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Carl P. Leubsdorf is the former Washington bureau chief of the Dallas Morning News.
When the president changes, the face of the U.S. government changes. Get ready for the most dramatic possible change this week.
The congressional impeachment drive against Donald Trump could complicate the onset of Joe Biden’s presidency. But despite the potential distraction of a Senate trial, the entire character and focus of the federal government will change on Jan. 20 — for the better.
Throughout his troubled, sometimes sabotaged transition, the president-elect made clear he will focus on fixing the health and economic problems besetting the country and restoring the serious tone that has been lacking the past four years.
Biden has asked Congress to supplement the recent inadequate COVID-19 relief measure. His proposal includes the rest of the proposed $2,000 direct relief to individuals, expanded unemployment benefits, help for small businesses and added financial help for the states, including funds to speed vaccinations.
He also plans an array of administrative moves to start undoing Trump’s regulatory rollbacks, notably by restoring numerous environmental protection measures.
Biden appears poised to move quickly to take advantage of the political clout every new president enjoys and show Americans and the rest of the world how things have changed in Washington.
These characteristics are likely to exemplify that change:
Presidential leadership. The new president is expected to send the House and Senate prompt proposals to cope with the country’s two most pressing problems, the coronavirus pandemic that continues to rage, in part due to inadequate national leadership, and the resulting economic fallout.
During the Trump administration, the executive branch usually let lawmakers lead on major issues like tax cuts, COVID-19 relief and repealing the Affordable Care Act.
Besides abandoning the normal executive leadership role, Trump’s White House was often only tangentially involved as Republicans and Democratic congressional leaders struggled to reach agreements, as in last year’s long fight over additional pandemic relief.
Biden’s White House will be much more activist, both making proposals and negotiating their enactment, helped by the fact that fellow Democrats will have majorities in both houses, albeit small ones.
Straight talk. The days of government by instinct, whim and tweet will end. Biden made clear during the transition, as in the campaign, he intends to use traditional means to make his positions clear and act accordingly.
The cascade of commentary from the president constantly tooting his own horn and trashing critics will be replaced by more considered presidential statements.
Until recent days, Biden concentrated on his own proposals and the problems they address. Hopefully, he won’t spend much more time criticizing his predecessor and blaming Trump for the problems he was elected to fix.
Bipartisan outreach. For four years, Trump governed by mobilizing his partisans, both on Capitol Hill and in the country. One of his political failures was his refusal to reach out beyond his 2016 base.
Biden will draw his main public support from the 81 million Americans who voted for him and gave Democrats control of the House and Senate. But he has vowed to reach out to those more independent Republican lawmakers who might back his proposals.
Only time will tell if Biden can attract GOP support. While he is sincere, reality may prove difficult, given continuing partisan divisions. And for whatever reason, he failed to include any Republicans in his Cabinet.
Return to normalcy. Biden has promised a return to such normal procedures as daily White House press briefings. The burden will be on incoming press secretary Jennifer Psaki to restore their role as an intermediary between the administration and the press corps, providing accurate information about Biden’s positions and straight answers to questions, however pointed.
That also needs to happen at the State Department and the Pentagon, which long ago abandoned regular information sessions. Top officials should learn of the president’s intentions through normal governmental channels, rather than by reading his tweets or offhand comments. The American people ought to learn them through official statements, by the president, his spokespersons or other officials.
Competence. Biden has known many of his top appointees for years. Based on their resumes, they will bring experience, knowledge and good judgment.
Biden’s team has handled the transition in a way that promises a more professional, competent government. Still, some nominees will face treacherous terrains, given continuing partisan acrimony.
The newcomers will, no doubt, make political, some substantive and verbal missteps. The federal government is big and often inefficient, and proposals don’t always work as intended.
Still, it should be evident from the moment Biden takes his oath on Wednesday that he will provide more serious, focused leadership than his predecessor.