6 Numbers That Show President Biden's Greatest Challenges
President Biden is calling for unity to address each of the nation's concurrent crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy, race relations and climate change.
It won't be easy because as he settles into office, Biden also inherits a country that is deeply divided. Democrats and Republicans live in very different worlds and get their news and information from very different places, cordoned off by ideology and worldview.
Bringing America together when the trials it faces are, in many cases, the most dire they've been in recent history will prove difficult. And Biden is not shying away from bold initiatives, many of which Republicans are sure to disagree with.
Here's a look at six numbers that highlight the challenges Biden now faces:
Americans are the most pessimistic they have been in decades about the direction of the country.
In the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist survey, 75% of Americans polled said they think the country is heading in the wrong direction, the highest since 1992. On the heels of Biden's win, Republicans' negative outlook, in particular, has increased significantly.
Nine in 10 Democrats disapproved of the job Trump was doing, but 8 in 10 Republicans approved. Now, 7 in 10 Republicans don't think Biden was legitimately elected.
So bringing Americans together is going to be an immense challenge for Biden.
More than 24 million Americans have contracted COVID-19 and more than 400,000 have died, a number once unthinkable. That number is only climbing. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation projects that more than 566,000 Americans will be dead from the coronavirus by May 1. Even with universal mask-wearing and a rapid vaccine rollout, at least 500,000 are projected to have died by then.
Biden has called for all Americans to wear masks for the next 100 days, something three-quarters of Americans support, per the latest NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll. He is also looking to ramp up vaccine distribution, which Americans agree should be his top priority in combating the virus.
Biden has set a goal of 100 million shots in arms in 100 days. So far, about 17.5 million doses have been administered, though only over 2 million people have gotten their second shot and some 20 million more doses have been distributed but not yet administered, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And Biden has an added challenge: convincing people in communities of color and, especially, Republicans to take it, even when there are enough vaccines for everyone. COVID-19 politics are real, as Trump downplayed the importance of wearing masks and the threat of the virus overall.
"We are in a national emergency," Biden said Thursday. "It's time we treat it like one."
The impacts of the pandemic on the economy have been severe. About a third of Americans say they or someone in their household has lost wages or a job because of the pandemic.
In April of last year, the economy shed almost 21 million jobs, as Americans went into lockdown. That situation started to recover some, as things opened up more, but as the spread of the coronavirus got worse this winter, the economy began faltering again, losing 140,000 jobs in December.
Currently, unemployment stands at 6.7%, down from a high of 14.7% in April of last year. That's an improvement, but for context, the 14.7% was the highest since the Bureau of Labor Statistics began keeping statistics in 1948. The 6.7% would have been the worst since March 2014 — pre-pandemic, when the country was recovering from the Great Recession.
Biden's economic plan starts with dealing with COVID-19, including money for schools and money for states and local municipalities to make up budget shortfalls. Beyond that, he wants to do a lot of things.
He wants to reverse the Trump tax cuts but is pledging not to raise taxes for anyone making below $400,000 a year. He wants to raise the top tax bracket as well as corporate taxes; issue penalties for companies that move jobs overseas; increase the minimum wage from $7.25 an hour (equivalent to a yearly income of only $15,000) to $15 an hour, or $31,000 a year; and make it easier to join a union.
He also wants to expand the child tax credit, has a plan to offset some costs of child care and would cancel $10,000 in student loans right away because of the pandemic, plus more for a commitment to community service. And he wants to invest $1.3 trillion in infrastructure over the next 10 years.
Just 36% of Black Americans and 46% of whites say relations between whites and Blacks are at least somewhat good, according to Gallup. Both figures are the lowest since Gallup began tracking the question 20 years ago. Overall, a majority of Americans, by a 54%-to-44% margin, said relations between Blacks and whites were bad.
These figures started to decline at the end of the Obama presidency and further nosedived under Trump, who stoked racial divisions.
For his part, Biden, who was elected with a diverse coalition, is aiming to take on the issue. "We can deliver racial justice," he said in his inaugural speech, "and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world."
And he wasted no time in addressing it. In one of his first executive orders, Biden ordered agencies to "root out" systemic racism and reversed a Trump order declining various diversity and inclusion trainings.
Biden also dissolved Trump's 1776 Commission, which claimed "the left-wing rioting and mayhem are the direct result of decades of left-wing indoctrination in our schools." It was an apparent rebuttal to the New York Times' 1619 Project, which examined how slavery shaped American society in the 400 years since the first slaves were brought to the American colonies.
The Trump administration called it "toxic propaganda."
That's how much damage was caused in the U.S. in 2020 by 16 climate-driven disasters, which cost $1 billion each, as of October.
The average yearly number of these disasters, ranging from hurricanes to wildfires to prolonged heat waves, has quadrupled in the last three decades, NPR's Rebecca Hersher and Lauren Sommer report.
This has also been the hottest decade on record, and last year was just two-hundredths of a degree Fahrenheit cooler than the hottest year ever — 2016. The Earth continues to warm. The planet is now about 2 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than 100 years ago, near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. And it only continues to climb.
While 2 degrees doesn't sound like much, as Hersher and Sommer reported: "Climate scientists say even small changes in average temperature translate to large increases in extremes. Drought and heat feed a vicious spiral, drying out soils and plants which then lead to hotter air temperatures around them."
The West has seen heat waves and earlier-than-normal wildfires, some of which have displaced millions of Americans. And it has seen record temperatures. Palm Springs, Calif., as of October, had experienced 147 days above 100 degrees, a record. Phoenix saw 145 days above 100 degrees in 2020, also the most ever. And all of the top five years of 100-degree-plus days there are in the 21st century.
On his first day, Biden rejoined the Paris climate accord, which Trump pulled out of. He appointed former Secretary of State John Kerry to be the first-ever U.S. climate envoy, a post Biden made Cabinet level. He wants to invest $2 trillion in renewable energy and retrofitting infrastructure; put the U.S. on a course to net-zero carbon emissions by 2050; and incentivize Americans to move away from using cars where possible and more toward public transportation.
Republicans argue that these initiatives would mean drastic changes to the economy, result in job losses in certain sectors and negatively impact energy companies' bottom lines.
That's the average favorability rating from four of the United States' closest allies: the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan. It's the lowest in at least two decades, rivaling only when the U.S. was engaged in the Iraq War.
Views of the U.S. among allies declined under Trump, and Biden is setting out to repair those alliances.
"The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats," Biden wrote of his foreign policy approach in Foreign Affairs.
"The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity — until Trump."
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