Why Biden’s presidency faces an unprecedented day one challenge

Joe Biden has just inherited a country bitterly divided at home and arguably diminished in the eyes of the world. The 46th president of the United States faces immense challenges – both immediate and in the long term.

But as he looks to oversee a trouble-plagued vaccine rollout, push through economic relief and eventually restore the country’s reputation abroad, the political ghosts of Donald Trump will be hard to vanquish.

Trump’s refusal to concede defeat and his attempts to stall the usual transition process between administrations means that Biden faces an uphill battle from day one.

“The transition has been uneven, there’s been two areas that have really been lagging from the Trump side,” says Bruce Wolpe, who worked alongside the Democrats during the first term of president Barrack Obama.

“That’s the Pentagon – the Defense Department – where there has not been good cooperation, and the same in the Office of Management and Budget which is responsible for budget policy and administration,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

Joe Biden's transition period has been an unusual one. Source: Getty
Joe Biden's transition period has been an unusual one. Source: Getty

Despite the obstacles thrown in the way by Trump, it’s expected the immense political experience of Joe Biden will go a long way to overcoming the unusually stymied transition process.

His stated priorities are tackling the pandemic, restoring the economy, improving the Affordable Care Act (known as Obamacare) and expanding access to healthcare, improving racial justice and voting rights and recommencing the country’s fight against global warming.

The Biden administration will offer a “complete change in tone,” Wolpe says.

“I think what he wants to project is a sense of urgency but also normalcy.”

‘Entire federal government’ to be handed over

Much has been written about the disinterest Donald Trump had in participating in his own presidential transition, meaning entire government departments were left with no one to formally take the reins when he entered the White House.

“When people think transition they think of the White House. They don’t realise, that no, it’s the entire federal government that’s being handed over,” author Michael Lewis explained in a recent podcast, after chronicling the disastrous 2016 handover to the Trump team in his book The Fifth Risk.

Unlike Australia where the public services largely ticks on as normal between governments, the disinterest Trump displayed for much of what’s involved in governing meant crucial US departments were left to languish, or hollowed out and filled with loyalists with no government experience.

President Donald Trump waves to staff and supporters as he leaves the White House, January 12. Source: Getty
President Donald Trump waves to staff and supporters as he leaves the White House, January 12. Source: Getty

It will take some time for Biden to repopulate the sprawling apparatus of the US government, says Dr Daniel Fleming, a US historian at UNSW and author of forthcoming book is Living the Dream: A History of the Martin Luther King Holiday.

“The president and the president’s administration get to appoint about 9000 people to various departments,” he told Yahoo News Australia.

There’s something known as the Plum Book that dates back to the era of president Dwight Eisenhower in the 1950s.

“When he became president in 1953, the Republicans had not been in power for 20 years and they requested a list of all the positions that they could appoint people to,” Dr Fleming said.

“Most of them don’t have to go to Senate for confirmation but that transition period, which was shortened [for Biden], is important for appointing those people.”

As for the filling his cabinet: “I think there’s already been some impact on the transition,” he said, referring to Trump’s efforts to block the handover.

“At the moment, Biden only has one cabinet secretary who looks likely to be confirmed by the Senate by inauguration day... Obama had about six cabinet secretaries confirmed by that stage.”

‘They hate him’ – The other big challenge

While president Trump has tried to disrupt the early administrative success of Joe Biden, there is another major problem Trump leaves behind for his successor – himself.

Professor Joe Siracusa, a US politics expert at Curtin University, sees a much greater challenge awaiting Biden than dealing with a stymied handover.

“I think Biden is going to be okay in terms of the transition alone, he’s surrounded by ultra professional staffers and appointments who have previous experience,” he said, not to mention his eight year tenure as vice president.

“I don’t think he’s being denied strict intelligence. If Biden missed an intelligence briefing, it doesn’t mean s**t to me,” he told Yahoo News Australia. “There ain’t no big secrets here.”

America is perhaps more divided than ever after Trump supporters took the president's election lies to heart. Source: Getty
America is perhaps more divided than ever after Trump supporters took the president's election lies to heart. Source: Getty

“His job was to unify the American people while throwing all the resources at Covid-19,” Prof Siracusa said.

But in the wake of the Capitol riots, the country’s ability to move on from Donald Trump faces new dimensions.

“Up until a week ago, Biden’s problem was going to be how do you unify the people while trying to unify his own party [by placating the progressive wing of the Democrats],” Prof Siracusa said.

“Since January 6, he’s got to deal with people in his party who are determined to put Trump’s arrest and shame ahead of his agenda.”

With a Senate trial looming for Trump’s second impeachment, the process is expected to take up valuable time in the Senate during Biden’s all-important first 100 days, while also carrying a possible political cost.

“[Progressive] Democrats are making it clear they’re holding Biden accountable for holding Trump accountable,” Prof Siracusa said.

“This hatred of Trump is consuming the party ... To go after Trump and the people who supported Trump, that is dangerous.

“About 75 million Americans probably support Trump to this day.”

While there won’t be any more late night tweets, vanquishing the ghost of Donald Trump could prove to be one of the most difficult problems facing the incoming leader of the United State of America.

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