Inauguration Day: What are the top priorities in President Joe Biden's in-tray?

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Emma Murphy

Joe Biden has been sworn in as the 46th President of the United States, but what awaits the new president and his administration, and what will be prioritised?

Overshadowing everything at the very start is Mr Biden’s effort to win the approval of the US Congress of a $1.9 trillion plan to combat coronavirus and the economic misery it has caused.

So what are the domestic and foreign issues that Biden will prioritise in the days and months ahead?

Covid pandemic

The Covid pandemic will be Biden’s number one priority with 400,000 American lives lost to the virus.

There will be a definite shift in direction from Biden compared to Donald Trump and he is expected to stress the importance of mask wearing, says Dr Michael Hopkins, Reader in American Foreign Policy at the University of Liverpool.

Biden has said he will ask Americans to wear masks for his first 100 days in office to stop the spread of the virus.

He will also need to oversee the rapid distribution of vaccines, especially to key vulnerable groups and persuade the American public that it is the only way to return the US economy to proper functioning.

The president and vice president share a fist bump during the ceremony Credit: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Biden has already committed $20 billion to vaccinating Americans, including launching community vaccination centres around the country and mobile units in hard-to-reach areas.

Robert Singh, Professor of Politics at Birkbeck University, told ITV News: “He needs to re-establish the credibility of the key federal health agencies and to somehow convince more Americans that they need to get inoculated.

“With a substantial anti-vaccine movement, and deep polarisation, that is going to be tough.”

Biden will present a much more professional approach to dealing with the health crisis than Trump ever did, Dr Hopkins explains, and it is expected he will rely on reputable figures such as the country’s leading expert on infectious diseases, Dr Anthony Fauci.

President Trump has repeatedly made the false claim the US has higher case numbers because it tests more people. Credit: AP

Dr Fauci has already agreed to become Biden’s chief medical adviser, while still remaining the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Healing the rift between Democrats and Republicans

The January 6 riots at the US Capitol have caused some change in the dynamic between the two parties, with some Republicans peeling off from supporting Trump in the wake of the riots and voting to impeach the president.

But these are only the “early stirrings of bi-partisan support” Dr Hopkins explains, and there are fundamental differences between the two parties that will not be healed anytime soon.

Biden’s best bet may not be to heal the rift but to exploit divisions within the Republican party, Prof Singh explains.

“In effect, there are now two broad tendencies in the latter: the pro-Trumpites, or at least those fellow travellers (Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, Josh Hawley of Missouri), who will maintain a quasi-populist/nationalist approach; and those Reagan Republicans who want to return to a pre-Trump. traditional conservatism,” he added.

“Biden may want to focus on areas where he can exploit their divisions and peel off enough traditional types to make a winning coalition.

“He may cloak that in a 'we are all Americans' type patriotism, but in practical terms, governing successfully will rely more on dividing the Republicans than trying to win them all over.”

Passing reform to policing and the criminal justice system amid the BLM movement

The beginning of Biden’s term will look to ease some of the immediate tensions that exist in America – he is committed to tackling racial injustice.

However after the initial honeymoon period, Biden will have to address the complex party politics that exist within the Democrat party.

There is a progressive wing in the party and radicals who wish to push for deep reform of the criminal justice system – including defunding the police.

But this sort of radical reform would raise tensions between the Democrats and Republicans, so Biden may try to introduce some other measures that would appease both sides in a gradual way.

Black Lives Matter demonstrators protest near the White House. Credit: AP

These measure could include addressing how the police deal with suspects, prohibiting certain forms of holds, making the use of cameras mandatory, and denying the use of police military equipment, Prof Singh explains.

“As much as anything, Biden will be able to also use the 'bully pulpit' of the presidency to return to an emphasis on the 'better angels' of America, the need for reconciliation and social justice, and the rejection of the white nationalism endorsed by Trump,” Prof Singh adds.

The economy - and addressing the huge wealth gap

Biden will start to address the wealth gap by introducing a minimum wage, and help the lowest paid, especially those who supported Trump - the white and working class in poor communities.

Biden has called on Congress to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

He could introduce an immediate relief package and more generous Covid support for businesses, the unemployed and the self-employed too.

He could also look to the infrastructure and climate sector to create new jobs and improve people’s living conditions, in a bid to boost the economy.

Biden will wish to address the huge wealth gap that exists in the US. Credit: AP

Taxation will also be a focus of the Biden administration, and increased tax rates for people earning over a certain income level, reversing the tax cuts of the Trump era.

Biden has already pledged to increase the top individual income tax bracket for Americans earning more than $400,000, from 37% to 39.6%. 

Dealing with the nuclear ambitions of North Korea and Iran

On North Korea, Biden is probably stuck with a nuclear state, Prof Singh explains.

He may be able to cut some kind of deal with North Korea's leader Kim Jong-un, in which he agrees not to produce more nuclear warheads and/or missiles in return for negotiations towards normalisation of relations, economic assistance or other goals.

However, Prof Singh adds: “Washington will be very wary, having seen Pyongyang do this so many times before, only to renege on agreements subsequently.

“Biden will likely want the help of China, but that will come at a prohibitive price.

“So, the US is likely to have to pursue a two-pronged approach - trying to see what kind of accommodation can be reached with Pyongyang while reassuring allies (Japan, South Korea) and boosting its military presence in the area.”

North Korea leader Kim Jong-un. Credit: AP

On Iran, Dr Hopkins says Biden will be keen to resurrect the nuclear deal of 2015, in which the Middle East country agreed to limit its sensitive nuclear activities and allow in international inspectors in return for the lifting of crippling economic sanctions, or to create some kind of new agreement.

The deal was abandoned as Iran exceeded the limits of the deal.

There is also a growing anti-Iran coalition in the Middle East, of Israel and Gulf states, such as Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Dr Hopkins says: “These states are conscious of the danger from Iran, a lot of the Gulf states do not like Israel but they like Iran even less.”

President of Iran Hassan Rouhani. Credit: AP

Prof Singh adds: “The nascent anti-Iran coalition in the region will bring huge pressure to bear on Washington to keep up a tough stance on Iran.

“Biden will therefore face major counter-pressures. In addition, his approach - like Obama's - will want to avoid military confrontations and reduce the US imprint in the region.

“On balance, expect some kind of effort to forge a renewed agreement with Iran that resembles the 2015 deal.”

Climate change

Climate change will be a central focus of Biden’s administration, and he will aim to reverse a lot of the decisions Trump made during his term.

In particular, he will be keen to return to the Paris Climate Accord, which the US withdrew from in 2017 – the goal of the agreement is to limit global warming to well below 2C.

However, one of Biden’s biggest hurdles will be whether he can persuade China to sign up to new measures to combat climate change.

In 2016, the Obama administration managed to persuade China to commit to the Paris climate agreement.

The United States joined China in formally ratifying the Paris agreement on climate change. Credit: AP

But it depends on “how far Biden is willing to compromise on other security issues to get China’s cooperation”, Prof Singh explains.

“How easily are they [Biden administration] going to do something similar [to the Obama administration] when the US are confronting the Chinese over a whole host of issues, including Uighur Muslims, Hong Kong and the South China Sea, there is going to be a difficult balancing act,” Dr Hopkins adds.

There are also the issues Biden faces in the US if he does make concessions to China.

Credit: AP

“Republicans will target any concessions to China that look 'soft', for example, and will likely oppose new changes that threaten major economic disruption at home,” Prof Singh says.

“To get to a carbon neutral economy by 2050 - Biden's professed goal - will require a radical change to American economic and social life, huge new spending, and a major shift to carbon taxation to ensure decarbonisation.

“It's doubtful that the political will exists at the moment to do this, especially if it is perceived to threaten economic recovery.”