optimism, Biden staked out goals of unifying a divided nation, getting the COVID-19 pandemic under control, re-energizing an inclusive US economy, addressing racial justice, securing access to health care and tackling climate change. Biden is expected to undo or reverse a slew of Trump executive orders, such as rolling back environmental regulations to withdrawing from the World Health Organization and Paris Climate Accord.
In her remarks, Harris stressed the historic significance of her nomination and election, describing the struggles of women to gain gender equality and a voice in the nation and noting “I stand on their shoulders”. Later she added, “Every little girl watching tonight sees this is a country of possibilities. While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.” Harris ticked off Biden priorities as beating the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, rooting our systemic racism in the judicial system, combatting the climate crisis and healing the “soul of the nation”.
Biden has first-hand experience stepping into a messy, unprecedented situation. As vice president under Barack Obama, he entered office in 2009 with the national economy in tatters, major banks teetering on the edge of bankruptcy, the auto industry on its knees and housing in a freefall. The coronavirus pandemic poses a similar, multi-dimensional challenge as Biden assumes the presidency in January. In his speech, Biden likened his election to previous national “inflection points” – “Lincoln in 1860 coming to save the Union. FDR in 1932, promising a beleaguered country a new deal. JFK in 1960 pledging a new frontier. And 12 years ago, when Barack Obama made history, he told us, yes, we can.”
The Biden camp signaled the appointment as early as today of a coronavirus transition committee assigned the task of developing a national strategy to bring the virus under control to speed the safe reopening of schools and many businesses. There may be several other working groups to plan for the transition in January.
House Majority Whip James Clyburn of South Carolina, a close adviser to Biden, told reporters he has advised the president-elect to create a judicial reform commission to identify elements of 1990-era criminal reform legislation that has led to over-incarceration of young adults, a disproportionate percentage of whom are Black Americans, for offenses no longer considered crimes.
And I believe that this is part of the mandate given to us from the American people. They want us to cooperate in their interest. And that’s the choice I’ll make. And I’ll call on Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, to make that choice with me.
Biden’s legislative priorities need to be tempered by possible split control of Congress, with the Senate remaining in the hands of Republicans and Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who won re-election. If still in charge of the Senate, McConnell has experience as a congressional bottleneck using leverage, for example, to slow the pace of confirming Biden Cabinet choices, which could delay policy changes on the 100-day list of priorities.
Control of the Senate will turn on a pair of run-off elections in January to fill Georgia’s two Senate seats. Neither Republican incumbent won a 50 percent or greater majority in general election balloting and will have to square off again with their Democratic challengers. Those races, with so much at stake, are certain to attract national attention and massive fundraising. Jaime Harrison, the unsuccessful challenger to Senator Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, collected a record-setting $54 million in campaign contributions.
Biden has positioned himself as political moderate, a unifier and a willing partner in bipartisanship. “Refusal of Democrats and Republicans to cooperate with one another – it’s not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision, a choice we make. And if we can decide not to cooperate, then we can decide to cooperate,” he said in his victory speech. “And I believe that this is part of the mandate given to us from the American people. They want us to cooperate in their interest. And that’s the choice I’ll make. And I’ll call on Congress, Democrats and Republicans alike, to make that choice with me.”
As Biden plots his administrative appointments and priorities, Donald Trump remains in office between now and January 20 when Biden takes the oath of office. In those 70 or so days, Trump can issue more executive orders and grant pardons, a common practice for departing presidents. Trump also can cooperate on or seek to complicate an orderly transition of power. So far, Trump has declared himself the true winner of the election and promised litigation to uncover massive fraud that will overturn the apparent Biden victory. He has refused to concede the election and hasn’t called Biden. His refusal to concede has prompted Emily Murphy, the head of the General Services Administration and a Trump political appointee, to hold off releasing transition assistance in the form of millions of dollars and office space to the Biden team.
There also will be a lame duck congressional session, which must approve a continuing resolution to keep government running and may consider further coronavirus financial relief, depending on whether McConnell is willing to go along relying on Senate Democratic votes and Trump is willing to sign it.
In his victory speech, Biden didn’t comment on Trump or his litigation. He took the opposite approach: “It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric, lower the temperature, see each other again. Listen to each other again. And to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.”
Jim Carrey and Maya Rudolf parodied the Biden and Harris victory speeches and created a fake Trump concession speech on Saturday Night Live. On Sunday, Trump remained at his golf course in Virginia. Biden was at home in Wilmington, Delaware and went to mass.