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Wake Up To Politics - February 17, 2021

Wake Up To Politics: How Biden's first month stacks up
Wake Up To Politics - February 17, 2021

Good morning! It’s Wednesday, February 17, 2021. Election Day 2022 is 629 days away. Election Day 2024 is 1,357 days away.

Joe Biden was sworn in exactly four weeks ago. Let’s take a look at how the first month of his administration compares to recent presidencies:

How Biden’s first month stacks up

President Joe Biden talks frequently about the unprecedented constellation of crises he faced upon entering office: a pandemic, an economic downturn, fierce partisan divisions, and so on.

But when assessing how quickly his administration has mobilized to respond to them, presidential scholar and White House Transition Project Director Martha Joynt Kumar says Biden faced a laundry list of more mundane obstacles that must be considered:

  1. The General Services Administration failed to “ascertain” Biden’s victory until November 23, preventing his transition team from working with the federal government.
  2. Control of the Senate was not decided until the Georgia runoffs on January 5.
  3. An organizing resolution to formally hand power in the Senate to Democrats wasn’t passed until February 3.
  4. The Trump impeachment trial occupied Congress until February 13.

When it comes to confirming his Cabinet nominees, Kumar told Wake Up To Politics that those four conditions have combined to guarantee Biden a particularly “slow start.” A month after the president took office, he only has six Cabinet secretaries in place. That accounts for 40% of his Cabinet, a smaller share than each of his past five predecessors had confirmed by now.

The chart below shows when Cabinet officials under those presidents were confirmed; positions in green were filled by this point in their presidencies. (Cabinet-level positions, which change with each presidency, are not included.)

Biden’s Cabinet confirmations also won’t be speeding up any time soon. The Senate, fresh off acquitting former President Donald Trump, is on recess for the rest of the week. And because Democrats took so long to gain control of Senate committees, many of his picks haven’t even had confirmation hearings yet; Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland, for example, won’t face his Senate Judiciary grilling until February 22 and 23, guaranteeing that he won’t be confirmed until early March.

“These sorts of delays have a real and tangible cost,” presidential historian Lindsay Chervinsky, author of a recent book on the Cabinet, told Wake Up To Politics. “I suspect Garland’s DOJ will investigate domestic terrorist groups and their role in the January 6 insurrection. Until Garland gets into office, his staff can start to move the ball forward, but can’t take the sort of widespread action the Biden administration would like until they actually have an attorney general.”

Chervinsky also pointed to the Department of Health and Human Services: despite the ongoing pandemic, Xavier Becerra, Biden’s nominee to lead the agency, has also yet to have his confirmation hearing. Kumar said that leaving these departments rudderless for more than a month into the administration can cause problems. She pointed to 1993, when new president Bill Clinton struggled to respond to the first World Trade Center bombing and the Waco siege in his first weeks in office — both before his Attorney General could be sworn in.

“It robs you of direction,” Kumar said.

While Biden lags behind his predecessors in terms of confirmations, he leads them in at least one metric: executive orders signed. The president smashed out of the gate with a flurry of executive orders in his initial weeks, many of them aimed at overturning Trump-initiated directives.

Through a variety of executive actions — not all of them orders, which are the only kind reflected in the chart below — Biden rejoined the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement, revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, ended the “1776 Commission,” stopped construction of the border wall, and reinstated protections for “Dreamers.”

The president also took a range of steps that weren’t tied to actions by Trump, such as an order mandating mask-wearing on federal properties, an ethics pledge for his administration, and a series of actions aimed at boosting U.S. vaccination efforts.

But as Biden’s speedy reversal of many of Trump’s signature actions show, executive orders can be feeling. To make something permanent, it must be passed by Congress and signed into law. And in terms of legislation, Biden has been far behind his immediate predecessors.

The president has only signed one bill into law since taking office, a waiver that allowed retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to lead the Defense Department despite his recent military service. Compare that to the first month of the Obama administration, when the president had already signed into law a $787 billion stimulus package and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act — two of his key policy priorities.

Biden, on the other hand, has also proposed a stimulus package to rescue the economy (with a heftier $1.9 trillion price tag) but it is still several weeks away from being able to pass Congress. House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-MD) announced Monday that the House planned to vote on the legislation late next week, possibly over the following weekend. The Senate would then have to begin its lengthy debate on the package before voting as well.

“Despite the methodical early moves, the Biden team is now facing the limits of what he can accomplish on his own,” the Washington Post reported. “He has promised, among other things, to create a new public health-care option, fix the nation’s roads and bridges, tackle the immigration system and enact tougher climate rules. All would require pushing complex bills through a bitterly polarized Congress or enacting time-consuming regulations.”

A collective of top progressive groups are urging Biden and congressional Democrats to move faster to usher through his legislative priorities, according to a memo obtained by Punchbowl News. “April 21, 2021 will mark 100 days into the new administration and over 75 days of unified Democratic control of Washington,” the activists wrote. “What will President Biden, Leader Schumer, and Speaker Pelosi have to show for it?”

It’s a key question hanging over Washington, now that the Trump impeachment trial is over and the struggles of the transition have passed. Democrats are hoping to move quickly after passing the stimulus package to approve other key pieces of legislation, including an immigration package expected to be unveiled this week, a police reform measure named after George Floyd, the democracy reform package known as HR 1, and the Equality Act, which would enshrine sexual orientation and gender identity as protected classes.

Each of those bills is expected to receive a House vote in the coming weeks. But then Democrats will crash into reality in the Senate, where the 60-vote requirement known as the filibuster is waiting in the wings to sink many (if not all) of those proposals. In other words: the procedural obstacles haunting the Biden agenda are not through just yet.


GOP CIVIL WAR: On Tuesday morning, I wrote that former President Trump “isn’t going anywhere,” despite Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s best efforts to box him out of the Republican Party. Later on Tuesday, Trump proved that point by issuing a statement blasting McConnell and making clear his intentions to play a role in GOP primaries in the 2022 midterms.

In the statement, Trump called McConnell — with whom he worked closely for four years to pass his agenda — a “dour, sullen, and unsmiling political hack” and blamed him for the GOP’s electoral losses. “Where necessary and appropriate, I will back primary rivals who espouse Making America Great Again and our policy of America First,” Trump promised.

BIDEN TOWN HALL: President Biden faced questions from Wisconsin voters in a CNN town hall on Tuesday night. Among the news-making items:

  • He said that all Americans will have access to a coronavirus vaccine by the end of July.
  • He walked back his press secretary’s benchmarks on school reopenings, expressing hope that most K-8 schools would be back to in-person learning for five days a week by the end of his first 100 days.
  • He shot down a request from an audience member to increase his plan to cancel student loan debt from $10,000 per borrower to $50,000.

A NEW LAWSUIT: Rep. Bennie Thompson (D-MS), the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, and the NAACP filed a civil lawsuit against Trump and the former president’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani on Tuesday, accusing them of conspiring with extremist groups such as the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers to block Congress from certifying the Electoral College vote on January 6.

The lawsuit targets Trump and Giuliani under the Civil Rights Act of 1871, known as the Ku Klux Klan Act, a Reconstruction-era law that allows civil action to be taken against individuals who use “force, intimidation, or threat” to prevent Congress from carrying out its duties. “President Trump did not incite or conspire to incite any violence at the Capitol on January 6th,” spokesman Jason Miller said in a statement responding to the suit.

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President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will receive the President’s Daily Brief at 11:30 a.m. They will have lunch together at 12:30 p.m., and then meet with labor leaders at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the coronavirus relief package and infrastructure policy.  

First Lady Jill Biden will hold a virtual roundtable conversation on military child education at 1 p.m.

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki will hold a press briefing at 12:30 p.m. with Anne Neuberger, the deputy national security advisor for cyber and emerging technology.

U.S. public health officials will hold a press briefing at 11 a.m. “to provide updates on the COVID-19 response efforts.” The briefers will include Dr. Anthony Fauci, the chief medical advisor to the president; Dr. Rochelle Wolensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; Jeff Zients, the White House COVID-19 response coordinator; Dr. Marcella-Nunez-Smith, the White House COVID-19 health equity task force chair; and Carole Johnson, the White House COVID-19 supply coordinator.

The Justice Department will make a “cyber-related national security announcement” at 11:30 a.m.

The Senate is not in session.

The House is not in session.

  • The House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties will hold a hearing at 10 a.m. on H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study proposals to offer reparations to African-Americans to remedy the lingering impact of slavery and segregation. Democratic witnesses will include California Secretary of State Shirley Weber and NAACP Senior Vice President Hillary Shelton. Republican witnesses will include former NFL player Herschel Walker and conservative radio host Larry Elder.
  • The House Armed Services Committee will hold a hearing at 11 a.m. on the Defense Department’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Witnesses will include officials from the Pentagon, Joint Chiefs of Staff, and National Guard Bureau.
  • The House Energy and Commerce Committee will hold a hearing at 11 a.m. on “broadband solutions to pandemic problems.” Witnesses will include Topeka Public Schools Superintendent Tiffany Anderson and Communications Workers of America President Christopher Shelton.

The Supreme Court is not in session.