Joseph R. Biden will be sworn in Wednesday as the 46th president, realizing a lifelong White House dream and also taking complete control of Washington political power for his Democratic Party.
But his power to enact sweeping changes is constrained by the limited reach of executive action and the narrow majorities in Congress that will force him to appease the various wings of his party and work with Republicans reeling from the ugly ending of President Trump’s four-year term.
The 78-year-old Mr. Biden inherits a nation facing an array of crises — many stemming from the coronavirus — that further polarized the nation and exposed deep divisions along economic, political and racial lines.
“The hope is that the Biden folks are going to be able to find common ground with Republicans on at least a handful of issues — most immediately the COVID aid package — before the next campaign cycle takes over and getting stuff done becomes much more difficult,” said Democratic strategist Jim Manley, who served as a top aide to then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.
Mr. Reid, who retired in 2017 after representing Nevada for 30 years, has argued that Mr. Biden should give the GOP three weeks to work with him before moving to scrap the Senate filibuster, allowing passage of bills with a simple majority.
Mr. Manley said he expects Mr. Biden, who spent four decades in the Senate, to be more patient. Plus, he is not convinced Senate Democrats are eager to kill the legislative filibuster — pointing out that West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin has publicly opposed the idea.
“The question for me is how long President-elect Biden is going to give Republicans to try and negotiate compromises before he focuses more on executive actions,” he said. “The problem is after seeing 147 House Republican vote hours after the riots in the Capitol to steal the election one last time, it is very difficult to imagine things changing any time soon.”
For his part, Mr. Biden plans to hit the ground running with a series of executive directives and legislative proposals that in some cases seek to unwind parts of President Trump’s agenda and that will go a long way in defining the early innings of his presidency.
Mr. Biden plans to rescind Mr. Trump’s travel bans on many predominantly Muslim countries, rejoin the Paris climate accord, and extend limits on evictions and foreclosures for people struggling to pay their rent or mortgages.
On the legislative front, Mr. Biden has a $1.9 trillion emergency relief plan that includes billions for a national vaccination program and reopening schools, $1,400 stimulus checks and a $15 federal minimum wage.
He’s pledging to deliver 100 million COVID-19 vaccinations in 100 days and planning to push a rewrite of immigration laws that, among other things, calls for a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
The frenzy of activity will come as the Senate takes up an article of impeachment from the House that charge Mr. Trump with the “incitement of insurrection” after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol two weeks ago.
It all will test Mr. Biden’s insistence that the 36 years he spent in the Senate and 8 years as vice president has given him the institutional knowledge needed to navigate the corridors of power in Washington and cut through partisan gridlock.
Scott Jennings, a GOP strategist, said Mr. Biden will have some room to run when it comes to getting Americans vaccinated, and get caught up in traditional legislative battles on other fronts.
“I think broadly on vaccinations and on a secondary matter on coronavirus, he will have a lot of support,” Mr. Jennings said. “I think the way Republicans may be interpreting this is, ‘We will work with you, but we will not roll over for the far-left agenda’” now that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will hold the tie-breaking vote in the Senate.
Mr. Jennings said a big challenge for Mr. Biden will be getting the left-flank of his party to understand that he won’t be able to pass their liberal priorities with a snap of his fingers.
“His challenge is to get his people to understand that some portion of a loaf is better than no loaf at all,” he said.
Jon Cooper, a long-time Biden supporter, past donor and informal advisor to his presidential campaign, said if anyone can cut through the political partisanship in Washington “it is Joe Biden.”
“The problem is unfortunately these are truly unprecedented times of hyperpartisanship and some of these members of Congress — both in the House and Senate — are very extreme and have made it quite clear they have no inclination to work with the new president,” Mr. Cooper said.
“Because of these, I believe he is going to be moving aggressively — not just the first 100 days, even the first day in office — to do what he can through executive action because it is not going to be easy to put together a bipartisan coalition — particularly in the Senate, where a simple majority is not enough to pass legislation,” he said.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky forecast his approach, saying the November elections “did not hand any side a mandate for sweeping ideological change.”
“Americans elected a closely-divided Senate, a closely-divided House, and a presidential candidate who said he’d represent everyone,” he said. “So our marching orders from the American people are clear. We are to have robust discussions and seek common ground. We are to pursue bipartisan agreement everywhere we can.”
Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut Democrat, said he hopes the parties can see eye-to-eye in a time of crisis “unlike anything we’ve seen in our lifetime,” but said he is skeptical of the GOP’s willingness to work with Mr. Biden.
“I think they are going to take it one day at a time. One issue at a time,” he said of a Biden White House. “Obviously there’s a lot of suspicion and doubt on our side given the history of McConnell in the minority under the Obama administration.”
Mr. Manley said the next president also faces challenges in the lower chamber, where House Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn’t have much wiggle room when it comes to shepherding Mr. Biden’s agenda through a divided Democratic caucus.
“She is going to have to spend a lot more time and energy touching all the corners of the caucus getting people on board and it is going to slow things down and time is of the essence,” Mr. Manley said.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris traveled to Washington on Tuesday to participate in a national COVID-19 memorial service at the Lincoln Memorial ahead of his swearing-in on Wednesday.
The inauguration is set to be a scaled-down — and mostly virtual — event given the violent assault on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob and concerns over the coronavirus that has killed 400,000 Americans.
It kicks off at 11 a.m. EST.
Ms. Harris will be sworn in by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, and Mr. Biden will be sworn in by Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris will then visit Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
They will be joined by former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, and former first ladies Michelle Obama, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton.
From there, Mr. Biden and Ms. Harris will receive a military escort to the White House, kicking off a virtual “Parade Across America” livestream event featuring communities across the nation.
• Alex Swoyer and David Sherfinski contributed to this report.