By historical standards, President-elect Biden faces immense challenges

Many incoming presidents have faced grave challenges upon assuming office. But President-elect Joe Biden will face a unique number of national and political crises on his very first day on the job. NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield examines some of the biggest challenges faced by past Presidents—and how Joe Biden’s stack up against them.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One month from today, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in as this country's 46th president. And while every new president faces challenges when they enter office, his inauguration comes at a time of seemingly unprecedented challenges. For a look at how President-elect Biden's hurdles compare with his predecessors, we turned to Special Correspondent Jeff Greenfield for an assessment.

  • Jeff Greenfield:

    When it comes to a tough beginning, Abraham Lincoln wins the gold medal. By the time he came into office—after sneaking into Washington to avoid an assassination plot— seven Southern states had already seceded. Within a month, Fort Sumter had fallen and the Civil War was on in earnest, a war that haunted Lincoln throughout his presidency. Just five days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox, Lincoln was assassinated.

    But other Presidents who faced grave challenges also had powerful tools. FDR came into office at the height of the Great Depression, with a quarter of the nation out of work and banks collapsing every day. But he also had huge majorities in the Congress and a nation willing to follow him almost anywhere, as it found assurance in his fireside chats. Within 100 days, fifteen pieces of legislation were already in place—the start of the New Deal.

    Richard Nixon came into office in 1969 with the Vietnam War taking hundreds of American lives a week, racial upheaval in countless cities, generational protests that at times turned violent, and he faced a Democratic Congress. But a swift turn toward de-escalation in Vietnam and a drop in urban violence calmed the waters.

    It took 37 days and a Supreme Court decision to put George W. Bush into the White House, with 537 votes in Florida making the difference. But he also had a booming economy, big projected budget surpluses, a Republican Congress, and a much less polarized political climate. After September 11th, a strong hunger for national unity strengthened his political hand.

    Barack Obama took the oath in the midst of the Great Recession with 600,000 jobs lost in just his first month. But big Democratic majorities in Congress gave him just enough political muscle to get his recovery plan—and his Affordable Health Care Act—into law.

    But for Joe Biden, there is trouble on every front. He will take office when winter is at its worst—making the pandemic dangers especially severe. Even his inaugural will have none of the celebratory trademarks of that event. Even if vaccines become available in the spring, the virus's economic impact will cloud his first months, with countless families struggling to find food, save their homes, grapple with the challenges of remote schools.

    On the political front, Biden will have a House with a razor-thin Democratic majority and a Senate that will at best be 50-50, at worst in the hands of a Republican majority with the power to block everything from key legislation to appointments. Moreover, the campaign of Donald Trump to delegitimize the election has taken hold among his party. More than half of Republicans believe Joe Biden did not legitimately win the White House—and that view has been echoed by key Republicans on Capitol Hill. It is safe to say that the prospects for a bipartisan "honeymoon" have never been less likely.

    Further, Biden faces potential trouble from within. The transition has seen progressive and centrists arguing over key cabinet and White House staff positions. And Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a prominent progressive, is publicly calling for "new leadership" in both houses of Congress.

    n fairness, the prospects are not all bleak. If the pandemic eases by mid-2021, the built-up demand for goods, for travel, for entertainment, for a return to normal life, could trigger a huge economic resurgence and with it, a feeling of goodwill. And even with the efforts to discredit his victory, Biden now has a higher approval rating than Donald Trump ever had in his Presidency. Still, it's safe to say that if an incoming president was measured by how difficult the task faced, Joe Biden would find himself very high on the leaderboard.


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