For Biden, unwinding the Trump presidency could be a full-time job fraught with politics

John Fritze

Maureen Groppe
 
| USA TODAY

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Joe Biden’s nearly 50-years in politics in review

Joe Biden has spent nearly 5 decades in politics, culminating in his candidacy for president in 2020.

WASHINGTON – Joe Biden won the election, but Donald Trump’s presidency will continue to loom large over the White House for the next four years.        

When Biden takes the oath of office Jan. 20 he will confront a galaxy of choices over how to deal with Trump’s administration – which policies to unwind, which to let stand and how quickly to decide – that could easily consume his first months on the job.

From the travel ban Trump signed early in his tenure to a deluge of last-minute regulatory changes that could affect millions of Americans, Biden will inherit the byproducts of one of the most controversial administrations in U.S. history. Whatever policies he chooses to jettison could offer insight into his ability to heal a divided nation while also maintaining the fragile coalition that pulled him into the presidency.

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“This administration moved a lot of policies through executive order,” said Kathleen Sebelius, who served as President Barack Obama’s secretary of health and human services for five years. “Those will come under high scrutiny across the board.” 

In the end, Biden’s election was not the wholesale repudiation of Trump that many Democrats had hoped for. The victory, which may still wind up in recount battles and courtrooms, is likely to raise questions about what sort of mandate the new president will have to take the country in a different direction on a host of issues. Biden won the popular vote with a record total and is on pace for a large Electoral College win, but the vote was close in several of the states that decided the outcome. 

Coronavirus, travel ban and climate

Nowhere is change as likely as on Washington’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Fifty-five percent of Americans said they disapproved of Trump’s response, according to a survey of the electorate conducted by The Associated Press.

Biden has promised a more muscular federal involvement, more widespread testing and a more aggressive effort to pressure people to wear masks. Even if Republicans retain control of the Senate, Biden is also likely to push through another round of economic stimulus.  

But some of the trillions of dollars in new spending Biden has proposed for child care, health care, education, Social Security, infrastructure and the environment would have been paid for by raising taxes on high-income individuals and on corporations. A GOP-controlled Senate is not likely to go along.

“That means that there’s not going to be a $4 trillion tax increase, which is what Biden wanted,” said Americans for Tax Reform President Grover Norquist.

Besides pursuing his own agenda, there are Trump policies he’ll likely revoke.  

Trump’s travel ban, which restricts visas from 13 countries – most with substantial Muslim populations – will be a target for repeal; Biden has said he will move quickly on that issue. The president-elect has vowed to return the U.S. to the Paris Agreement on climate on his first day, reversing Trump on a policy that will appeal to the left.

He may also reinstate Obama-era vehicle emissions standards Trump has rolled back, several Democrats predicted. 

But there are other contentious Trump policies that may take longer for Biden to turn to, because unwinding them will be complicated or because they are politically fraught. Trump’s get-tough stance toward trade with China has enjoyed some bipartisan support, for instance, and Biden has not said whether he will lift the president’s tariffs on Beijing.

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Biden has vowed to reinstate the individual mandate, the requirement in the Affordable Care Act that people buy health insurance to avoid a tax penalty. The penalty, which was controversial but considered necessary to make more popular provisions of the law feasible, was removed by law in 2017. It’s not clear how Biden would reinstate it.

Jim Messina, a former White House deputy chief of staff under Obama, predicted Biden is unlikely to make wholesale changes to policies that would swing Washington in a wildly different direction. Ultimately, he predicted, Biden will want to score some bipartisan wins on issues such as on rebuilding the nation’s infrastructure – and that may mean walking the same centrist’s path he’s taken for much of his political career.     

“There’s this assumption in Washington that it’s all going to change and I just don’t think that’s how things work,” Messina said.

Democratic divide

But if that’s the case, Biden will have to deal with a restive liberal wing of his party that will expect the new administration to look a lot different than the one that came before it.

Alex Morgan, executive director of the Progressive Turnout Project, said he hopes Biden learned his lesson from the Obama administration’s effort to work with Republicans on the 2010 health care bill – an effort that was abandoned after months of negotiation. Progressives want Biden to take quick action on campaign finance reform, voting rights along with other issues, and want him to appoint Cabinet members who are left of center.

“By the time he’s sworn in, he’s got to have an answer to all these questions,” Morgan said in an interview before the election.

“Much of Biden’s agenda can be moved through executive power if he appoints people faithful to his vision,” said Adam Green with the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, who warned Biden against hiring “underminers from within.”

But a rapid timeline and focus on executive action would draw howls from Democratic centrists and some Republicans who backed Biden because of his temperament. 

“The country is very polarized, tribalized. I hope that if Biden wins he doesn’t misread his mandate,” said former Rep. Charlie Dent, a Pennsylvania Republican who endorsed Biden’s candidacy. “A lot of people are voting for Joe Biden largely because they’re tired of Trump, not because they’ve disagreed with everything Trump has done.” 

That tension between liberals and centrists may be eased somewhat by the election results themselves. Biden reclaimed several states, but it wasn’t a landslide and Democrats lost seats in the House while failing, thus far, to take control of the Senate.  

Unilateral action 

In any presidential transition, incoming aides look closely at any potential policies not nailed down by their predecessor – that is, not implemented in law or regulation – and consider what to do with them, Sebelius said. That effort, she said, is likely already underway within the Biden campaign.  

Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment. 

All incoming presidents wrestle with how to balance their own agendas against the desire to adjust or rescind their predecessor’s ideas. But rarely has a new president taken over the job from someone who ushered in such sweeping change on immigration, foreign policy, trade, environmental regulations and health care as Trump did in four years. 

The former real estate magnate, who ran in 2016 on a platform of shaking up establishment Washington, signed more executive orders in his first four years than Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton in their first term. And while many of those had little practical impact, others had enormous implications.

But Biden’s ability to act unilaterally could be hampered by a Supreme Court that is far more conservative than when Trump took power in 2017, including with the recent appointment of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. Conservatives want to curb the power federal agencies have to interpret laws when they write regulations, and that battle is being fought in the courts.    

“The ability of Biden to act, compared to where Trump has acted on executive power, may be very significantly constrained,” said Norman Ornstein of the American Enterprise Institute. “That’s going to add to the stress level that we have in the tensions across and among branches.”

Immigration 

Few issues animated Trump and his core supporters as much immigration – from the building of barriers along the border to restricting legal immigration, such as asylum claims from Central American migrants and refugees from around the globe.

Biden has vowed to expand legal immigration, reinstate the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program which benefits immigrants brought to the country illegally as children and suspend funding for Trump’s border wall. He has also vowed to push a comprehensive immigration measure through Congress.  

But some of those measures will take time, experts said, in part because a Biden administration would need to shift resources to the border to accommodate an expected increase in asylum claims. It’s also far from clear that Congress will have appetite or bandwidth to address immigration anytime soon.      

Immigration may not be a huge priority for Democrats partly because there’s so much else at stake given the pandemic and its economic fallout, predicted Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute. Meanwhile, sorting out Trump’s unilateral policies will take time, given their scope.   

“There is no way that a Biden administration could reverse everything Trump has done in four years,” she said. “Maybe even eight years.”

Contributing: David Jackson    

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