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Good luck, Joe — you’ll need it!

With a new president in office, most Americans no doubt wish the Biden team well and hope that the U.S. will be able to overcome the long list of crises and problems it faces. Containing COVID-19, rejuvenating the economy and closing the huge political, racial, social, gender and income divides are among the most immediate challenges that the new administration confronts. But hope will go only so far.

Even if the Biden administration proposes perfectly constructed policies and plans as the basis for action, a harsher set of realities will prove to be formidable obstacles to effective implementation. Indeed, putting in place an administration will itself take months given the nature of the confirmation process and the physical difficulty during a pandemic of approving the 4,000 appointees requiring Senatorial approval. Consider nine more demanding obstacles. 

First, the U.S. is as politically divided as at any time since1860. While far fewer Trump supporters agree with the former president’s conduct than with his policies, the 74 million votes he received cannot be discounted by the Biden administration. 

Second, an equally divided Senate will require extensive negotiations and compromise on virtually every issue, from committee organization to bringing bills to the floor. If a trial is convened to convict or acquit Trump after the impeachment article is forwarded to the Senate, profound constitutional as well as political consequences and questions, from legality to the impact on public opinion, must be answered. Would conviction or acquittal intensify or diminish the extreme partisanship infecting the nation?

Third, change takes time. The 46th president had promised to vaccinate 100 million Americans in 100 days. He has proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID and economic relief plan and other legislation to Congress. He has already issued several executive orders to reverse Trump administration actions. None of these will result in immediate and obvious effects. Yet, when public expectations run high, impatience is never useful. 

Fourth, while the national debt has skyrocketed, much more spending will be needed. The constraining limits of the Budget Control Act of 2011 meant to limit spending no longer applies, meaning there is no agreement on balancing revenue inputs and outgoing expenditures. Defense spending will be caught in this trap, and any cuts, no matter how necessary, will be used by Republicans to attack Democrats for being soft on national security.

Fifth, it will take time for allies, friends, competitors and adversaries to adjust to a new administration. Allies in Asia and Europe will be relieved and heartened with the end of “America First” and of a president who was demeaning to friends and often more deferential to autocrats. But trust and confidence must be rebuilt. 

Sixth, the administration must balance priorities for the Pacific and China and Europe. At present, the new administration appears to be placing more emphasis on Asia with the hope that Europeans will take greater responsibility for defending Europe. This would be a double mistake, for it would exaggerate the threat from China and diminish the strategic importance of Europe.

Seventh, the number and enormity of crises is itself a challenge for the new president.

Bandwidth and time are enemies of any White House in allocating resources and effort. White Houses can be overwhelmed, especially while administrations are being formed and if many positions remain unfilled.

Eighth, white nationalists and related extremists constitute the greatest domestic threat and probably exceed the dangers posed by terrorism from abroad. But balancing civil liberties with law enforcement efforts to protect citizens can be excruciatingly difficult. During World War I, the U.S. government routinely and preemptively arrested citizens without due process on national security grounds. After World War II, the U.S. government acted irresponsibly in hunting down suspected communists, clearly violating due process and individual rights.   

Will this happen again as domestic terrorism and extremism become leading national security threats? 

Ninth and finally, will Napoleon’s question about generals apply to the Biden administration? Before appointing a general to a key position, Napoleon asked “Does he have luck?” Let us hope Biden has luck.

Harlan Ullman, PhD. is senior adviser at the Atlantic Council. His next book, due out later this year, is “The Fifth Horseman and the New Mad:  The Tragic History of How Massive Attacks of Disruption Are Endangering, Infecting, Engulfing and Disuniting A 51% Nation.”

Tags biden administration Inauguration Day Presidents of the United States

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