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Biden's first month was a 'honeymoon,' but bigger challenges loom ahead

Trevor Hunnicutt
·4 min read

By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON, Feb 21 (Reuters) - One month into the job,President Joe Biden is on the cusp of securing a bigger economicrescue package than during the 2009 financial crisis. He haswiped out his predecessor Donald Trump's policies from climatechange to travel bans, while the U.S. daily COVID-19 vaccinedistribution rate grew 55%.

That may have been the easy part.

The White House's broad strategy - avoid unwinnablepolitical fights, focus on policies with mass voter appeal, andmostly ignore Republican attacks - will be increasinglydifficult in the months ahead, Democrats and Republicans say,even as millions more are vaccinated and the economy rebounds.

"They've got some problems right around the corner," saidJim Manley, once a top aide to former Democratic Senate MajorityLeader Harry Reid.

Biden has made many of the changes he has clear authority todo by executive action. Landmines going forward include pushinglaws on which the Democratic Party is divided, such as collegedebt relief, tax hikes and curbs on the energy industry.

Then there are the intractable policy fights that havedefined American politics for a generation, including who canbecome a citizen, how easy it should be to vote, whether thegovernment should pay for healthcare, and who should carry agun.

Meanwhile, many tricky issues, from trade tariffs to Chinapolicy to tech oversight, are still under review at the WhiteHouse.

DEMOCRATS UNITED?

Democrats are working to pass their economic stimuluspackage with or without Republican support before a criticalmid-March deadline when expanded unemployment insurance expires.

The bill only needs a majority vote, because it will bepassed as part of a process called reconciliation, but thatrequires every Democrat to side with the White House. Doubts aregrowing that the bill will include a provision raising thefederal minimum wage to $15, which would sorely disappointliberal Democrats.

"I've been shocked at how disciplined the Left has been; I'mnot sure how much that's going to last," Manley said. "I can seethere's some fissures developing."

Those cracks were on display when some Democrats, includingRepresentative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and SenatorElizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, criticized Biden after hesaid told a Feb. 16 CNN town hall he disagrees with members ofhis party who want to forgive $50,000 in student debt.

A comprehensive White House-backed immigration bill unveiledon Feb. 18 is not expected to pass the Senate; the second-rankedDemocrat, Dick Durbin, is among those suggesting aless-ambitious effort that focuses on immigrants brought to theUnited States as children.

Republicans are reshuffling after the Trump years, said PaulShumaker, a Republican strategist behind Senator Thom Tillis'hard-fought re-election in North Carolina.

Biden could unite them by overreaching on taxes andspending, he noted, while doing too little on these issues willdisappoint some of his Democratic base.

"He's enjoying a honeymoon period, but everyone knows thathoneymoon's going to come to an end," Shumaker said.

ELUSIVE REPUBLICAN SUPPORT

White House aides say the policy agenda they plan to push inthe coming months has bipartisan voter appeal, and they believeRepublicans in Congress could ultimately be forced to support itby their constituents.

"Is he going to be focused on winning every last Republicanover? No, of course not," said White House communicationsdirector Kate Bedingfield, a longtime Biden confidant.

"But is he going to reach out and speak to people on bothsides of the aisle – is he going to work to put forward plansthat meets the needs of people of both parties – yes, heabsolutely is."

Biden's early polling numbers suggest that will be achallenge. Some 56% of Americans approve of his performance aspresident, according to a Reuters/Ipsos poll conducted inmid-February, but just 20% of Republicans.

The White House's bipartisan hopes lie in an infrastructureplan, still in the embryonic stages of development, that isexpected to exceed the scale, scope and price tag of the roughly$1.9 trillion stimulus bill.

The measure is almost certainly going to both expand thedeficit and require some tax increases, measures expected tospur opposition. It is likely to be peppered with measures onclimate change, and could also include Biden's proposedsubsidies for college, according to several people briefed onearly conversations.

Putting the pieces together will be tough without a fullsenior staff, including Biden's pick for budget director, NeeraTanden, whose confirmation has run into Democratic oppositionfrom Senator Joe Manchin, who also opposed including the minimumwage in the stimulus bill.

Nonetheless, the Left's expectations for Biden remain high.

"The administration came out bold and strong," said LuisHernandez, a youth gun violence prevention activist who met withsenior administration officials last week. "There's much more tobe done."

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt; Editing by Heather Timmons andDaniel Wallis)