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Joe Biden confronts a leadership moment

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Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
Updated 8:38 AM ET, Tue February 16, 2021

(CNN) — An exhausted and impatient nation needs the kind of clarity and leadership only a president can provide as the coronavirus pandemic reaches a potentially decisive stage.

President Joe Biden’s responsibilities go far beyond the $1.9 trillion Covid-19 rescue plan on the launchpad in Congress, a federal effort to swiftly accelerate vaccines and a push to get more relief to millions of unemployed.
There have been some signs in recent weeks that an injection of new White House urgency has improved the organization of the anti-Covid-19 effort and coordination with state governors who cried out for months for help. Biden has used executive orders to step up efforts to fight the pandemic, for instance enforcing mask mandates for interstate travel. On Tuesday, the administration extended foreclosure and mortgage payment forbearance until the end of June for borrowers caught in the economic crash.
But on his first official trip outside Washington on Tuesday to Wisconsin, highlighted by a presidential appearance at a CNN town hall at 9 p.m. ET, Biden faces urgent questions about how much of normal life can resume in the months to come.
    After four weeks in the White House — which his team used to understand the full scope of Donald Trump’s negligence on the pandemic while Washington was consumed by the ex-President impeachment trial — Biden is now in a position to assume responsibility and, if necessary, blame for the federal effort.
    With millions of parents anguished over the plight of their kids — many of whom haven’t attended in-person classes for a year, he is under pressure to set expectations on school openings that his team has so far struggled to provide.
    The country wants to know whether a swift fall in new infections after a holiday surge is the start of the end of the nightmare. Can the White House speed up its promise for sufficient vaccine doses for everyone by the end of summer? Or should we brace for yet another wave of sickness and death because of proliferating variants may challenge the effectiveness of the program?
    And how do states balance political and economic pressure to lift restrictions on businesses such as restaurants as cases ease, knowing that letting up could give a mutating pathogen a new opening? Trump’s irresponsible pressure for a swift reopening last year for his own political reasons helped cause a horrible summer surge across the Sun Belt. Yet with many governors from both parties desperate to restore freedoms, an attempt by Biden to counsel patience could cause further political discord.

    Steeling national resolve

    Biden also faces a more fundamental task that falls to presidents in times of crisis. He must craft a national narrative about the current scale of the challenge and chart a path to the light in a way that might restore morale amid the darkest winter of modern times.
    With nearly half a millions citizens dead, he leads a country emotionally and mentally beaten down by nearly a year of isolation and separation. The psychological pressure is exacerbated by the fear of contracting Covid-19 experienced by anyone on an errand as simple as going to the supermarket.
    It’s much worse for essential and manual workers who lack the luxury of working from home.
    Biden is well suited to the pastoral aspects of the presidency, after enduring a life of tragedy. But the test he faces in summoning national resolve and is more daunting than for any new president since Franklin Roosevelt.
    Four weeks ago, in his inaugural address, Biden sought to steel Americans for the fight ahead, to instill hope that it would be inevitably won and to call for unity, without which he argued a rebound was impossible.
    A White House official told CNN Tuesday that the President would pitch his pandemic relief plan at the town hall but, after being largely confined to Washington, he was also looking forward to a two-way conversation and to “listen and hear the challenges” Americans are going through.
    The event will also give the President a first chance to publicly address the aftermath of the impeachment trial.
    After keeping his distance from the drama in the Senate, Biden bought himself the room to perform a healing role in its wake. In a written statement on Saturday, he pleaded with Americans to “end this uncivil war and health the very soul of our nation.”

    Hope or a false dawn?

    Biden does have good news to share. A total of 42 states are showing downward trends in Covid-19 infections. New daily case counts have dropped more than 20% from the previous week for 10 consecutive days and the current rate of decrease is steeper than at any other time during the pandemic. While case counts are generally lower on weekends and holidays, the President’s Day tally of new cases of 53,883 was the lowest since mid-October, according to Johns Hopkins University data. While deaths are averaging 3,000 a day, those figures are expected to soon start falling as well since fatalities are a lagging indicator. Medical experts put the improving picture down to the easing of the Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year holiday spike in infections. Social distancing measures may also be having an effect, but it’s probably too early to conclude that vaccinations being rolled out are a major contributor.
    But there is sign of hope here as well. Daily inoculation totals are now around 1.6 million. A total of 70 million doses have been distributed. More than 53 million have been administered — though only 4.3% of the population has been fully vaccinated. Still, Biden’s administration is on track to exceed his promise to get 100 million vaccines in arms by the end of his first 100 days in office.
    But in a crisis this dire, every hour brings new challenges.
    While Biden has restored almost daily briefings by government scientists, which were missing for many months under Trump, a proliferation of voices have sometimes caused confusion. This has increased pressure for clear and realistic messaging from the President. Biden’s dialogue with the country has been complicated by the strict Covid-19 restrictions taken by his team, partly to set an example for Americans, that have curtailed his travel.
    In normal times, the new president might have been expected to make an address to a Joint Session of Congress by now — a priceless chance to put some policy meat on the more aspirational rhetoric of his inaugural address.

    Confusion on schools and vaccinations

    One area that still needs work is the coordination between Washington and the states. The bipartisan National Governors Association wrote to Biden asking for clarity on who can get vaccinated and when as well as broader issues related to distribution.
    “Due to the anxiety created by the demand and supply of the vaccine, it is imperative that the American people fully understand the process,” the letter said, and included a complaint that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reporting on vaccines distributed to states and administered was confusing the public.
    The association warned of similar uncertainty surrounding the federal government’s dispatch of vaccines direct to pharmacies.
    The question of school opening also remains deeply hazy. And some Republicans, eager to reverse Democratic gains in the suburbs in the 2020 elections, have seized the frustration of parents, accusing the White House of cowering before powerful teachers unions.
    In the latest iteration of the White House position last week, press secretary Jen Psaki said Biden was committed to making sure schools are open five days a week once safety measures are in place. Earlier in the week she appeared to set the target for success at one day a week. The message from the CDC has often been difficult to understand as well. Last week, the agency released a new five step strategy to get schools back to in-person instruction — including wearing of masks and social distancing, but insisted it was not mandating that schools should open.
    A CNN analysis of federal data on Monday showed that 89% of children in the US live in a county considered a red zone for Covid-19 infection. If proper mitigation cannot be carried out in such areas, high school and middle school kids should remain in virtual learning, according to CDC guidelines. And on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said that though teacher vaccinations were not a “prerequisite” for a return to school, the guidance suggested that those with high risk conditions should be prioritized or have virtual learning options.
    Education is an issue that is as much the responsibility of the states and local jurisdictions as the federal government. Those local authorities badly need the tens of billions in funding included in the Covid-19 rescue plan to make schools safe.
      But Biden did run for office stressing his capacity to overhaul the chaotic and neglectful approach to the pandemic of the Trump administration. Problems that others can’t solve end up on the President’s desk. And it is indisputable now, that there is massive confusion about how and when schools will reopen.
      Schools are a totemic issue for many Americans — and are also crucial to freeing up parents to return to the work force to ease the economic crash. If Biden can get America’s kids back in class safely, he would make huge strides towards lifting the national mood — and making a success of the early months of his administration.

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      Politics

      Biden to take first limited steps on gun control, including on ‘ghost guns’ and pistol braces

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      By Kevin Liptak, CNN
      Updated 10:57 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

      (CNN) — President Joe Biden will take his first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official.

      The steps — which also include nominating a gun control advocate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — fulfill a commitment Biden made in the aftermath of two deadly shootings last month to take “common sense” steps right away to address gun violence.
      But they fall short of the sweeping actions Biden promised as a candidate that must be passed by Congress, including a ban on assault weapons or enacting universal background checks. Senior administration officials framed the upcoming announcements as initial steps that would be followed by additional actions later on, including applying pressure on lawmakers to act.
        Biden said last month following a mass shooting in Colorado, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future.” But he has acknowledged that passing a massive new infrastructure plan — and not new gun laws — is his top legislative priority.
          Biden will make the announcements Thursday from the White House alongside his attorney general, Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be responsible for drafting the proposed rules.
              The announcements will come as the President is expected to nominate David Chipman as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a White House official told CNN. Chipman is a former ATF agent who serves as senior policy adviser at Giffords, the organization led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011.
              The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
              Biden also plans to announce new investments in intervention programs in violence-prone communities; a directive to the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” laws for states that allow the temporary removal of guns from people deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others; and a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking.
              Taken together, the actions amount to the first real steps by Biden’s administration to combat gun violence. Inside the White House, efforts to devise executive actions have been led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond, administration officials and gun safety advocacy groups told CNN.
              That included meeting with some of those groups and fielding ideas for steps that Biden could take on his own. Some advocates had been clamoring for steps earlier in the administration, pointing to Biden’s pledge to prioritize gun control during his campaign.
              But initial reaction from gun safety advocacy groups Wednesday evening was positive.
              “Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
              “These much-needed executive actions will start saving lives right away, and our grassroots army of nearly 6 million supporters looks forward to standing behind President Biden as he urges the Senate to follow his lead and act,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.
              While campaigning, Biden had said he would task his attorney general with instituting better enforcement of existing gun laws as a means of slowing gun violence. He also made a campaign pledge to send $900 million for community programs meant to combat violence, something the administration is sorting out how to fulfill.
              Following last month’s shootings, Biden called on Congress to take steps like reenacting an assault weapons ban, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who argued for executive actions on the campaign trail, telling “CBS This Morning” that “if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation.”
              The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales last month, but the bills face tougher paths in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority and would need significant Republican support to overcome a legislative filibuster.
              Biden acknowledged during a news conference that his main legislative priority was passing an infrastructure package and that he believed careful timing was key to the success of any proposed bills.
              And he has acknowledged that his political capital is limited.
              “I haven’t done any counting yet,” he said in March when asked whether he believed he had enough votes to pass significant reforms.
              As the nation’s posture on guns has evolved, Biden has been front-and-center at most every stop along the way for more than three decades, from the triumph of a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 to the disappointment of a failed push for universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
                Recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado had raised the question inside the West Wing over how much political capital Biden should expend on the matter, which has so often ended in frustration.
                This story has been updated with details about Biden’s executive actions and reaction to them.

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                Virginia lawmakers OK marijuana possession starting July 1

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                By Paul LeBlanc and Kay Jones, CNN
                Updated 9:45 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                (CNN) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana, becoming the latest state to modify its laws around cannabis use and possession that disproportionately jailed Black people for nonviolent offenses.

                The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The law also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses,” according to a summary posted to the Legislature’s website.
                “Virginia led and made history once again today,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, said in a tweet.
                  “I was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana and bring long overdue justice, fairness, equity and opportunity to the people of our great Commonwealth.”
                    The bill had originally passed in late February, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam sent it back to the Legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to this July instead of 2024.
                        Still, the measure was met with fierce opposition from state GOP lawmakers Wednesday, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a “train wreck” during a virtual House floor speech.
                        “If this policy change is to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken prudently, and I understand the enormous pressure on the majority party to make this change right now. I understand that opposing immediate legislation and legalization is going to anger many of your constituents. And I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism,” he said.
                        “But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time.”
                        Legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they’ve pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws.
                        “At the end of the day, economics talk and jobs talk,” Jessica Billingsley, chief executive officer of Akerna, which makes regulatory compliance software that helps states track cannabis sales from seed to sale, previously told CNN.
                          “I truly believe we’re going to see some very meaningful and important movement coming out of this as states and governors look for a way to bolster their economy.”
                          Cannabis sales in states that have legalized the plant for medical and recreational purposes totaled about $15 billion in 2019, and are expected to top $30 billion by 2024, according to data from BDS Analytics, which tracks dispensary sales.

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                          Biden’s planned pick for ATF director a fierce advocate for gun control

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                          By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
                          Updated 9:30 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                          Washington (CNN) — David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s planned nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has a long history at the agency and sports credentials in gun control advocacy sure to excite firearm safety groups.

                          If confirmed, Chipman will lead the agency that enforces gun laws at a critical point in Biden’s early tenure, as the President looks to take fresh action on the issue in the wake of two deadly shootings last month.
                          “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said last month. The President plans to announce new executive actions on guns Thursday, a person familiar with the plans said.

                            Longtime ATF special agent

                              Chipman, if confirmed, would return to the agency where he worked for 25 years as a special agent.
                                He lists “Violent Crime Reduction Strategist,” “Certified Explosives Specialist” and “Interagency Liason Specialist” among his specialties on his Linkedin profile, and Giffords notes his expertise includes ghost guns, the gun industry, law enforcement and assault weapons.
                                In the President’s first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, Biden will direct his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official. Ghost guns are handmade or self-assembled firearms that don’t have serial numbers, and some can be fabricated in as little as 30 minutes using kits and parts purchased online.
                                The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                                In recent years, the bureau has become most visible in the aftermath of mass shootings around the US and at other crimes involving firearms. But the agency has a broader scope than just guns.
                                According to its website, ATF “protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
                                “We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology,” the bureau’s website states.

                                Gun control advocacy

                                After leaving the ATF in 2012, Chipman became a senior adviser at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he was “consulted frequently” by lawmakers considering gun control legislation, according to his Linkedin.
                                Chipman then served as senior vice president of Public Safety Solutions for almost three years before arriving at Giffords as a senior policy adviser in 2016.
                                It’s in these roles that Chipman’s voice as a fierce advocate for gun control was elevated, as he frequently wrote op-eds and made media appearances to advance the cause.
                                “As a former ATF special agent with more than 24 years of experience at the bureau, I know all too well how serious our gun violence problem is and how desperately the agency lacks for the law enforcement tools that are necessary to help curb this national epidemic,” Chipman wrote in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
                                The country’s gun safety laws, he wrote at the time, “make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence. This requires strong leadership.”
                                More recently, Chipman voiced support for limiting high-capacity magazines in a 2019 interview with PBS NewsHour.
                                “Talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It’s not normal. And I can’t think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it,” he said. “So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can’t be 100. And so I think there’s room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.”
                                  And in light of FBI records last summer showing US firearm background checks having skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chipman told CNN at the time: “My biggest concern involves the potential number of first time gun buyers who, before March, did not think they needed a gun.”
                                  This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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                                  Andrew Giuliani, former Trump aide and son of Rudy Giuliani, says he plans for to run for governor of New York

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                                  By Devan Cole, CNN
                                  Updated 12:16 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                  Washington (CNN) — Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, says he’s planning to run for governor of the heavily Democratic state next year.

                                  “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, who served as an aide to former President Donald Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview published Wednesday.
                                  Giuliani’s gubernatorial bid could set up a high stakes, headline-grabbing showdown with Andrew Cuomo, should the embattled incumbent Democratic governor decide to seek a fourth term. But Giuliani would face a steep uphill battle in the heavily Democratic state, and his candidacy could help hand another win to the party as his proximity to Trump would likely be seen as a liability in a state where the former President is widely unpopular.
                                    “I believe I can win the race,” Giuliani told the Examiner. “I think I’m the right candidate, and this is the right time to help change New York State, and we’ve got a playbook that works.”
                                      “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate, whether it’s going to be Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, whether it’s going to be a radical (attorney general), Letitia James, whether it’s going to be a no-name lieutenant governor, I think there’s a very, very real chance to win,” he said, according to the magazine.
                                            Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jay Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
                                            “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that he’s more focused on getting through his current troubles, then seeing where he’s going to go,” he said. “These investigations are going to be critical in all of that. It’s hard to tell. I’m sure that, given his druthers, he’d like to run for reelection.”

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                                            Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

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                                            By Joan Biskupic, CNN legal analyst & Supreme Court biographer
                                            Updated 9:07 PM ET, Tue April 6, 2021

                                            (CNN) — Justice Stephen Breyer, who may be nearing the end of his Supreme Court tenure, expressed concern on Tuesday about the standing of the high court and the possible erosion of public confidence in its decisions.

                                            In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.
                                            “These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”
                                              Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.
                                                “The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”
                                                  Some of Breyer’s most compelling opinions, it should be noted, have been written in dissent. In 2007, for example, he objected to an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejecting school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Roberts said districts could not consider a student’s race when making school assignments to reduce racial isolation throughout the school district.
                                                  “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” wrote Breyer, whose father, Irving Breyer, was a long-serving school board member in San Francisco. Breyer still wears the wristwatch his father received upon his retirement from the district. Breyer said the Roberts opinion threatened “the promise of” the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
                                                  Breyer said Tuesday that differences with his colleagues were based on their distinct views of the structure of the Constitution or how they interpreted statutes. He did not refer to instances in which his colleagues themselves have publicly questioned each other’s motives.
                                                    Breyer did allow that sometimes justices weigh public opinion or the future ramifications of a decision. And he acknowledged that the nine are products of their individual backgrounds and experiences.
                                                    Still, he said, “judicial philosophy is not a code word for ‘politics.'”

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