What President Biden Inherits

A raging virus, a struggling economy and a fast-growing mountain of debt.

By Brooks Jackson, Robert Farley and D'Angelo Gore

Posted on January 20, 2021

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Summary

As President Joe Biden takes office, he inherits:

  • The worst disease outbreak in over a century, which is spreading faster and killing more people in the U.S. than at any time since it began one year ago.
  • Highly effective vaccines that so far have reached only 4% of the public.
  • An economy struggling with 10 million jobless and millions more out of the workforce.
  • A rising tide of murders — up nearly 36% last year in major cities.
  • Federal debt the highest since World War II, as a percentage of the U.S. economy, and an annual deficit running at $2.3 trillion this year — even before Biden asks for a $1.9 trillion aid package.
  • More monthly illegal border crossings from Mexico than before Donald Trump took office, despite 453 miles of new or upgraded barriers along the nearly 2,000-mile line.

These are some of the numbers by which the future successes or failures of the new president will be measured.

Analysis

COVID-19

The Disease — Biden takes office exactly one year after the first case of COVID-19 was diagnosed in the United States on Jan. 20, 2020.

The virus is still raging out of control, killing thousands more people in the U.S. each day. According to statistics compiled by Johns Hopkins University, 174,589 new confirmed cases were added yesterday alone, and 2,727 deaths. That brings the total U.S. death toll to more than 401,000.

The U.S. has so far done poorly at controlling the virus compared with other nations. In fact, it leads all other countries in the number of COVID-19 deaths. The U.S. has less than 4.3% of the world’s population but accounts for 19.5% of worldwide COVID-19 fatalities. Relative to size of population, the U.S. death rate from the disease is the 10th highest among the 237 countries tracked by the World Health Organization.

The Vaccines — Two very effective vaccines against the virus that causes COVID-19 were approved for emergency use in the U.S. about a month before Biden took office. Pfizer-BioNTech got its authorization Dec. 11 and Moderna’s came a week later on Dec. 18. Since then at least 13.6 million Americans have gotten one or more shots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That includes 2 million who have received the full two-dose regimen required for maximum effectiveness.

But there’s a long way to go. So far only 4% of the population has received a first shot. Although experts are still studying the question, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases, estimates that half the population needs to be vaccinated “before you start to see an impact” and 75% to 85% need to have the vaccine to achieve the sort of “herd immunity” that makes polio and measles the rarities they are today.

Biden has pledged to give another 100 million shots during his first 100 days. But even if that ambitious goal is achieved, it would still fall far short — as of the end of April — of the levels Fauci says are required to begin slowing the spread of the virus.

There were nearly 257 million U.S. residents aged 18 and over in the U.S. as of July 1, according to the most recent Census estimate. (No vaccine is yet authorized for children under 16.) Since two shots are required, the Biden goal would bring the total fully vaccinated to about 56 million or so, or possibly a few million more if Johnson & Johnson gets emergency authorization for its single-shot vaccine, which is still in phase 3 clinical trials.

Jobs and Unemployment

As Biden takes office the economy is struggling and job growth has stalled.

Employment — After losing 22.1 million jobs in March and April, the economy regained 12.1 million from May through November — but then lost 140,000 jobs in December.

The number of Americans employed in December was 142 million, or 3 million fewer than when Donald Trump became president and 9.8 million below the pre-recession peak in February.

Unemployment — The unemployment rate stood at 6.7% last month — well above the historical norm of 5.6%, which is the median rate for all months since 1948.

The number of people officially listed as unemployed stood at 10.7 million in December, about where it was just over seven years earlier when the nation was recovering from the Great Recession of 2007-2009.

And the rate would be even higher but for the fact that 3.9 million people have stopped looking for work since February and are no longer part of the labor force. The unemployment rate is the percentage of those adults in the labor force who have looked for work in the previous four weeks.

That exodus pushed the labor force participation rate down to 61.5% in December, which is 1.3 percentage points lower than it had been when Trump took over from President Barack Obama. That rate is the portion of the entire civilian population age 16 and older that is either employed or currently looking for work in the last four weeks.

Economic Growth

Biden inherits an economy not yet fully recovered from the deep recession induced by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Even before the recession, growth was relatively modest — real (inflation-adjusted) gross domestic product grew 2.2% in 2019, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis, down from 3.0% the year before, which was the best year of Trump’s tenure.

But last year’s GDP was almost certainly negative, wiping out all or nearly all of the previous year’s growth.

The first official estimate of 2020’s year-to-year growth is scheduled for release Jan. 28, and there’s wide agreement that it will be negative. Members of the Federal Reserve Board and Federal Reserve Bank presidents believe the economy shrank in 2020. Their median forecast, issued Dec. 16, was for a 2.4% decline relative to 2019, with estimates ranging from minus 1.0% to minus 3.3%. The more than 60 private sector economists surveyed by the Wall Street Journal this month put the 2020 decline on average at 2.5%.

Most (73%) of the 48 economic forecasters surveyed by the National Association for Business Economics said they believe the economy won’t recover to pre-COVID-19 levels until the second half of 2021.

Crime

Biden takes office with murder rates soaring across the nation, in cities, small towns and rural areas alike.

The number of homicides in the U.S. went down 0.7% in 2017 and 5.3% in 2018, then increased 0.3% in 2019 and began to surge early last year.

The FBI announced Sept. 15 that a preliminary report showed a 14.8% increase in the number of homicides during the first six months of last year, compared with the same period the year before.

That murder spike worsened as the year wore on. On Dec. 15, the FBI published, without any press release or news conference, preliminary figures for the first nine months of the year, showing a 20.9% increase in homicides nationwide, compared with the same period in 2019.

The wave of killing swept over cities large and small. Homicides went up 29.3% in cities with 1 million or more in population, 31.1% in cities of under 10,000 and 9.5% in metropolitan counties.

The FBI’s nationwide report for all of 2020 won’t be available for months. However, New Orleans-based data analyst Jeff Asher reports a nearly 36% increase in the number of homicides last year in 58 major cities that publish their crime statistics.

Wages and Inflation

Biden enters office with inflation under control and the buying power of the average weekly paycheck rising.

CPI — The Consumer Price Index rose 1.3% during the 12 months ending in December, continuing a long period of low inflation.

Last year’s figure was held down by a plunge in gasoline prices and the pandemic-triggered economic recession. But CPI rose only 2.3% in 2019 and 1.9% in 2018. The average yearly increase over the past decade is 1.7%.

Wages — For those who still get them, paychecks are growing faster than prices.

The average weekly earnings of all private-sector workers, in “real” (inflation-adjusted) terms, rose 4.7% during the 12 months ending in December — at least for those lucky enough to still be working.

The size of that sharp rise is to some degree a statistical fluke. The 2020 pandemic hit workers in low-wage industries harder than others, pulling up the overall average.

But real wage gains generally have been increasing since hitting a low point in July 2008 at the worst of the Great Recession. They rose 1.2% in 2017, 1.4% in 2018 and inched up 0.1% in 2019, for example.

Poverty — The poverty rate that Biden inherits can’t yet be pinned down. The pandemic recession hurt low-income people more than others, but massive federal aid also was concentrated on offsetting that impact to some extent. The Census Bureau won’t even collect 2020 income and poverty figures until later this year and normally releases them in September, so we’ll have to wait.

Even then the picture may remain clouded. The 2019 statistics were distorted by the pandemic, which hit just as Census survey-takers were trying to collect data. More people than usual failed to respond, and Census researchers later figured that low-income people failed to answer the survey more often than others, pushing up reported income figures and pushing down the number thought to be in poverty. Census researchers wrote that for 2019, “we estimate a poverty rate of 11.1 percent” of the population, or about 36 million people.

Debt and Deficits

Biden inherits the biggest federal debt since World War II, and a treasury hemorrhaging trillions more in each year.

Debt — The amount the federal government has borrowed from the public stood at over $21.6 trillion at last report on Jan. 15. That’s more than 50% higher than it was only four years ago, and growing fast.

The size of the debt in dollars is easily highest in history. It’s also pushing toward a record level when measured against the size of the economy.

The debt at the end of the last fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, stood at 100.1% of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to the 2021 Economic Report of the President, just released Jan. 15. Debt has only been higher than that twice in history, in 1945 (103.9% of GDP) and 1946 (106.1%).

Deficit — Federal spending outpaced revenues by a record $3.1 trillion in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. In the current fiscal year the deficit is on a course to hit $2.3 trillion even before Biden has signed a single bill.

Biden plans to make that even larger, saying he will seek a $1.9 trillion package to fight the pandemic and its economic effects. He may not get all of that. His party controls both the House and Senate only by slender margins.

Immigration

The Wall — On his way to Texas on Jan. 12, Trump boasted that his administration had fulfilled his signature 2016 campaign promise and “completed the wall” on the southern border. Once at the border, Trump said he had given Customs and Border Protection “100% of what you wanted.” As we wrote, none of that is accurate.

But the border barrier is still significantly more robust than when Trump took office. In total, 453 miles of “border wall system” was constructed during the Trump administration, according to a CBP status report on Jan. 8. Most of that, 373 miles of it, is replacement for primary or secondary fencing that was dilapidated or of outdated design. In addition, 47 miles of new primary wall and 33 miles of secondary wall have been built in locations where there were no barriers before.

Since the land border itself is 1,954 miles long, according to the US-Mexico International Boundary and Water Commission, the new fencing constructed by Trump covers just over 20% of the southwest border. Together with what existed before Trump took office, there are now about 701 miles of barriers along the southwest border, about 36% of the total border.

Biden inherits funding in place to construct another 234 miles of barriers where none existed before, though the new president has said he does not plan to build any more wall.

According to U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ estimates reviewed by the Washington Post, there will be about $3.3 billion in unused border barrier funding when Biden takes office. If Biden immediately stops construction as promised, it would cost the U.S. about $700 million to terminate those contracts, saving the U.S. government about $2.6 billion.

Apprehensions — In his speech from the border in Texas on Jan. 12, Trump said illegal crossings have “absolutely plummeted” due to his wall construction.

Border apprehensions spiked in fiscal year 2019, and then fell by about half in fiscal 2020, which ended on Sept. 30. It is impossible to tease out how much of that drop may be as a result of the new barriers constructed under Trump, but a Pew Research Center report documenting the decline attributed it mostly to a worldwide decrease in the movement of migrants due to the COVID-19 outbreak, and governments fully or partially closing their borders as a result.

But apprehensions/expulsions have crept back up in recent months, and so Biden inherits monthly apprehension levels that are higher than what Trump inherited. Southwest border apprehensions and expulsions for October, November and December, the first three months of fiscal year 2021, are higher than the three months before Trump took office.

Political Polarization

Biden, who has promised to reach out to Republicans in an effort to bring the country together, takes office amid a time of significant political polarization.  

Most recently, a CNN/SSRS poll released Jan. 17, but conducted between Jan. 9 and 14, shows that 75% of Republicans don’t believe Biden’s election win was legitimate, compared with 1% of Democrats and 31% of independents and others who feel the same way. Just 19% of Republicans polled said Biden won legitimately, compared with 99% of Democrats and 66% of others, including independents.

Also, studies show that the tendency of Democrats and Republicans to dislike and distrust members of the other party has been rising for decades.

As of September 2019, for example, a Pew Research Center survey revealed that the share of Republicans who gave Democrats a “cold” rating, 0-49 on a “feeling thermometer” scale, was up to 83%, 25 percentage points higher than the 58% who did so in December 2016 — not long before Trump was inaugurated. Similarly, the share of Democrats who gave Republicans the same rating had increased to 79%, up from 56% nearly three years earlier.

Furthermore, the same survey found that 77% of Republicans and 72% of Democrats said that voters in both parties “not only disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on the basic facts.” Almost half of both parties (53% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats) said the other has almost no good ideas. And when putting politics aside, 61% of Republicans and 54% of Democrats still said members of the opposing party don’t share their same values and goals.

But there was perhaps at least one positive from a Pew preelection survey in October last year: “Majorities of both Trump (86%) and Biden (89%) supporters say that their preferred candidate, if elected, should focus on addressing the needs of all Americans, ‘even if it means disappointing some of his supporters.’”

Editor’s Note: We usually produce a quarterly report called “Trump’s Numbers” in January. But the books aren’t closed on the Trump presidency just yet, so we will do a final accounting later this year. 

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