President Joe Biden is signing a lot of executive orders, while in the process making promises and setting expectations on a variety of issues. Whether he meets his own targets will determine whether his presidency succeeds.
Biden’s early moves are meant to address what he calls four simultaneous crises: the Covid pandemic, the related economic downturn, global warming and racial injustice. Biden’s first crucial report card will come in the 2022 midterm elections, when voters will either register satisfaction with Biden and his fellow Democrats by widening their slim majorities in Congress, or point thumbs down by flipping one or both chambers of Congress back to Republican control. Here are some yardsticks for measuring Biden’s performance:
Covid vaccinations. On Jan. 26, Biden said his administration’s goal was to vaccinate 300 million Americans by late summer or early fall. That’s about 90% of the U.S. population, and probably close to the maximum possible vaccination rate, given that one-third of Americans seem reluctant to get vaccinated, or uninterested. So far, only about 21 million Americans have gotten one of two required shots, with barely 4 million being fully vaccinated. Shortages are widespread and vaccination efforts are disorganized in many areas. Lack of staffing is another problem.
The Biden administration is buying millions of additional vaccine doses and promising help for states and cities that lack funding or personnel to mount a massive vaccination effort. With solid federal coordination, the Biden administration can probably come close to the goal of widespread vaccinations within the next eight months. The broader test may be whether Americans feel life is getting back to normal by then, with kids back in school, restaurants and stores fully open, travel unimpeded, and movies, concerts and sporting events offering needed diversions. This could be trickier. Virus mutations could set back the vaccination effort, and precautions like masks and distancing might still be needed, for a while at least, even when most people are vaccinated. Messaging will be crucial. While pushing an urgent vaccination strategy, Biden and his team need to caution against a return to the status quo if public health experts don’t see it happening this year.
Jobs and paychecks. The most important economic challenge is restoring jobs, paychecks and financial stability for millions of Americans kneecapped by business shutdowns. The recovery from the 2008 financial meltdown was steady but too slow. Biden needs to do better. The vaccination rollout will obviously help, by setting the stage for businesses to reopen and rehire. But there will still be a lot of damage: Many businesses have closed permanently and others won’t get back to pre-pandemic levels for years. Eviction moratoriums have helped keep millions of people in their homes, but they have to end eventually—and they don’t cover the back rent.
Biden’s $1.9 trillion “American Rescue Plan” is supposed to help with much of that, but Congress probably won’t provide everything he’s asking for, and Republicans may have the muscle to block much of Biden’s agenda after that. Job creation from 2010 through 2016—the Obama-Biden recovery—averaged 189,000 new jobs per month. Job growth during the Biden Covid recovery needs to be double or triple that, for voters to feel the economy is getting materially better. Biden needs to pay special attention to the 12 million Americans struggling to pay rent, along with sectors like hospitality that may have been devastated beyond the ability to recover quickly.
Climate progress. As promised, Biden has begun his presidency with a range of action on climate change meant to set aggressive new incentives for green-energy adoption and use regulatory force where incentives don’t work. Biden plans to use executive action to raise fuel-economy standards, buy thousands of electric vehicles for the federal fleet and put new limits on oil and gas drilling. He plans to ask Congress for billions or even trillions of dollars more, to invest in green-energy infrastructure, fund new technology and pull carbon from the air.
The most aggressive green-energy effort would take years to meaningfully cut carbon emissions. In the meanwhile, Biden’s climate actions need to accomplish three things: 1. Showcase new green-energy jobs without killing good-paying energy jobs that already exist. 2. Demonstrate how lower-priced green energy is good for consumers, without driving up prices or causing disruptions. 3. Avoid Solyndra-like debacles that dump taxpayer money into fraudulent or wasteful black holes. Americans support climate action, but they’re also wary of the government doing more harm than good. While waiting for the good to develop, Biden needs to do no harm.
Racial justice. Unlike President Trump, Biden has forcefully condemned white supremacy, while signing several orders to end housing discrimination, begin prison reform and combat xenophobia. But this could be one of the toughest areas to make and measure progress, since racial inequities in education, the workplace and other parts of the economy are entrenched and localized. There’s a lot Biden can do to improve subsidized housing, extend credit to minority families and businesses and bolster struggling communities. Biden wants billions for new affordable housing programs, which could be a tough sell in Congress. Forgiving student debt up to a certain household income threshold would help, but that probably requires legislation, too. Improved education is a huge priority, but schools are run locally, which blunts the federal government’s power. Same with police departments, which can make local law enforcement resistant to federal reforms. Biden will need help from racial-justice groups to convince voters he’s making progress.
Biden is starting out with an approval rating well above 50%, about 10 points better than Trump started with in 2017. He’ll probably get a natural boost as Covid vaccines roll out and some businesses go back online. But the problems Biden is tackling are as serious as he makes them sound, and there are plenty of political opponents who want Biden to fail. To win with voters, Biden needs to make genuine progress on these problems, and also make sure the public sees the gains.
Rick Newman is the author of four books, including “Rebounders: How Winners Pivot from Setback to Success.” Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman. Confidential tip line: firstname.lastname@example.org. Click here to get Rick’s stories by email.