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Biden's Beginning: Executive Orders And A New Presidential Leadership Model


Joe Biden's first full week as president has been a gusher of executive orders, some big legislative proposals and a very different model of presidential leadership. NPR national political correspondent Mara Liasson reports.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: In the first week, new presidents set a tone. With President Biden, it's been disciplined, orderly, a lot like the way he campaigns, says Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at UVA's Miller Center.

BARBARA PERRY: Moderate liberalism, a moderate persona and personality, someone who's not a great orator, not going to set the world on fire but is well-meaning, a good soul, empathetic, feels people's pain.

LIASSON: President Trump's style of leadership was chaotic, bent on keeping the cameras rolling and eyeballs glued to his Twitter feed. Biden is hoping that steadiness and decency do better.

PERRY: Lacking in charisma, but just calm, comforting.

LIASSON: In the Biden White House, there are lots of briefings and fact sheets, a return to what you could call regular order. Biden keeps his public appearances short. He doesn't always take questions. When he does tweet, his tweets are pretty basic like today, we rejoined the Paris Climate Agreement - no caps, no exclamation points, no stoking of the culture wars. And as Biden keeps saying, his top priority is to get things done for the American people.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Today is Climate Day at the White House, which means that today is jobs day at the White House.

LIASSON: And just like Trump put his personal stamp on everything, Biden takes every opportunity to demonstrate that his presidency is about treating everyone with dignity. Here he is addressing hundreds of political appointees during a virtual swearing-in ceremony.


BIDEN: If you ever work with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect, talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot.

LIASSON: Another core Biden message - he prefers bipartisanship if possible, and he's always open to compromise.


BIDEN: Whether we get it all done exactly the way I want it remains to be seen. But I'm confident that we can work our way through.

LIASSON: And Biden's North Star - unity. In his definition, it's not bipartisan agreement on everything, it's just tamping down the partisan dumpster fire. All that makes it hard to demonize Biden, although Republicans are still trying with the same playbook they used during the campaign. Here's Florida Senator Marco Rubio.


MARCO RUBIO: President Biden is talking like a centrist. He's using the words of the center, talking about unity, but he's governing like someone from the far left.

LIASSON: Biden may not succeed in the long run, but for now, he's enjoying a little honeymoon. He has an approval rating in the mid-50s, something Trump never achieved in four years. Biden's challenges are daunting. Still, says David Axelrod, who was President Obama's top strategist, there is a potential upside for Biden.

DAVID AXELROD: Great presidents emerge from great crises. This is Biden's opportunity. He is facing a set of circumstances that are as severe as any president since Franklin Roosevelt - huge challenges but also the opportunity to lead the country out of this morass.

LIASSON: Biden's success will be measured by two simple metrics. How quickly can he get the country vaccinated? How quickly can he get the economy moving again? He's trying to achieve both with a big $1.9 trillion relief plan. Axelrod says Biden has to decide soon exactly how he'll try to get that bill through Congress.

AXELROD: He has two competing imperatives. One is to do things quickly to get the country moving, and the second is to do them in a way that doesn't connote disunity. He wants to show that he can work across the aisle. That's something that people are hungering for. And then he's got to weigh these equities. How much is cooperation worth versus speed?

LIASSON: If he can't get Republican support in the Senate, he can pass parts of his plan with a legislative maneuver called budget reconciliation. That would allow him to pass it with a bare majority of Democratic votes only. How long will he wait to make that decision? Doesn't sound like very long.


BIDEN: And I don't expect we'll know whether we have an agreement and to what extent the entire package will be able to pass or not pass until we get right down to the very end of this process, which will be probably in a couple of weeks.

LIASSON: For Biden, this is a kind of do-over. He was in the White House just five years ago. And the two big lessons his team took away from the Obama years were, one, don't wait too long to find out whether enough Republican senators will work with you. And two, if you want to fix an economic crisis, it's better to spend too much than too little. Now, Biden has given himself just a couple of weeks to see if he can get bipartisan buy-in on his first big initiative and to decide how much of that proposal he's willing to put off for another day. Mara Liasson, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.