Joe Biden began his first full day as president confronting a host of major crises facing his fledgling administration, starting with a flurry of actions to address his most pressing challenge: the raging Covid-19 pandemic.
At a White House event on Thursday afternoon, Biden unveiled a new “wartime” strategy to combat the coronavirus, vowing “help is on the way.”
“For the past year, we couldn’t rely on the federal government to act with the urgency and focus and coordination we needed,” Biden said, referring to the administration of Donald Trump, which ended at midday the day before.
“And we have seen the tragic costs of that failure,” he said in remarks from the White House, where he was joined by his vice-president, Kamala Harris, and Dr Anthony Fauci, his chief medical adviser and the nation’s top infectious disease expert.
The virus has claimed the lives of more than 407,000 Americans and infected more than 24 million since it first began spreading across the US one year ago. The totals are by far the highest in the world – a point Biden emphasized in his remarks.
Bracing the nation for continued hardship, Biden cautioned that it would “get worse before it gets better” and forecast that the death toll could rise to 500,000 by the end of next month.
“This is a wartime undertaking,” he said, as he signed an executive order invoking the Defense Production Act to increase production of personal protective equipment and other resources.
Among the string of actions Biden took on Thursday was an executive order to require mask-wearing on federal property, in airports and on many flights, trains, ships and long-distance buses. For international travel, the White House instituted a new order requiring passengers to show proof of a negative coronavirus test before boarding a plane bound for the US. International travelers will also be required to quarantine upon arrival.
Biden is seeking to increase the availability of Covid-19 tests and vaccines, with the goal of administering 100m shots in his first 100 days in office.
With thousands of Americans dying each day from the disease and a more infectious variant of the virus spreading quickly, Biden faces significant obstacles on his mission to bring down infections and vaccinate a population of nearly 330 million people.
“History is going to measure whether we are up to the task,” Biden said.
The rush of activity over Biden’s first 36 hours in office aimed marked a sharp break from the Trump administration’s approach to the pandemic. Whereas Trump refused to wear a mask, flouted public health guidelines and boasted about the efficacy of unproven treatments, Biden urged mask-wearing, imposed new rules to enforce adherence to public health guidelines and promised to be guided by “science, not politics”.
“Mask up,” he said, waving a face mask. “For the first 100 days.”
Even as he charted an aggressive approach to gain control of the virus, he was met with more bad news about the economy as another 900,000 people filed for unemployment benefits last week and he inherited the worst jobs market of any modern-day president.
Biden and Harris began their day joined by family at the White House, where they virtually attended an inaugural prayer service held by the Washington National Cathedral, a tradition that has been reshaped by the pandemic.
The president, members of his family as well as his vice-president, Kamala Harris, and her husband sat physically distanced in the Blue Room of the White House to stream the interfaith service. Many of the speakers extended prayers and blessings to the new leaders.
The Rev William Barber, a preacher from North Carolina and civil rights leader who leads an anti-poverty campaign, delivered the homily, calling on the new administration to address what he called the “five interlocking injustices of systemic racism, poverty, ecological devastation/denial of healthcare, the war economy, and the false moral narrative of religious nationalism”.
“No, America has never yet been all that she has hoped to be,” Barber said. “But right here, right now, a third reconstruction is possible if we choose.”
And on Thursday morning John Kerry warned, in his first remarks as the US’s new climate envoy, that the world was lagging behind the required pace of change needed to avert catastrophic impacts from the climate crisis.
Kerry, the former US secretary of state in the Obama-Biden administration, acknowledged that America had been absent from the international effort to contain dangerous global heating during Donald Trump’s presidency but added: “Today no country and no continent is getting the job done.”
The FBI director, Christopher Wray, will remain in the role, Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Thursday. During her first press briefing on Wednesday, Psaki raised speculation that his job was in jeopardy when she declined to publicly state whether Biden had confidence in him.
“I caused an unintentional ripple yesterday, so wanted to state very clearly President Biden intends to keep FBI Director Wray on in his role and he has confidence in the job he is doing,” she said in a tweet on Thursday.
Wray took the helm at the agency in 2017 after Trump fired his predecessor, James Comey, just four years into what is traditionally a 10-year term. Wray’s future had been in doubt for much of the past year, as Trump openly criticized the director and the agency.
Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, Biden’s nominee for transportation secretary, Pete Buttigieg, appeared at his Senate confirmation hearing while the House prepared to initiate Trump’s second impeachment trial.
In an opening statement, Buttigieg, the former mayor of South Bend, Indiana, who ran against Biden for the Democratic nomination, said there was a “bipartisan appetite for a generational opportunity to transform and improve America’s infrastructure”.
The Senate, which officially switched to Democratic control on Wednesday after the swearing-in of three new senators, two from Georgia, has never held an impeachment trial for a former president.
Some Republicans have argued that it is not constitutional to try an official who has left office, but many scholars disagree. Democrats say they are ready to move forward as negotiations continue between the chambers over the scope and timing of a trial.
After impeaching Trump for an unprecedented second time last week, the House has yet to transmit to the Senate the article charging Trump with “incitement of insurrection” over his role in encouraging a crowd of loyalists that attacked the US Capitol on 6 January in an effort to stop the certification of his defeat.
At a press conference on Thursday, Pelosi refused to say when the House would send the article beyond that it “won’t be long”.