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The COVID-19 Relief Bill Isn’t the Only Big Thing Joe Biden Has Done in His First 50 Days. Can He Keep It Up?

13 minute read
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By some measures, Joe Biden has gotten off to a slow start as President. His transition was stalled by Donald Trump’s refusal to acknowledge defeat. His Cabinet nominees are taking longer than most to be confirmed by the Senate. And he’s signing his first major piece of legislation, the COVID-relief bill, almost a month later in his term than Barack Obama enacted a major economic recovery package 12 years ago.

But Biden’s first 50 days have, in fact, had far-reaching impact. The $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which Biden signed into law March 11, will affect tens of millions of Americans directly, through cash payments, a massive boost in childcare aid, student loan support, expanded healthcare and housing assistance. At the same time, Biden’s team of government veterans has executed a series of less visible but consequential moves that affect the U.S. at home and abroad, from increasing vaccine production and approving loans for multitudes of struggling small businesses to rolling back counter-terrorism missions in America’s shadow wars.

“He is moving on two fronts, so something gets done every day,” says Celinda Lake, a Democratic pollster who was a senior adviser to the Biden campaign. “[His] advantage is the really in-depth understanding of the process,” says Lake, and “his understanding of the institutions. And that is true for all of his appointees as well.”

Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris will travel the country beginning next week to sell the relief plan, and his other 50-day accomplishments, and to try to build on surprising popularity for his moves so far. A poll released March 5 by the The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research found Biden had a 60 percent job approval rating. (A Quinnipiac poll had Trump’s at 41 percent around this time. Gallup had Obama’s at 62 percent.)

They will need all the backing they can muster. The American Rescue Plan squeaked through Congress along party lines, casting doubt on Biden’s campaign pledge to build bipartisanship, and highlighting potential weak spots in the Democratic Party’s coalition. At the same time, the Administration faces a looming surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border that critics say has been fueled by Biden’s reversal of some of Trump’s controversial immigration policies.

Biden’s aides and allies say he can keep delivering on his promises. “I think this bill will actually build Joe Biden’s political capital by making it clear he’s able to hold the Democratic caucus together, and he’s able to push through successfully a bold piece of legislation,” says Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, a Biden protégé who occupies the President’s former Senate seat. “He’s continuing his outreach to Republicans.”

The American Rescue Plan

Biden’s defining accomplishment so far as president has broad support among Americans but did not gain the backing of a single Republican member of Congress, passing in the Senate thanks only to the tie-breaking vote cast by Harris. To his critics, that shows the weakness of his position, but to his allies, it shows Biden’s savvy about Washington’s bitterly divided politics, and his experience in holding his team together.

Even before Biden entered the wood-paneled doors of the White House, he and his aides concluded they had to tackle the COVID-19 public health crisis and ensuing economic meltdown before they could turn to the policy agenda they had laid out during the 2020 campaign. The American Rescue Plan was their primary solution.

“In total, the Rescue Plan represents a historic response to the moment of crisis we face, and will make a real difference in the lives of regular Americans by creating jobs, providing economic relief, and defeating this virus,” White House Senior Adviser Anita Dunn and National Economic Council Director Brian Deese wrote in a March 6 internal memo to senior staff. “This is a reminder that government can work for the American people.”

The Administration could have lowered the massive price tag for the $1.9 trillion bill in the hopes of making it a bipartisan effort. Biden hosted ten Republican Senators for a two hour Oval Office meeting on Feb. 1. But he ultimately rejected Senate Republicans’ $618 billion counter-offer, remembering how the GOP stalled Obama’s early efforts, and convinced that the roughly $800 billion stimulus passed during the financial crisis in 2009 was insufficient.

Instead, Biden turned to holding every last Democratic vote for passage. The White House made hundreds of calls and meetings with various lawmakers and outside stakeholders. Top aides like Deese, White House Legislative Affairs Director Louisa Terrell, and COVID-19 Czar Jeff Zients briefed various groups of lawmakers by Zoom. Counselor to the President Steve Richetti and Terrell’s deputy Reema Dodin were also in frequent touch with lawmakers. Biden himself called into House and Senate caucus calls. When Senate Democrats were at an impasse the day before they passed the bill about an amendment over unemployment insurance, and it was unclear if West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin would break with his party, Biden called Manchin personally, according to one source familiar with the conversation.

“Biden made clear he had two goals: one was to make progress on a bipartisan bill if at all possible, but the second was to deliver relief to the American people,” says Coons. “And after weeks of negotiating, once it became clear that the Republicans were not likely to come forward with something above 7 or 800 billion dollars, [the] President called into our caucus several times, engaged directly with Democratic senators, helped hold our caucus together, and got this done.”

By some accounts, passage of the bill was by no means assured. A person outside the White House familiar with the negotiations, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said it was a daunting task for Biden to unite the disparate factions of his party with no room for error in the Senate, despite what many viewed as the high likelihood of the bill’s final passage. “There’s a real benefit to having Biden and the people around him, who have been around the block,” said the person. Biden knows the Senate inside and out, [and] knows all of these people. I’m not sure this would have been possible with anyone else.”

The legislation has been heralded by Democrats for its progressive assistance for lower- and middle-income Americans, who have suffered disproportionately over the last year. The package offers $1,400 checks for Americans earning under $75,000 and couples earning under $150,000; extends $300 weekly enhanced unemployment insurance through much of the summer; expands the child tax credit for most families to $3000 for 2021; and allots over $40 billion in housing assistance.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Analytics, estimates that over half of the bill’s funding will ultimately go towards enhancing the safety net for less affluent Americans; an analysis from the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center found that the bill will boost income for Americans in the lowest quintile by 20% in 2021. “[The American Rescue Plan] will ensure that most lower-income Americans will be made mostly financially whole from the devastating financial blow inflicted by the pandemic,” Zandi wrote in an e-mail.

Vaccines and small businesses

The relief bill’s impact will be boosted by the administration’s moves to increase vaccine production and help small businesses. When Biden took office, 984,000 shots were being given a day to Americans. By March 5, the average was nearly two million shots per day. Sixty million Americans had received one dose of the vaccine by March 8, including 59% of the U.S. population over the age of 65. A White House official says that Moderna and Pfizer vaccine doses sent to states have increased by 80 percent since Biden took office, and that 2,200 military staff have mobilized to support community vaccine sites.

Republicans argue that the Trump Administration laid the groundwork for success and Biden is now reaping the benefits. “Democrats inherited a turning tide,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said in a March 9 floor speech. “The vaccine trends and economic trends were in place before this bill was ever voted on, before this President was sworn in.” And even some Biden supporters admit the Trump Administration deserves some credit for prioritizing vaccine research and getting help to small businesses out the door early in the pandemic.

But experts say the Biden Administration’s work buying more doses from Moderna and Pfizer, brokering an agreement between Merck and Johnson and Johnson, invoking the Defense Production Act, and funneling federal resources to over 500 vaccination centers has been crucial to the uptick in vaccinations. “I think we can say pretty clearly the Administration’s actions around vaccinations have increased the vaccination rate,” says Eric Toner, a Senior Scholar with the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

To help offset the economic impact of the pandemic, the Administration also modified the Paycheck Program, which was implemented under last year’s CARES Act and provides potentially forgivable federally backed loans to businesses with up to 500 employees. While initially praised, the program came under heavy criticism for allowing banks to prioritize loans to larger companies, while smaller companies—particularly those with sole proprietors or business owners of color—floundered.

On Feb. 24, the Biden Administration instituted a 14-day period where only businesses and non-profits with fewer than 20 employees could apply for relief. According to data from the Small Business Administration, which runs the program, over 400,000 businesses had been approved for relief as of March 7, with loans to minority-owned businesses increasing by 20% from the previous 10-day period, women owned businesses increasing by 14%, and businesses in rural areas increasing by 12%.

It’s still not a perfect program. John Arensmeyer, the founder and CEO of Small Business Majority, an advocacy group that represents more than 80,000 independent companies, said the “vast majority” of his members who had been approved for these loans during this period had yet to receive them. “Larger businesses do get their loans more quickly, because they are able to pay for processing much faster and they have existing relationships with banks” he says. But Arensmeyer says these recent modifications will still be a “significant help.”

Hitting pause on drone strikes

Many of Biden’s early policy moves have simply undone the work of his predecessor. One major reversal has been Biden’s temporary restriction on drone strikes and special operations raids against suspected terrorists until an internal review is completed—a change of course that indicates a reassessment of the 20-year war on terror.

The limits, which Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby confirmed on March 8, don’t impact U.S. forces in the countries where it is openly at war—Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—but rather in other nations where for two decades the counter-terror missions have been classified and hidden from the American public, including Yemen, Pakistan, Libya and Somalia.

For four years, the Trump Administration aggressively expanded the targeted-killing program, which is run by the CIA and the U.S. military’s secretive Joint Special Operations Command. But the U.S. government has never provided basic information needed to assess the operations, including the names and identities of people targeted and killed. While the shadowy missions are credited for killing thousands of terrorists and eviscerating militant groups’ leadership ranks, human rights and monitoring groups say the missions have killed an equal or greater number of innocent civilians.

Reversing Trump’s immigration policies

The Biden Administration has been praised by immigration advocates for a number of significant policy changes. Biden halted construction of the southern border wall, lifted the visa ban for travelers from several majority-Muslim countries, ended the Trump-era policy forcing new migrants awaiting court hearings to stay in Mexico, and allowed unaccompanied minors crossing the border to remain in the U.S. while their asylum cases are being decided. On March 9, Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas granted Temporary Protected Status for Venezuelans living in the U.S.

But critics say some reversals of Trump Administration policy have fed into potential crises. Data shows border crossings are surging. U.S. Customs and Border Patrol said it encountered 100,441 individuals attempting to cross the southern border in February 2021, a 28% increase from January. The Biden Administration says they are turning the vast majority of adult migrants away, but the decision to allow child migrants to stay has put them in a situation where they are running out of housing space.

“These numbers are larger than they expected them to be this early on in the year,” says Doris Meissner, a former top U.S. immigration official and an immigration expert at the Migration Policy Institute. The Administration is trying to contain the influx by expanding capacity at federal shelters to pre-pandemic levels. But Meissner says that more must be done to increase the speed at which migrants asylum claims are vetted.

Republicans have already seized on the border situation to question Biden’s policy. “The Biden administration’s border crisis of unaccompanied children being detained at overcrowded Border Patrol stations is a direct result of their undoing the previous administration’s policies with no consideration of the ramifications of removing those policies and how it would incentivize migration,” Sen. Rob Portman, Ranking Member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, said in a March 10 statement after CBP released its February data.

The looming problems ahead

Politically, it’s much easier for Republicans to attack Biden on immigration than the stimulus package, which polling shows is much more popular than a divisive immigration debate. But the backlash is indicative of potentially weakening political capital that could halt—or dramatically slow—Biden’s ability to enact the rest of his agenda in his first term.

The American Rescue Plan was supposed to help launch an ambitious legislative agenda that includes plans to rebuild infrastructure, create jobs and protect voting rights. “There’s still much more to be done, and absolutely no room for complacency,” Deese and Dunn wrote in their March 6 memo. But accomplishing much of this agenda requires legislating across the aisle. The COVID-19 relief package showed how hard that will be.

Already, pressure is mounting on Senate lawmakers to abolish the filibuster to push through their agenda unilaterally—a move Biden has repeatedly said he opposes, potentially setting up a conflict between the executive and legislative branches.

And while Democrats may have one more chance to use the reconciliation process to pass another budget-related package along strict party lines, the negotiations and compromises on the American Rescue Plan showed that even keeping the Democrats together on a popular piece of legislation can be a difficult proposition.

For now, Biden is taking a victory lap on the massive COVID-19 relief package—and hoping that it will help him take several more down the line.

—With reporting by Jasmine Aguilera/New York, Brian Bennett and W.J. Hennigan/Washington

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Write to Alana Abramson at Alana.Abramson@time.com