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President-elect Joe Biden, accompanied by Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, outlines his economic agenda during a speech in Wilmington, Delaware, in November.

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Biden’s Challenge

When Joe Biden enters the Oval Office later this month, he’ll face multiple crises—and a nation deeply divided

On January 20, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is expected to take the oath of office and become the nation’s 46th president. After he addresses the nation, he’ll confront what is arguably the most daunting set of crises any incoming president has encountered in modern times.

The Covid-19 pandemic is surging throughout the nation, overwhelming many hospitals. Amid virus-related shutdowns, the economy is struggling to recover from the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression, with the possibility that it could still get worse. And the divide between Americans who rejoiced at Biden’s victory and those who continue to support President Trump couldn’t be more stark.

“Biden is just one human, and the amount that’s coming onto his plate as president is huge,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Biden said in November that the situation demands that Americans put partisanship aside.

“We have to come together to heal the soul of this country so that we can effectively address this crisis as one country,” he said.

To be successful, political experts say, Biden will not only have to juggle everything in his in-box but also find a way to repair, or at least patch up, the divisions that threaten the ability of the federal government to function effectively. Here’s a look at six of the biggest challenges facing the next president.

On January 20, Joseph R. Biden Jr. is expected to take the oath of office and become the nation’s 46th president. On that day, he’ll address the nation. Afterward, he’ll face what is arguably the most alarming set of crises any incoming president has been up against in modern times.

The Covid-19 pandemic is surging throughout the nation, overwhelming many hospitals. Amid virus-related shutdowns, the economy is struggling to recover. Experts are calling it the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression. And there’s a possibility that it could still get worse. Beyond that, there’s a deep divide between Americans. Some rejoiced at Biden’s victory, while others continue to support President Trump.

“Biden is just one human, and the amount that’s coming onto his plate as president is huge,” says Kathleen Hall Jamieson, director of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania.

Biden said in November that the situation demands that Americans put politics aside.

“We have to come together to heal the soul of this country so that we can effectively address this crisis as one country,” he said.

Political experts say that for Biden to be successful, he’ll have to do two things at the same time. First, he’ll have to juggle everything in his inbox. He must also repair the divisions that threaten the ability of the federal government to function effectively. At the very least, he’ll have to patch up these rifts. Here’s a look at six of the biggest challenges facing the next president.

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A Covid patient getting treatment at a Houston hospital in November

1. Covid-19 Pandemic

An unprecedented health crisis

Public health experts expect the pandemic to be at its worst just as Biden takes office, and this crisis will likely be the new president’s top priority.

“He’s going to inherit a situation where things are awful,” predicts Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “Hospitals will be totally exhausted. You’ll have massive shortages of supplies. You’ll have a large number of doctors and nurses who’re sick and many, many health systems on the verge of collapse.”

Biden moved swiftly after his electoral victory to appoint a panel of public health experts to guide his decision making on Covid-19, and he’s announced that he’ll call on all Americans to wear face masks to slow the spread of the virus. His plans for addressing Covid include significantly expanding testing and the production of personal protective equipment. He’s vowed to listen to the advice of scientists and to do “whatever it takes” to stop the pandemic from continuing to spread across the country.

Public health experts expect the pandemic to be at its worst just as Biden takes office. Tackling this crisis will likely be the new president’s top priority.

“He’s going to inherit a situation where things are awful,” predicts Ashish Jha, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health. “Hospitals will be totally exhausted. You’ll have massive shortages of supplies. You’ll have a large number of doctors and nurses who’re sick and many, many health systems on the verge of collapse.”

Biden moved swiftly after his electoral victory. He appointed a panel of public health experts to guide his decision making on Covid-19. He also announced that he’ll call on all Americans to wear face masks to slow the spread of the virus. His plans for addressing Covid include significantly expanding testing and the production of personal protective equipment. He’s vowed to listen to the advice of scientists. And he’s committed himself to doing “whatever it takes” to stop the pandemic from continuing to spread across the country.

Biden has vowed to do ‘whatever it takes’ to stop Covid.

In November, two drug companies announced that early results from trials showed their vaccines to be more than 90 percent effective, and other drug companies are also making headway with additional vaccine trials. But this good news creates a massive logistical problem for the Biden administration: It will have to figure out how to safely and fairly get those vaccines to the 330 million Americans who need them.

Some public health officials say that in addition to national coordination, there’s a lot the president can do just by giving consistent, accurate information.

As Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, puts it, it’s important for the president “to use the powers of persuasion and moral example.”

In November, two drug companies announced that early results from trials showed their vaccines to be more than 90 percent effective. Other drug companies are also making headway with more vaccine trials. But this good news creates a huge logistical problem for the Biden administration. It will have to figure out how to safely and fairly get those vaccines to the 330 million Americans who need them.

Some public health officials say that besides national coordination, there’s a lot the president can do just by giving consistent, accurate information.

As Dr. Howard Markel, a professor of the history of medicine at the University of Michigan, puts it, it’s important for the president “to use the powers of persuasion and moral example.”

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP Images

A store closing in Santa Clarita, California

2. The Economy

Lost jobs and struggling businesses

Before Covid-19 struck, the nation’s economy had been booming. When the coronavirus first surged in the U.S. last spring, most communities halted much of their economic activity to stop the spread of the virus, with 22 million Americans losing their jobs in the spring.

After that massive initial plunge, there were signs of recovery, including the return of millions of jobs. But we’re a long way from a healthy economy, experts say, and the pandemic’s resurgence this fall prompted new closures.

Businesses such as airlines, restaurants, hotels, and theaters have been particularly hard hit and will take a long time to recover.

“The basic problem is that we put the economy into a medically induced coma,” says David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution. “Biden’s economic problem is Covid. Get the pandemic under control, and you’ve pretty much addressed the problem.”

Beyond trying to get people back to work, Biden has a broader economic agenda. He wants to spend big on infrastructure, health care, tackling climate change, and investing in science and technology research. To fund these initiatives, he’ll likely seek to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on corporations. But to make that happen, he’ll need to get legislation through a closely divided Congress.

Before Covid-19 struck, the nation’s economy had been booming. The coronavirus first surged in the U.S. last spring. At that time, most of the economic activity in communities came to a halt. The move, which aimed to stop the spread of the virus, led to 22 million Americans losing their jobs in the spring.

After that massive initial plunge, there were signs of recovery. Among them was the fact that millions of jobs returned. But experts say that we’re a long way from a healthy economy. And the pandemic spiked again this fall, prompting new closures.

Businesses such as airlines, restaurants, hotels, and theaters have been particularly hard hit. They’ll take a long time to recover.

“The basic problem is that we put the economy into a medically induced coma,” says David Wessel, director of the Hutchins Center on Fiscal and Monetary Policy at the Brookings Institution. “Biden’s economic problem is Covid. Get the pandemic under control, and you’ve pretty much addressed the problem.”

Beyond trying to get people back to work, Biden has a broader economic agenda. He wants to spend big on infrastructure, health care, and tackling climate change. He also plans to invest in science and technology research. To fund these initiatives, he’ll likely seek to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans and on corporations. But to make that happen, he’ll need to get legislation through a closely divided Congress.

Marco Bello/Reuters

Severe flooding in Davie, Florida, after a November tropical storm

3. Climate Change/The Environment

Addressing a global crisis

Biden says he’ll rejoin the Paris climate accord,* the international climate change agreement that President Trump had withdrawn from. This requires only a letter to the United Nations and would take effect 30 days later.

But scientists say other Biden environmental goals—including reversing many of Trump’s environmental policies—won’t be so easy to achieve. During the past four years, the Trump administration erased or loosened nearly 100 rules and regulations on pollution in the air, water, and atmosphere, saying they were too hard on America’s businesses. During those four years, climate scientists say, the global level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has reached a critical point.

Biden says he’ll rejoin the Paris climate accord. President Trump had withdrawn the U.S. from the international climate change agreement. Rejoining only requires a letter to the United Nations and would take effect 30 days later.

But scientists say other Biden environmental goals won’t be so easy to achieve. During the past four years, the Trump administration erased or loosened nearly 100 rules and regulations on pollution in the air, water, and atmosphere. The rationale was that they were too hard on America’s businesses. Climate scientists say that the global level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere has reached a critical point. Now, Biden wants to reverse many of Trump’s environmental policies.

Biden sees climate change as a historic crisis.

Scientists say it’s now going to be much more difficult to prevent many of the most damaging effects of climate change, including rising sea levels, deadlier storms, and more devastating heat waves, droughts, and wildfires.

“We’ve lost very important time on climate change, which we can ill afford,” says Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environment-focused research organization in Washington. “There is severe damage.”

As a candidate, Biden laid out a plan to spend $2 trillion to develop clean energy and eliminate emissions from the power sector by 2035. Republicans are unlikely to go along with that kind of spending for big climate initiatives, but Biden’s team is making it clear that climate change will be a priority.

“We have to re-establish American leadership globally on climate change,” says Ernest Moniz, a former energy secretary who is advising Biden, “and re-establishing global leadership is going to require getting our [environmental] house in order domestically.”

Scientists say it’s now going to be much more difficult to prevent many of the most damaging effects of climate change. That includes rising sea levels, deadlier storms, and more devastating heat waves, droughts, and wildfires.

“We’ve lost very important time on climate change, which we can ill afford,” says Richard Newell, president of Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan energy and environment-focused research organization in Washington. “There is severe damage.”

As a candidate, Biden laid out a plan to spend $2 trillion to develop clean energy and cut emissions from the power sector by 2035. Republicans are unlikely to go along with that kind of spending for big climate initiatives. Despite that, Biden’s team is making it clear that climate change will be a priority.

“We have to re-establish American leadership globally on climate change,” says Ernest Moniz, a former energy secretary who is advising Biden, “and re-establishing global leadership is going to require getting our [environmental] house in order domestically.”

*The 2015 Paris climate accord required participating countries to come up with their own plans for cutting carbon emissions, with the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels.

*The 2015 Paris climate accord required participating countries to come up with their own plans for cutting carbon emissions, with the goal of keeping global temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-Industrial levels.

Gabriele Holtermann-Gorden/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images

A 2019 rally in New York City to protect DACA recipients

4. Immigration

Welcoming newcomers

Over the past four years, President Trump issued more than 400 executive actions related to immigration policy. The result is that America’s immigration system has been substantially overhauled to make it harder for all kinds of immigrants to come to the U.S.

Biden has vowed to reverse many of the most restrictive immigration actions taken by the Trump administration. Biden sees immigrants as a fundamental part of the American identity. He’s pledged to abandon Trump’s travel ban on people from 13 Muslim-majority countries. He says he plans to reinstate the DACA program, which allows young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children to remain and work legally. Biden has promised to increase the number of refugees that the U.S. will accept and to stop construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Like many moderates on both sides of the aisle, Biden has long favored large-scale immigration reform to address the many problems that plague this system. But support in Congress for comprehensive reform is unlikely. However, immigration experts say there’s a lot Biden can do by executive order.

“Trump was the first modern president to view both illegal and legal immigration as a threat to the U.S. economy and to U.S. security,” says Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute. “Restoring the U.S. reputation as a welcoming place will be really important under the Biden administration.”

Over the past four years, President Trump issued more than 400 executive actions related to immigration policy. The result is that America’s immigration system has been substantially overhauled to make it harder for all kinds of immigrants to come to the U.S.

Biden has vowed to reverse many of the most restrictive immigration actions taken by the Trump administration. Biden sees immigrants as a fundamental part of the American identity. He’s pledged to abandon Trump’s travel ban on people from 13 Muslim-majority countries. He says he plans to reinstate the DACA program, which allows young people who were brought illegally to the U.S. as children to remain and work legally. Biden has promised to increase the number of refugees that the U.S. will accept. He will also stop construction of the wall along the U.S.-Mexican border.

Like many moderates on both sides of the aisle, Biden has long favored large-scale immigration reform to address the many problems that plague this system. But support in Congress for broad reform is unlikely. However, immigration experts say there’s a lot Biden can do by executive order.

“Trump was the first modern president to view both illegal and legal immigration as a threat to the U.S. economy and to U.S. security,” says Sarah Pierce of the Migration Policy Institute. “Restoring the U.S. reputation as a welcoming place will be really important under the Biden administration.”

Erik McGregor/LightRocket via Getty Images

A protest in Brooklyn, New York, in August

5. Racial Justice

A promise to address racism in America

The police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans prompted a groundswell of outrage that catapulted the issue of racial injustice into the national spotlight.   

Biden has acknowledged the racism that Black Americans continue to face on a daily basis, and he pledged to incorporate the push for racial justice into all parts of his economic agenda.

“If you say we have no need to face racial injustice in this country, you haven’t opened your eyes to the truth in America,” Biden said in October.

Most Americans supported the racial injustice protests over the summer, according to polls, but those protests also prompted some backlash and debates, including over issues of police reform and how far it should go.

Biden’s solid support among Black voters—87 percent voted for him, according to exit polls—helped the former vice president win the White House, and now many voters, both Black and white, expect him to follow through on promises to address their concerns over racism in America.

The police killings of George Floyd and other Black Americans sparked widespread outrage. The unrest catapulted the issue of racial injustice into the national spotlight.

Biden has acknowledged the racism that Black Americans continue to face on a daily basis. He also pledged to include the push for racial justice into all parts of his economic agenda.

“If you say we have no need to face racial injustice in this country, you haven’t opened your eyes to the truth in America,” Biden said in October.

Most Americans supported the racial injustice protests over the summer, according to polls. But those protests also led to some backlash and debates. Among them is a battle over police reform and how far it should go.

Biden had solid support among Black voters. In fact, 87 percent voted for him, according to exit polls. That helped the former vice president win the White House. Now, many voters, both Black and white, expect him to follow through on promises to address their concerns over racism in America.

Biden sees climate change as a historic crisis.

Biden has laid out plans for closing the racial wealth gap, making it easier for African Americans to buy a home, and helping minority-owned businesses.

Biden’s running mate Kamala Harris—who will be the first woman, the first Black American, and the first Asian American to serve as vice president—has also stressed the importance of these issues.

Jaymes Savage, a 19-year-old Black man from Philadelphia, hopes that a Biden-Harris administration will make a difference in his life. “I feel as though,” Savage says, “that he really is going to try to help us more now.”

Biden has laid out plans for closing the racial wealth gap, making it easier for African Americans to buy a home, and helping minority-owned businesses.

Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, will be the first woman, the first Black American, and the first Asian American to serve as vice president. She has also stressed the importance of these issues.

Jaymes Savage, a 19-year-old Black man from Philadelphia, hopes that a Biden-Harris administration will make a difference in his life. “I feel as though,” Savage says, “that he really is going to try to help us more now.”

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Kim Jong Un (center), North Korea’s dictator, inspects equipment for his country’s nuclear program.

6. Foreign Policy

An end to ‘America First’