The Biden Agenda: Obstacles and Opportunities

By POLITICO Staff
·3 min read

Joe Biden wants to expand Obamacare and add a public insurance option. He plans to bring back strict carbon emissions for power plants and promises a zero-emissions economy by 2050.

He also says he’ll stop the border wall construction, raise taxes on households that make more than $400,000 a year and scale back President Donald Trump’s tariffs.

Now for the reality check: Trump’s regulatory rollbacks and legislative successes, matched up with a federal judiciary now stacked with Trump-appointed conservatives, have created an environment that could easily stymie the dreams of a sweeping progressive agenda under a Biden presidency.

The prospect of a Republican Senate is already scaling back the Biden agenda. And the onslaught of legal challenges from the Trump campaign may distract from Biden's plans.

In some cases, creating new regulations will take months, maybe years. Regulations have to go through a tedious proposal, rule-making and public comment process — and Biden can’t just press an accelerator pedal to make it go faster. And some regulations could just get knocked down in court by Trump judges.

“We have to remember that all of our actions can be challenged in court and the Trump administration has stacked all these courts with the most conservative judges,” said Rep. Judy Chu (D-Calif.).

On the industry front, Biden will face massive pushback from the fossil fuels industry on much of his climate agenda — and he may be inclined to listen to their pleas, having promised places like Pennsylvania that he won’t kill fracking.

And with a tight Senate, Biden can't just bulldoze his way through legislation on tax increases, technology company crackdowns or Obamacare options.

So while progressive icons like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are already angling for prominent cabinet positions to push a progressive agenda, the reality of the incoming Biden administration is that they will have to legislate, negotiate, compromise and at times just ditch their campaign dreams in favor of a realistic approach to governing a polarized country.

To be sure, there will be some low-hanging fruit for Biden, like lifting the Pentagon’s transgender ban, rejoining the Paris climate agreement and reversing rules that stripped federal funding from Planned Parenthood.

But the first order of business will be building out a robust pandemic response that includes using the Defense Production Act to produce protective gear for health care workers, while pushing a massive economic stimulus that could top $2 trillion. The lingering question of a national mask mandate will loom large for Biden.

As Biden puts together his transition team, his West Wing apparatus and his Cabinet nominees, his closest advisers have been gaming out the various scenarios for what Washington will look like after Jan. 20. And many of his supporters are clear-eyed about the scope of the task ahead.

“Biden’s transition team as well as Biden himself are going to have to be changing tires as the car is speeding down the highway, and changing four tires at the same time,” said Robert Reich, a former Labor secretary under President Bill Clinton. “It will be extraordinarily difficult. The challenge will be huge. And to make matters worse, the country is deeply divided.”

On other priorities, from education reform to national security to housing policy, Biden will have to spend the first several months of his presidency contending with two countervailing forces: the urgency of acting fast while he still has a honeymoon with the American people, and the reality of moving policy through the stubborn Washington bureaucracy. He’ll also have to maneuver around a wounded Republican Party that is aggressively plotting how to win back power in the next election.

POLITICO looked at nine policy areas under the Biden presidency — what’s being proposed, what’s possible, and what’s off the table.

Megan Cassella and Alice Miranda Ollstein contributed to this report.