A STAGGERING set of domestic and international challenges will confront Joe Biden and his incoming administration on the afternoon of January 20. America is reeling from a pandemic that continues to intensify and that has hobbled the economy. He will have to address the fate of the children of illegal immigrants born in America, and the children who have been caged or otherwise separated from their parents. He will have to address the expectations of minorities who supported him, and allay the fears of those who did not. For he will be inheriting a polity that is bitterly divided, with each side suspecting that the other seeks to destroy all that the nation has stood for.
Moreover, America’s enemies may attempt to take advantage of the new administration whose policymaking offices will have yet to be filled. China may reprise the April 2001 forced landing of an EP-3 surveillance aircraft on Hainan Island. Or it may threaten Taiwan with missile attacks on the islands of Quemoy and Matsu.
Russia may retain its forces in Belarus after another “exercise.” Iran may instigate new militia attacks on remaining American forces in Iraq, or elsewhere, to avenge the death of Qasem Soleimani. North Korea may test-fire yet another long-range missile. Benjamin Netanyahu may authorize the establishment of yet more West Bank settlements.
How the incoming Biden team might respond to any or all of these challenges could well determine its future credibility for careful decision-making and crisis management. Should fortune smile on the new president and no international incident materialize during his first months in office, he will still have to cope with the domestic issues that will confront him the minute he has taken his oath of office.
Biden has promised to reverse the vast majority of Donald Trump’s executive orders immediately upon moving into the White House. That will be the easiest part of his job. He has also promised to accord highest priority to fighting the coronavirus pandemic. To do so, he may have to seek the immediate passage of legislation requiring all citizens both to wear masks and observe social distancing and to impose penalties on those who defy the law. Such legislation would also have to include assistance to individuals and businesses that have suffered financial loss as a result of the coronavirus.
Biden will be unable to obtain passage of any such law without the support of Mitch McConnell, who is likely once again to be Senate majority leader, and who already has vowed not to cooperate with the incoming administration. Finding a way to deal with the pandemic will be the first test of Biden’s ability to work across the political aisle, at a time when the wounds of the election will still be wide open.
Biden will also have to work with McConnell to ensure that the Fiscal Year 2021 appropriations bills, which are unlikely to have been passed before the change in administration, finally are enacted and signed into law. That too may prove more difficult if McConnell is serious about reprising the obstructionist role that he played during the Barack Obama presidency.
Should Biden reach some accommodation with the Senate Republicans, and assuming that by working with Nancy Pelosi he can restrain House Democrats from any excessive leftist impulses, Biden might then be able to address seemingly bipartisan issues such as infrastructure modernization. He no doubt will also propose raising the minimum wage, increasing tax rates, reforming immigration laws, reducing defense spending, and adopting legislation to combat carbon emissions and other aspects of global warming. All of these proposals will be anathema to most Republicans, and unless he can win over two or three of the few remaining Senate Republican moderates, none may well ever reach his desk for signature.
Biden will likely have relatively more success in the international arena, where presidents, in any event, have more degrees of freedom than on domestic matters. He will find Republicans supportive of efforts to tighten sanctions against Russia. He can expect Congressional support for renewing joint military exercises with South Korea. He may find it relatively easy to hold up arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Should Biden seek to pressure Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan to drop any plans to delay Russian built S-400 missiles, he will find considerable support from both parties in Congress. Turkey, like Saudi Arabia, has managed to alienate both political parties. Finally, Biden may also find little resistance to seeking some sort of relationship with the Trans-Pacific Partnership, or for that matter, maintaining a hard line against Chinese intellectual property theft, though not necessarily by means of a tariff war that hurts both American producers and consumers.
On the other hand, Biden will encounter considerable Republican resistance to America’s rejoining the Paris Climate Agreement and even fiercer opposition to any effort to return to the Iran nuclear deal. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (its official name) is not a treaty, and Biden could simply issue an executive order for America to rejoin the agreement. On the other hand, Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, next to whose stubbornness even McConnell’s rigidity looks flexible, has made it clear that he has no interest in accommodating the United States, regardless of who its leader might be.
Biden has asserted that he will reach out to Republicans, with whom he has cooperated on occasion in the past, even when serving as Barack Obama’s vice president. He will have to call upon his considerable charm and his intimate knowledge of Capitol Hill, however, if he wishes to achieve any degree of comity with the leaders of the party in opposition. And he will have to be very careful to ensure that the incoming senior officials with whom he will surround himself are equally open and flexible if he is to have any hope not only of healing the country’s political wounds, but of ameliorating the bitterness and despair that are the most potent legacy of the past four years.
Dov S. Zakheim served as the Undersecretary of Defense (Comptroller) and Chief Financial Officer for the U.S. Department of Defense from 2001–2004 and as the Deputy Undersecretary of Defense (Planning and Resources) from 1985–1987. He also served as the DoD’s civilian coordinator for Afghan Reconstruction from 2002–2004. He is Vice Chairman of the Center for the National Interest.