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Bloomberg Businessweek|April 26 - May 03, 2021 (Double Issue)
Joe Biden tackled Covid and an economic crisis in his first 100 days. It won’t get easier from herea
By Josh Wingrove and Nancy Cook

At 78, establishment stalwart Joe Biden returned to Washington as the leader of a party seeking a revolution. A moderate and a vocal defender of bipartisanship, he forced a sweeping, progressive aid package through Congress without a single Republican vote. Long known for making gaffes, he has so far governed in a hyper-disciplined manner. Is this the Joe Biden America thought it knew?

Longtime friends and allies of the president say he hasn’t changed, the moment and political opportunity have. “I think in some ways, he and I share one thing: We believe in what FDR was doing. You have to meet the moment,” says Bob Casey, a Democratic senator from Pennsylvania who lives in Scranton, Biden’s hometown. “I think he knows we’re in a unique moment. It’s a moment of crisis and a moment of great opportunity to lift the country up.”

Biden entered the Oval Office in January with Covid-19 cases coming off fresh highs, millions out of work, rising calls for racial justice, and a climate crisis. Americans were reeling from the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol and hungover from a presidency conducted largely by tweet. Biden’s empathy and history of personal loss underpin his response to the Covid pandemic, and they’ve shifted the tone in Washington. Donald Trump’s White House was chaotic; with Biden, an impromptu visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial at dusk is about as spontaneous as it gets.

The buttoned-up style is deliberate. “Trump’s great talent is to distract you, and they did not fall for it,” John Podesta, the former counselor to President Obama and chief of staff to President Clinton, says of Biden’s team in the days leading up to the inauguration. “They had an early game plan they developed during the course of the transition, built around Biden’s theory of the country and theory of the economy, and they executed it with real discipline and precision.”

By his 100th day in office on April 29, Biden will have surpassed goals he set for Covid vaccinations and be close to meeting another on reopening schools. He’s skirted fault lines between progressives and centrists and kept his party united. These first few months have gone even more smoothly than Democrats had hoped.

The next 100 days and beyond already look more turbulent. Biden faces a human-rights crisis on the southern border, where a surge of migrants has strained the country’s immigration system and provoked criticism from Democrats and Republicans alike. New coronavirus variants are fueling the pandemic, threatening progress on vaccination, and there are troubling signs that the U.S. is running out of people who want a jab. The American Jobs Plan, Biden’s $2.25 trillion infrastructure bill, is by no means certain to pass, and the next big bill on the horizon, the American Families Plan, looks like a long shot.

Biden’s aides and confidants paint a clear picture of his strategy: pursue an ambitious agenda and redefine bipartisan “unity” as the support of voters across the political spectrum, rather than the endorsement of, say, Republican House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. The American Rescue Plan package pushed through Congress was a core example.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told Bloomberg that passage of the rescue plan is a huge accomplishment. “We’re succeeding in getting programs up and running. … I feel that the administration has built up momentum,” she said.

“The impact of the pandemic, both on the economic side and health side, has been so disproportionate for minorities and low-wage service workers, so I’m going to be focusing particularly on metrics concerning these groups,” Yellen added. “But I am expecting to see pretty rapid job creation and recovery in the coming months.” She hopes the U.S. will return to full employment in 2022.

Normalcy was core to Biden’s election pitch—a return to an era where people could go a day or more without hearing from the president. But his goals go beyond a return to the pre-Trump, preCovid status quo. Black leaders, who were vital in delivering Biden to victory, have warned that he can’t simply usher in an era underpinned by structural inequalities. His plan to “Build Back Better” hints at an ambition to shrug off deficit concerns, give lower-income people an economic boost, and do away with centuries-old inequities.

“I did not expect him to be as big and as bold as he’s been,” says Jim Clyburn, a Democratic congressman from South Carolina whose 2020 endorsement reinvigorated Biden’s flagging primary campaign. “He’s got to continue to go big.”

Many in Biden’s West Wing and administration served under Obama or Clinton, both of whom lost their House majorities two years into their first term, underscoring the need to act while you can.

Aides are pushing ahead less out of fear that their congressional window is closing than a belief that they’ll need a record of accomplishments to hold it open. But Biden will achieve sweeping change only if he can pass two or more big bills through a trench-warfare Congress the Democrats narrowly control, and where his talk of bipartisanship rings hollow to Republicans.

“So far, it seems purely lip service,” says Republican Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana. “The Covid relief package—clearly they decided to ram things through, some of which was totally unnecessary.”

THE WAR ON COVID

Biden’s daily schedule is printed on a card that he tucks in the breast pocket of his suit. Each day’s card includes the updated death toll from the coronavirus, plucked from a 10-page summary he receives each night from his Covid team.

Aides say Biden’s early presidency will be judged largely on the vaccination campaign. The president believes in “approaching this like a war,” says Jeff Zients, Biden’s Covid response coordinator. “The key is to overwhelm the problem and to prepare for every contingency.”

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