The challenges facing Joe Biden in 2021

This was excerpted from the January 1 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.

Welcome to a new political year in America.

A new presidency is a time of renewal, and this country — like the rest of the world — badly needs hope amid the darkest winter of modern times, as Covid-19 ravages the population and suppresses the joys of normal life.

Donald Trump will soon be a private citizen. But largely because of his divisive and democracy-tainting term, his successor Joe Biden may be tested more than any new US President since the 1930s. The pile of crises that the new commander in chief inherits in this new year could dwarf the Great Depression-era threat to capitalism confronting President Franklin Roosevelt in 1933.

America’s wretched partisan fury means Biden has only the narrowest of paths to forging successful policy responses to America’s big problems. Creating a meaningful presidency from such unpromising beginnings will take extraordinary political skill, missteps by his political enemies and luck.

What Biden faces in 2021

The pandemic

The worst public health crisis in 100 years is still raging out of control. There are already signs that the Trump administration’s botched response to the virus is being replicated by a failure to plan for the vaccine’s distribution and administration. Biden’s political fate depends on finding a way to quickly scale up the manufacture and administration of hundreds of millions of doses, in the most complex logistical operation in generations.

The economy

Millions of Americans are unemployed, and the rampant spread of Covid-19 threatens to plunge the economy back into an abyss. The latest last minute relief bill extending unemployment protections, helping small businesses and staving off evictions is only a temporary fix. And Republicans’ willingness to defy Trump on $2,000 stimulus payments suggests how difficult it will be for Biden to strong-arm Congress into agreeing to his own massive stimulus plan — one critical to igniting growth, vaccinating the country, and getting kids back in school.

Political legitimacy

Trump’s pernicious lie that he won a landslide in an election he actually lost has spread through Republican voters. This is an immediate challenge for the new President’s appeals for unity and for a final national effort to beat the pandemic that includes mask-wearing — which many conservatives see as an infringement on personal liberty. And truth won’t return just because Trump has gone: Biden’s every step will be misrepresented by a conservative media machine still loyal to his predecessor.

A febrile political mix

Republicans did better than expected in the November elections and made gains in the House of Representatives, emboldening them to form a roadblock to Biden’s ambitious plans on issues like climate change. Biden will have to convince GOP lawmakers to work with him — but he may be the only person in Washington who thinks Senate GOP Leader Mitch McConnell might actually allow it.

A hostile Supreme Court

If Biden struggles to get big legislation through Congress next year, he will seek to use sweeping executive power. But the new Trump-engineered conservative-majority Supreme Court has already shown an allergy to new climate, business and civil rights reform, and will likely curtail the new President’s power.

Restive Democrats

Biden also faces a crisis over racial justice. He has assembled the most diverse-ever Cabinet, but that’s hardly enough to reconcile the national reckoning on race and policing that began last summer and to honor the many African American voters who put him in power. His narrow room for political maneuver will likely further frustrate progressives who want massive government action on issues like health care and say their support was critical to his victory.

The world awaits

It will be easy for Biden to signal that “America is back”— especially when he recommits the US to the Paris climate accord. But the world has changed drastically since he left the vice president’s office just four years ago. The 1980s called and wants its foreign policy back amid fierce antagonism from Russia. Biden also faces a tense rivalry with China, and serious complications in reviving the Iran nuclear deal. Repairing what many critics see as the strategic vandalism of the Trump years could take his entire term while the world wonders about America’s staying power.

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