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Biden talks pandemic response, jobs and stimulus — and hints at his strategy for working with Republicans

"It's going to be a nightmare in the Senate, but Biden is the kind of guy who has a better chance than probably any of the other candidates would have to thread that needle," said one economist.
Image: Joe Biden
Joe Biden addresses the nation at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 6. Drew Angerer / Getty Images file

President-elect Joe Biden has laid out his plan to pull the economy back from the brink as Covid-19 cases snowball — but while economists say he is unlikely to get much of his policy wish list from the Republican-led Senate, there are still a number of areas where he could make progress.

Biden had a virtual meeting Monday with the CEOs of big companies, such as General Motors, Microsoft and Target, along with a number of labor union heads. Observers said it was striking that his ensuing speech led with an overview of the meeting and an emphasis on the cooperative spirit — especially because big business and big labor don't typically see eye to eye.

Philip Harvey, a professor of law and economics at Rutgers University School of Law, said that could indicate how Biden will approach the challenge of winning bipartisan support for a significant stimulus bill or other Democratic priorities.

"What it's going to take is a lot of outside pressure. That's where the references to the meeting they had with industrial and labor leaders come in," he said. "What's really going to help is if large-business leaders start making calls to Republican Congress members and put pressure on them. It remains to be seen whether that will work, but I think it's the strategy he's going to have to pursue."

Biden quickly pivoted to a broad overview of his pandemic strategy, touching on developing a centralized testing and tracing strategy that was never implemented by President Donald Trump; public health directives that even Republican governors who initially resisted implemented them are now embracing, such as mask mandates; and the preparation of a vaccine distribution system when one or more of the ones being tested become available.

"I was encouraged to hear President-elect Biden stress getting the transmission of the virus under control," said Wendy Edelberg, director of the Hamilton Project at the Brookings Institution.

In turning back to the economy, Biden urged the lame-duck Congress to redouble its efforts to agree on a stimulus package. "Right now, Congress should come together and pass a Covid-19 relief package like the HEROES Act that the House passed," he said.

Edelberg said it was notable that he used the phrase "like the HEROES Act," indicating that Biden acknowledged the need to negotiate — and, likely, to compromise — further. "I'm not sure that every provision in it is exactly what the economy needs, but it's an excellent starting point for a negotiation," she said.

Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's Analytics, said: "If the economy looks like it might be going back into recession, I think political pressure will be very intense to pass a more fulsome package. The size of the package and what's in it will depend critically on two things — the state of the economy on the other side of the inauguration and the pandemic."

Biden stressed the need to help unemployed workers and cash-strapped families, many facing dual child care and health care crises. He laid out a post-crisis plan that followed the script of the economic platform he ran on, with a focus on eliminating socioeconomic barriers to training and education for students and workers; growing renewable energy, manufacturing and technology; and investing in infrastructure and technological research and development.

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In all those sectors, he emphasized both the opportunity and the imperative to create jobs. Tom Guevara, director of the Indiana University Public Policy Institute, said those are bipartisan concerns — and there are likely to be more if the pandemic continues to ravage the red states that were largely spared in the first wave of infection earlier in the year.

"We have a lot of people who now say that their previous jobs are permanently gone, and history tells us that it will take a long time for those people to get re-employed," Edelberg said. "I think the big risk is that even once the pandemic is behind us, if we have a lot less business activity, which means a lot less labor demand, we now have millions of people who are long-term unemployed and are increasingly detached from the labor market. That is a slow ship to turn."

Guevara added, however, that Biden still will face an uphill battle getting some pieces of his agenda through Congress. "Things that involve transition to greener, cleaner, newer technology for energy production may face some resistance," he said. Biden might have more luck making inroads with a pitch to get Congress to appropriate funds to strengthen the manufacturing sector, particularly in areas with implications for national security, he said.

"The pandemic revealed our dependence on foreign sources of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment and supplies," Guevara said. "Congress is going to have to appropriate money to build that capacity to manufacture. ... We've outsourced a lot of know-how in the last couple of decades, [and] we need to re-shore it."

Political observers said Biden's long history in Washington and his personal relationships with key lawmakers give him a unique opportunity to break the partisan logjam that has characterized recent attempts at pandemic relief.

"Hopefully, given his long relationship with Senate Republican leadership, that might help him [and] put him in a better spot to negotiate and cut some kind of deal," Zandi said.

Harvey said: "What was good about the speech in particular was the theme of cooperation that he struck. It's going to be a nightmare in the Senate, but Biden is the kind of guy who has a better chance than probably any of the other candidates would have to thread that needle."