Facing intensifying crises, Biden pledges action to address economy and pandemic

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DELAWARE (NYTIMES) – President-elect Joe Biden on Friday (Jan 8) promised an accelerated response to a daunting and intensifying array of challenges as the economy showed new signs of weakness, the coronavirus pandemic killed more Americans than ever, and Congress weighed impeaching President Donald Trump a second time.

As Washington remained consumed with the fallout from the storming of the Capitol on Wednesday and Democrats stepped up their efforts to hold Trump accountable for his role in inciting the attack, Mr Biden signaled that he intended to keep his focus on jobs and the pandemic, declining to weigh in on whether the House should impeach Mr Trump.

On a day the Labor Department reported that the economy lost 140,000 jobs in December, ending a seven-month streak of growth after the country’s plunge into recession in the spring, Mr Biden said there was “a dire, dire need to act now” on the economy.

He pledged to move rapidly once he becomes president to push a stimulus package through Congress to provide relief to struggling individuals, small businesses, students, local governments and schools.

Mr Biden and his aides have not yet finished the proposal or settled on its full amount. Forecasters expect further job losses this month, a casualty of the renewed surge of the coronavirus pandemic and state and local officials’ impositions of lockdowns and other restrictions on economic activity meant to slow the spread.

“The price tag will be high,” Mr Biden told reporters in Wilmington, Delaware.

“It is necessary to spend the money now,” he said, apparently referring to his entire batch of economic plans, including both immediate aid and a larger bill that includes infrastructure spending. “The answer is yes, it will be in the trillions of dollars.” The Biden team is also preparing a wave of economic actions that will not require congressional approval.

Mr Biden’s aides said Friday that the president-elect would direct the Education Department to extend a pause on student loan payments that was initially issued under Trump. Mr Biden called on Congress on Friday to take “prompt action” to raise the federal minimum wage to at least US$15 (S$19.88) an hour.

He also pledged to ramp up efforts to slow the spread of the virus, which is now claiming 4,000 lives each day – more than those who perished during the Battle of Antietam during the Civil War, the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 or the terrorist attacks on Sept 11, 2001.

Mr Biden’s team said the president-elect would immediately provide more vaccines to states when he takes office, breaking sharply from Trump’s practice of holding back some shots for second doses.

“People are really, really, really in desperate shape,” Mr Biden said.

While he said the question of impeaching Trump was up to Congress, he assailed the president once again for his conduct in office even as he sought to position himself as focused on the issues of greatest immediate concern to voters: their health and economic security.

“I thought for a long, long time President Trump was unfit to hold the job,” Mr Biden said. “I’m focused on the virus, the vaccine and economic growth. What the Congress decides to do is for them to decide.”

But,” he added quickly, “they’re going to have to hit the ground running.”

Along with the powers of the presidency that he will assume at noon on Jan 20, Mr Biden will take responsibility for guiding the country through a collision of crises more varied and intense than any that faced his recent predecessors.

In addition to the pandemic and the faltering economy, they include racial tensions that demand reconciliation after simmering for decades and a deep political divide that flared into violence on Wednesday and rocked the country’s assumptions about its tradition of peaceful transfers of power.

“It’s bigger than his presidency. It’s going to take a generation working on all this,” said former President Barack Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel as he entered office during the economic crisis more than a decade ago.

“He’ll take the first steps,” Mr Emanuel said of Mr Biden. “But you don’t deal with 20 years of change in a week or two. This is a generation’s worth of work.”

Mr Biden – who on Friday repeated his promise to work with Republicans to advance his agenda – now faces the real prospect that Trump could be standing trial for sedition in the Senate as he takes office.

That work begins in earnest in 12 days, and aides to Mr Biden said he expected lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to get to work quickly, even as the issue of Mr Trump’s fate dominates the conversation in Washington.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s steps toward impeaching Mr Trump a second time came after a surge of anger by members of both parties at what many called an insurrection by the president’s supporters.

Mr Biden on Friday called them “a bunch of thugs, insurrectionists, white supremacists, anti-Semites” who had “the active encouragement of a sitting president of the United States”.

But Mr Biden seemed aware of the political risk of becoming the primary spokesman for the punishment and removal of his predecessor, and the danger that a drawn-out impeachment and trial could delay or derail his hopes for quick passage of his biggest agenda items.

The president-elect said he thought the events at the Capitol on Wednesday might serve as a defining moment that drove people together, and he singled out Senators Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Mitt Romney of Utah, both Republicans, as examples of political adversaries who shared his anger at what had happened.

“Many of them are as outraged and disappointed and embarrassed and mortified by the president’s conduct as I am,” Mr Biden said.

But in the same breath, he underscored the divisions that remain in Washington, lashing out at Senator Ted Cruz for leading the effort to overturn the election on Mr Trump’s behalf and for spreading misinformation to the president’s supporters that helped whip them into a frenzy.

He said he agreed with some Republicans who have said “how shameful it is the way Ted Cruz and others are dealing with this, how they’re responsible as well for what happened.” When asked whether Mr Cruz should resign, Mr Biden said, “I think they should be just flat beaten the next time they run. I think the American public has a real good, clear look at who they are. They are part of the big lie.”

Mr Biden said he was scheduled to unveil his legislative program for addressing the coronavirus crisis and its economic consequences on Thursday, six days before his inauguration as the 46th president.

Mr Biden and his aides have been struck by two grim numbers in the jobs report on Friday: the loss of nearly 500,000 jobs in December in the leisure and hospitality industry, and of thousands of jobs in public education – a warning sign that state budget cuts could further hold back the recovery in months to come.

They are particularly focused on direct checks to individuals, a policy that Mr Biden and Democratic Senate candidates hammered in Georgia’s runoff elections that gave their party control of the chamber, and on efforts to fight the pandemic by accelerating testing for the virus and the deployment of vaccines.

The contours of those proposals are beginning to take shape. The stimulus package will include Biden’s call for an additional US$1,400 in direct payments to adults and children who qualified for US$600 payments approved in the lame-duck stimulus passed last month, bringing the total benefit to US$2,000 per individual.

The challenge in steering his stimulus plans through a narrowly divided Senate was on display on Friday, when a moderate Democrat, Joe Manchin of West Virginia, said US$2,000 direct payments should not be the first priority for legislation and that he would prefer checks to be targeted “to those who need it”.

Bastion Balance Seoul.