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OpinionColumnistsDan Janison

Joe Biden faces a low bar for 'normalcy,' but high hurdles for sweeping change

President-elect Joe Biden speaks Monday about the U.S.

President-elect Joe Biden speaks Monday about the U.S. economy in Wilmington, Del. Credit: Getty Images/Joe Raedle

Especially at 77, President-elect Joe Biden is not the man to begin airy experiments in governance. Just returning the executive branch to what is considered "normal," and canceling the bizarre sideshows, could be Biden's most basic mandate. The voters may not have dared to ask for more.

Mobilizing a national effort against COVID-19 offers the incoming administration its biggest opening challenge. This echoes in some ways the massive financial crisis President-elect Barack Obama inherited when he won in 2008. With the current White House passive on the health and economic crisis, Biden can look good just by supporting conventional policies from medical experts. That's probably not asking for too much.

Still unsettled is the matter of how much clout congressional Republicans will have to oppose or alter Biden's initiatives. With two Senate runoffs scheduled for Jan. 5 in Georgia, the GOP is likely to hold that chamber's majority and thus keep the power to obstruct or at least edit initiatives in the Democratic House. So while Biden won convincingly, he's unlikely to enjoy a free legislative hand on pandemic aid programs, taxes, regulations or immigration.

On Monday in Delaware, he pledged to pursue "a fairer tax structure" and said he wanted to see a $15-per-hour minimum wage nationwide. He said no federal contracts will be given to companies that do not make products in the United States.

Biden was so far from taking radical stances during the campaign that the GOP found it necessary to contrive an overwrought warning that he'd be "controlled" by socialists in the Democratic ranks.

Expect incremental changes on key issues. Back in the day, Biden supported what turned out to be unpopular trade deals. But as he tries to look like a friend of labor unions, don't expect him to reverse all tariffs right away.

"I think he needs to take a look at them and review them," Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, told The Wall Street Journal. "Some tariffs are a valid way to enforce trade that’s violating agreements. But a shotgun approach with tariffs is much ado and not very effective."

Even if Biden’s impact on immigration, health care and other thorny issues is minimal, at least in the first year, he does not need the Senate or the House to end the current operational chaos in the White House. For example, he easily can crack down on ethics breaches such as repeated violations of the Hatch Act, which prohibits federal employees from the use of public office for partisan purposes.

He can work on altering whatever deregulations his Cabinet might see as industry giveaways rather than suitable mandate relief. He can reassert the Justice Department's independence in politically sensitive prosecutions. Expect many Trump administration directives to be reversed, and a mere change in tone on European and Asian alliances will draw outsized notice.

For what it's worth, professionalism by government bureaucrats promises to be back in fashion, and silly suppressions — such as censorship in government documents of scientific findings about the environment — ended.

Don't expect a withdrawal of police funds, an expansion of the Supreme Court or continued pressure on states and localities to help lock up people living in the country illegally. Changes in energy policy are likely, to some degree.

Consider Biden's statement on Nov. 7: "With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation. It’s time for America to unite. And to heal. We are the United States of America. And there’s nothing we can’t do, if we do it together."

The rhetoric sounds normal to the point of cliché. But it may be enough.

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