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Assume Joe Biden wins the presidency. Assume as well that he genuinely intends to repair the damage our country has sustained since we declared ourselves history’s “indispensable nation,” compounded by the traumatic events of 2020 that demolished whatever remnants of that claim survived. Assume, that is, that this aging career politician and creature of the Washington establishment really intends to salvage something of value from all that has been lost.
If he seriously intends to be more than a relic of pre-Trump liberal centrism, how exactly should President Biden go about making his mark?
Here, free of charge, Joe, is an action plan that will get you from Election Night through your first two weeks in office. Follow this plan, and by your 100th day in the White House observers will be comparing you to at least one President Roosevelt, if not both.
On Election Night (or whatever date you are declared the winner): Close down your Twitter account. Part of your job, Joe, is to restore some semblance of dignity to the office of the presidency. Twitter and similar social media platforms are a principal source of the coarseness and malice that today permeate American politics. Remove yourself from that ugliness. Your predecessor transformed a presidency that had acquired imperial pretensions into an office best described as a cesspool of grotesque demagoguery. One of your central tasks will be to model a genuine alternative: a presidency appropriate for a constitutional republic, where reason, candor, and a commitment to the common good really do prevail over partisan name-calling. That’s a lot to ask for, but returning to a more traditional conception of the bully pulpit would certainly be a place to start.
During the transition: Direct your press secretary to announce that on January 20 there will be no ritzy Inaugural balls. Take your cues from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s inauguration for his fourth term in office, a distinctly low-key event. After all, in January 1945, the nation was still at war; victory had not yet arrived; celebration could wait. Our present-day multifaceted crisis bears at least some comparison to that World War II moment. So, as you plan your own inauguration, ditch the glitz. A secondary benefit: You won’t have to hit up wealthy donors for the dough to pay for the party. And with no party, you won’t have to worry about inaugural festivities triggering another spike in Covid-19 infections.
In addition to selecting a cabinet and ignoring your predecessor’s bleating, the main focus of your transition period has to be policy planning. When you take office, the coronavirus pandemic will still be with us: That’s a given. Even if optimistic predictions of an effective vaccine becoming available by early 2021 were to pan out, we won’t be out of the woods. Not faintly. So your number-one priority during the transition must be to do what Trump never came close to doing: Devise a concrete national strategy for limiting the spread of the virus along with a blueprint for prompt and comprehensive vaccine distribution when one is ready.
That said, it would also be prudent to engage in quiet contingency planning to lay out possible courses of action should your predecessor refuse to acknowledge his defeat (“rigged election!”) or leave the White House.
On January 20, the big day arrives.
Noon, Eastern Standard Time: With the chief justice of the Supreme Court presiding, take the oath of office in the East Room of the White House in the presence of Vice President Kamala Harris and your immediate family. No inaugural address, no parade, no festivities whatsoever. Make like you’re George Washington: He wasn’t into making a fuss. When the ceremony ends, have lunch and get down to work.
That afternoon: Issue an executive order directing the formation of a National Commission on Reconciliation and Reparations, or NCRR. Recruit Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates or another scholar of comparable stature to head the effort. While likely to be a lengthy and contentious endeavor, the NCRR will provide a point of departure for addressing the persistence of American racism by taking on this overarching question: What does justice require?
That evening: Speak to the nation from the Oval Office. Make it brief. Your address will set the tone for your administration. The nation has its hands full with concurrent crises. The moment calls for humility and hard work, not triumphalism. Don’t overpromise. Consider Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address as a model. Curb your inclination to blather. Abe needed only 701 words. See if you can better that.
Day 2: In a letter to House and Senate leaders, unveil the details of your coronavirus strategy, which must include: (1) a national plan to curb the existing Covid-19 outbreak and prevent future ones; (2) a nationwide approach to vaccine distribution; (3) a strategy for averting and, if needed, curbing the outbreak of comparable diseases; and (4) adequate funding of key government pandemic relief and prevention facilities and activities. In the process, identify near-term and longer-term funding requirements that will require congressional action.
Day 3: Issue an executive order reversing the announced withdrawal of the United States from the Paris climate accords. Describe this as just an initial down payment on the $2 trillion Green New Deal you promised Americans during the election campaign. Joe, if you can make meaningful progress toward curbing climate change, future generations will put you on Mount Rushmore in place of one of those slaveholders.
Day 4: Send a personal message to the German chancellor, the British prime minister, and the presidents of China, France, and Russia, declaring your intention to recommit the United States to the Iran nuclear deal that Donald Trump ditched in 2018. Quietly initiate the process of opening a back channel to the Iranian leadership. (I’ve got colleagues who might be able to lend a hand in laying the groundwork. Let me know if the Quincy Institute can be of help.) That same day, on your first visit as president to the White House press room, casually mention that the United States will henceforth adhere to a policy of no-first-use regarding its nuclear weapons. Simultaneously, tell the Pentagon to stop work on “modernizing” the US nuclear arsenal. That’s $2 trillion that can be better spent elsewhere. No first use will flush “fire and fury like the world has never seen” down the toilet. Generals, weapons contractors, and aging Cold Warriors will tell you that you’re taking a great risk. Ignore them and you will substantially reduce the possibility of nuclear war.
Day 5: Issue an executive order suspending any further work on your predecessor’s border “wall.” At the same time, announce your intention to form a nonpartisan task force to recommend policies related to border security and immigration, whether legal or otherwise. Ask former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro to chair that task force, with a report due prior to the 100th day of your presidency.
Day 6: Accompanied by Secretary of State Elizabeth Warren, visit the State Department for an all-hands-on-deck meeting. Let it be known that your administration will reserve all senior diplomatic appointments for seasoned Foreign Service officers. No more selling of ambassadorships to campaign contributors or old friends hoping to acquire an honorific title. Make clear your intention to revitalize American diplomacy, recognizing that the principal threats to our well-being are transnational and not susceptible to military solutions. The Pentagon can’t do much to alleviate pandemics, environmental degradation, and climate change. Those true national security crises will require collaborative action. Also use this occasion to announce the formation of a nonpartisan task force that will recommend ways to reform and re-professionalize the Foreign Service. Top-flight diplomacy requires top-drawer diplomats. Ask former Ambassadors Chas Freeman and Thomas Pickering, both savvy global thinkers and seasoned diplomats, to cochair that effort, with instructions to report back by July 11, the birthday of John Quincy Adams, our greatest secretary of state.
Day 7: Begin your morning by inviting Gen. Mark Milley to the Oval Office for a one-on-one meeting. Ask him to tender his immediate resignation as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Milley’s participation in the infamous Lafayette Square stunt, even if unwitting, renders him unfit for further employment. Later that same day, visit the remaining chiefs in the Pentagon. Explain your intention to commence a wholesale reevaluation of the US military’s global posture—command structure, bases, budgets, priorities, and, above all, emerging threats. Ask for their forthright assistance in this endeavor, making it clear that anyone obstructing the process will be gone.
Day 8: Call on Ruth Bader Ginsberg in her chambers at the Supreme Court. Invite her to retire now that the Senate is in Democratic hands. Offer private assurances that her successor will be (a) liberal; (b) a woman; (c) a person of color; and (d) a distinguished jurist.
Day 9: Do what your predecessor vowed to do, but didn’t: End America’s endless wars. At your first full-fledged cabinet meeting, charge your new defense secretary, James Webb, with providing a detailed schedule for a deliberate, but comprehensive withdrawal (no ifs, ands, or buts) of US forces from Afghanistan and the Persian Gulf, with a completion date by the end of your first year in office.
Day 10: Visit Mexico City. Engage in a trilateral discussion with President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. At day’s end, sign the Declaration of Tenochtitlan affirming a common commitment to democracy, the rule of law, human rights, economic growth, and continental security. Your predecessors have taken Mexico and Canada for granted. You will correct that oversight. In fact, no two countries on the planet are of greater importance to the well-being of the American people.
Day 11: Invite China’s president Xi Jinping for an informal meeting at Camp David at a date of his choosing. As you know, Joe, the United States and China are hurtling toward a new Cold War. Reversing the momentum of events will prove difficult indeed. This will require considerable personal diplomacy on your part. Given the need for the planet’s two major economic powers to cooperate on lowering greenhouse gasses globally, nothing is more important than this. Start now.
Day 12: Announce plans to visit NATO headquarters in the near future. Begin quiet consultations with European members of the alliance to nudge them toward taking responsibility for their own security. Let them know that before the year is out you intend to make public a 10-year timetable for withdrawing all US forces from Europe. That will concentrate minds in London, Paris, Berlin, and elsewhere in the alliance.
Day 13: Convene a meeting of the best minds in tech (which, by the way, does not necessarily mean the wealthiest tech tycoons). Pick their brains on the issue of privacy. This challenge will extend beyond your presidency. You can at least highlight the problem.
Day 14: You’re 78, the oldest man ever to walk into the Oval Office as president. Be smart. Take a day totally off to recharge your batteries. You have a long way to go.
Joe, you’re a bit long in the tooth for the duties you’re about to assume. Keep in mind the adage that applies to all us old folks: Time is fleeting. We never know how much we have left, so seize the moment. No offense, but your days (like mine) are numbered.
Good luck. I’ll be pulling for you.