Biden needs the unity that he preaches
Early tests reinforce hurdles US leader faces in bridging bitter partisan divide
US President Joe Biden has long made clear his support for a mask mandate to help rein in the coronavirus pandemic, but at least one state has fired an early shot against any legal order for people to cover up in public.
The episode highlights the difficulties Biden faces on a range of issues in his need to overcome the deep divides in US politics.
The Democratic president noted that the masks themselves have become a symbol of those divisions. They were turned into a political issue, which cost “an awful lot of lives”, he told a roundtable event with black front-line workers on Tuesday.
A plan to enforce mask wearing had originally been proposed by health officials during the administration of Donald Trump, but the Republican president blocked the move.
Now in North Dakota, any move making masks mandatory in public could be illegal. On Monday, the North Dakota House of Representatives approved a bill that would make the mandates illegal. It has been sent to the state Senate. The bill’s sponsor called mandates “diabolical silliness”.
The state’s bill exemplifies some of what Biden has faced during his first month in office as he has made fighting the pandemic his priority while seeking to be what he declared in his inaugural address — a healer of the divides that separate the United States.
The challenges, he said in his speech, included a nation ravaged by a pandemic, calls for racial justice and the rise of political “extremism”.
“To overcome these challenges — to restore the soul and to secure the future of America — requires more than words,” Biden said. “It requires that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.”
As his administration moves into its second month, Biden has been focused on vaccinating people and rebooting the economy. Stimulus checks follow closely behind in his $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, which would provide $130 billion of additional funding to schools, payments of $1,400 to most households and $50 billion to expand coronavirus testing.
But Biden’s efforts to use his bully pulpit to pressure states to take actions against the pandemic the federal government doesn’t control have had mixed results.
Governors and state public health officials have said that under the Biden administration, they have more regular communication with, and access to, senior officials in the White House than they did before.
“I applaud the Biden administration for having a regular line of communication with the governors,” said Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson, a Republican who attended a bipartisan meeting with Biden at the White House this month.
On the vaccination front, Biden said during the presidential transition that his goal was to administer 100 million doses by the end of his first 100 days. After taking office, he said he hoped to reach a pace of 1.5 million vaccinations a day.
In recent weeks, the pace of vaccinations has increased to an average of 1.6 million a day, above the roughly 1 million vaccines administered each day in the waning days of the Trump administration.
40 executive actions
Since his first day taking office, Biden has signed more than 40 executive actions. Many were reversals of Trump’s policies. Others were meant to set a new tone in Washington.
But many critics have questioned how Biden intends to keep his campaign promise of reaching across the aisle in Congress to work with Republicans.
Tennessee Republican Senator Marsha Blackburn tweeted: “30 executive orders and actions signed in only 3 days’ time. @POTUS, you can’t govern with a pen and a phone.”
The New York Times advised Biden that, instead of ruling by fiat, he should legislate via the narrowly divided Congress.
That Congress — where Biden served 36 years — is one of the biggest divides for the 46th president. It controls his legislative agenda, from the pandemic relief bill to an immigration plan that includes an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants.
The COVID-19 relief bill is on track to pass the House of Representatives by the end of this week and the Senate by the end of next week. But Democrats aren’t expecting to get a single Republican vote in the Senate.
While Biden has been singularly focused on the pandemic relief bill, he also has moved into foreign affairs.
On Feb 19, in a virtual address to the Munich Security Conference from the White House, Biden said: “The United States is determined to reengage with Europe.”
Before delivering his remarks, Biden met earlier over video conference with the leaders of the G7 nations to discuss the pandemic.
The G7 meeting touched on China as well, according to a joint statement. “With the aim of supporting a fair and mutually beneficial global economic system for all people, we will engage with others, especially G20 countries including large economies such as China,” it said.