Biden admin beginning to show results

by Carl P. Leubsdorf

In less than two months in the White House, Joe Biden has shown the difference an activist president can make.

Through both legislative proposals and executive actions, he has replaced the passive approach of his predecessor — frequent declarations, few follow-ups — and started to produce the economic and health results he promised.

While it is too soon to measure their ultimate impact, Biden’s approach is already producing progress in three main aspects of the crisis he inherited:

 Fighting the pandemic. Biden has expanded the federal government’s role in the distribution and administration of the vaccines that hold the key to ending the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of daily vaccinations has doubled.

 Funding the fight. The House  Wednesday completed congressional passage of Biden’s $1.9 trillion package funding an expanded war on COVID-19 and providing much needed added help for its victims: Both individual Americans and local and state governments.

 Opening the schools. Biden and his newly installed secretary of education are urging states to give teachers priority for COVID vaccinations and providing additional aid to make reopening schools safer.

With one big exception — the Operation Warp Speed program to develop and produce COVID vaccines — the Trump administration relied more on words than deeds, often transmitting mixed messages while minimizing the seriousness of the problem and disdaining use of federal authority.

After questioning his predecessor’s readiness to distribute and administer vaccine, Biden and his health team have taken a more activist approach to ensure it happens, delivering the consistent message the vaccine is the single best way to restore normalcy in American life.

They have created large vaccination sites, negotiated expansion of the vaccine production by the two initial suppliers, Pfizer and Moderna, and brokered an important deal by which Merck, unable to produce its own vaccine, will produce additional supplies of Johnson & Johnson’s newly approved single-shot antidote.

As a result, despite many state and local bottlenecks, the daily vaccination rate has hit 2 million, meaning the administration will almost certainly surpass its goal of 100 million vaccinations in its first 100 days. It now promises production of enough vaccine by the end of June for every American who wants it.

Meanwhile, Biden forged unity within the slim Democratic House and Senate majorities to propose and muscle through the massive relief bill designed both to fight the pandemic and ease the economic damage for many Americans at a time unemployment remains 10 million higher than a year ago.

The bill includes cash payments to many Americans and extended unemployment benefits as well as increased subsidies for Obamacare and tax credits designed to sharply reduce the nation’s poverty rate, especially among children.

Its extent was made possible when Democrats won Georgia’s two Jan. 5 Senate runoff elections. That gave Democrats the 50th Senate seat they needed to form a majority with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

Biden campaigned almost daily for his proposal, bolstered by polls showing strong approval of both the economic package and his overall job performance. On Thursday night, he gave his first televised prime time speech to the nation, marking one year since the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic and President Donald Trump took the first major steps to fight it.

Already, Biden and the Democrats have signaled they hope to use their political momentum to push through an even bigger follow-up measure aimed at spurring long-term economic growth by meeting the country’s underfunded infrastructure needs.

They have talked of using a second budget reconciliation package that again could pass the Senate with just Democratic votes. But last weekend, Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., warned he opposes that approach without a serious effort to attract Republican support.

Of the new administration’s three initial goals, the most difficult has been reopening a majority of K-8 grade schools by his 100th day.

A principal factor is that state and local governments have the authority to open schools, not Washington, D.C. And the effort has been complicated by resistance from teacher unions demanding assurances reopening would be safe for teachers.

The relief package contains $130 billion to help elementary and secondary schools reopen. In addition, the administration has stepped up public pressure to vaccinate teachers and school administrators, urging states and localities to ensure that all get at least one shot by the end of March.

Newly confirmed Education Secretary Miguel Cardona plans a conference of local and national education officials on school reopening and may name an administration point person to monitor school reopening issues.

Nearly half of elementary and secondary schools are fully open with the rest evenly split between remote teaching or a combination of on-site and remote programs, says The Washington Post, citing Burbio, a firm that tracks school, library and event data.

Lacking the votes to stop Biden’s legislative proposals, Republicans called his package too costly and complained it contains provisions not directly aimed at the COVID-19 crisis. That’s true, since the Democrats wisely included both targeted aid and broader anti-poverty provisions like expanding family tax credits and bolstering Obamacare, seeking to take advantage of the current crisis to make long-needed underlying reforms.

New administrations have only limited periods to enact their programs and, as former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel once noted, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News. Readers may write to him via email at carl.p.leubsdorf@gmail.com.