PBS NewsHour


Biden tackles pandemic's devastating impact on the economy

President Biden has now signed at least 29 executive actions in his first few days in office, many geared toward marshaling government resources to tackle the myriad issues brought on by the pandemic. White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor joins Judy Woodruff to discuss.

AIRED: January 22, 2021 | 0:07:10

JUDY WOODRUFF: Tackling the pandemic's devastating impact on the economy was top of mind for

President Biden today. He assured Americans who are struggling to make ends meet that

help is on the way.

Our White House correspondent Yamiche Alcindor begins our coverage.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: The president's second full day in office, and a focus on the pandemic's

economic toll.

JOE BIDEN, President of the United States: We're in a national emergency. We need to

act like we're in a national emergency.

So, we have got to move with everything we have got. And we have got to do it together.

I don't believe Democrats or Republicans are going hungry and losing jobs. I believe Americans

are going hungry and losing their jobs.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Last week, 900,000 Americans filed for unemployment benefits. Today, President

Biden signed two executive orders aimed at delivering some economic relief.

They include boosting food assistance benefits, improving the equal distribution of previously

allocated direct payments, protecting unemployed job seekers, and raising the minimum wage

for federal employees to $15 an hour.

The move comes as Biden pushes Congress to pass a $1.9 trillion COVID relief package.

That plan would include an additional round of $1,400 stimulus checks. At a White House

briefing, National Economic Council Director Brian Deese said the orders were not a substitute

for congressional legislation.

BRIAN DEESE, Director, National Economic Council: The single most important thing economically

right now is to take decisive action. The risk of undershooting far outweighs the risk

of doing too much.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: At the briefing, White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki also said the Biden

administration would be taking several steps to fight domestic extremism.

They include requesting federal agencies conduct a threat assessment, building on the National

Security Council's capability to counter extremism, and coordinating parts of the government to

combat radicalization. That comes after the January 6 Capitol riot. President Trump is

facing a second impeachment trial. He is accused of inciting that attack.

The trial, though, is complicating the push for more COVID relief. Today, Speaker Nancy

Pelosi announced the House would deliver the impeachment article to the Senate on Monday.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer stressed that lawmakers must balance the Biden

agenda with impeachment.

SEN. CHUCK SCHUMER (D-NY): We have three essential items on our plate, one, the confirmation

of President Biden's Cabinet and other key officials, two, legislation to provide desperately

needed COVID relief, three, a second impeachment trial of Donald Trump. The Senate must and

will do all three.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: For his part, the Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, had pushed

for delaying the impeachment trial until February. He said it would give the Senate more time

to give Trump due process.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY): That timeline would have provided the Senate some more time

before we step up fully into the unknown of a trial, which, by the way, would have been

a substantial benefit to the incoming administration and allowed them to get more of their Cabinet


WOMAN: The nomination is confirmed.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: On the Biden Cabinet confirmation front, today, retired Army General Lloyd Austin

became the first Black secretary of defense. The Senate voted to confirm him 93-2.

Thursday, Congress agreed to exempt Austin from a rule banning recently retired military

officers from heading the department. And the Senate will vote on the confirmation of

Janet Yellen to be Treasury secretary. She would be the first woman to hold that job.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And Yamiche joins me now.

So, Yamiche, so much going on.

Give us, though, a little more insight into these executive actions President Biden is

taking to address the economic crisis.

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, President Biden today really wanted to focus on the economic toll

to have the COVID-19 pandemic, talking specifically about Americans who have gone hungry, Americans

who have lost their jobs, Americans who have been evicted from their homes.

He said that America needed to do better and that these Americans needed the help of the

federal government. There are also a number of Biden officials today who told me that

there needs to be decisive action right now.

Now, in particular, when we look at these executive orders, one of -- in part, what

they do is increase the assistance to low-income families, nutritional assistance. And when

we look at that executive order, I want to in some ways talk to people about, what are

the facts that -- when it comes to food insecurity in this country?

So, as a result, 29 million Americans face a hunger crisis in this country; 12 million

children often don't have enough to eat. One in five Black and Latino households struggle

to secure food when they need it.

Now, the White House says that this is really just a down payment, these executive orders,

and that they need to pass -- the Congress, that is, needs to pass that $1.9 trillion

COVID relief package that Joe Biden is getting some pushback from, especially from moderates

and some Republicans.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, Yamiche, just backing up, looking at this overall, here we are at

the end of the president's first few days in office. He's only -- only has a few Cabinet

members in place.

What do we know now about his priorities?

YAMICHE ALCINDOR: Well, at the end of his first week as president, Joe Biden, it's clear,

has a lot to juggle, and that the top priority for him remains COVID-19.

It is true that he only has a few Cabinet officials confirmed right now. He has two.

That's Avril Haines, the director of national intelligence, as well as General Lloyd Austin,

his defense secretary, who is the first Black man to hold that position.

Now, there is Tim Kaine, just a few minutes ago said that he expects Antony Blinken -- that's

the Treasury -- that's the secretary of state nominee -- to also be confirmed today. He

also says that Alejandro Mayorkas may be confirmed as early as tomorrow. That would be the secretary

of homeland security.

The other thing to note here is that there are a lot of topics on Joe Biden's agenda.

And you can see that, even though, of course, COVID-19 is his priority, he talked about

immigration this week. He put forth plans on that. He also put forth plans on, again,

economic relief, racial justice, criminal justice.

The other thing to note is that all of this is happening, Joe Biden pushing his agenda,

pushing his plans, as that impeachment trial is looming. And the Biden administration doesn't

want to talk about what they -- how they think President Trump, the former president, should

be held accountable for his role in the January 6 Capitol attack.

Instead, they're saying that to leave that up to the Congress. But they are doing something

interesting, which is that they are overhauling, for the most part, the way that this country

deals with domestic terrorism.

Today, as we laid out in the story, they're really going to be asking federal agencies

and intelligence agencies to look very deeply at radicalization in this country, white supremacy

in this country. So, that tells you where all of the things that they're juggling are

- - is heading at this point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: A lot on the plate, no question about it.

Yamiche Alcindor reporting on the White House.

Thank you, Yamiche.