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The public health presidency

Joe Biden will take office today facing a challenge none of his modern predecessors have had to reckon with — his legacy will depend largely on how well he handles a once-in-a-century pandemic that's already raging out of control.

The big picture: Public health tends to be relatively apolitical and non-controversial. The limelight in health care politics typically belongs instead to debates over costs and coverage. But that will all change for the Biden administration.

"The pandemic is a personal issue. It’s totally different," said Bob Blendon, a professor at both the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health and the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

  • "A year from now, if people can't have their kids go back to school, their families are dying, they can't meet with loved ones, and they can't go to religious services, that’s totally different than the debate over the uninsured," he said.

Where it stands: Biden will be taking the reins of a situation that's arguably at its worst.

  • The U.S. surpassed 400,000 coronavirus deaths yesterday. Cases, hospitalizations and daily deaths continue to hover near record heights, and a more contagious strain of the virus is expected to soon become the dominant one.
  • The initial weeks of the vaccination campaign have been disappointing and chaotic, and widespread vaccine hesitancy, which could undermine the entire effort, will become a more tangible problem as supplies increase.
  • Political politicization, which has hindered every step of the pandemic response, is baked in and isn't going anywhere.

What's next: Biden's plans for the coronavirus hew closely to experts' recommendations, and he's named a highly experienced team.

  • But in a year or so, the results will speak for themselves: The pandemic will either be behind us, or it won't.

The bottom line: "If everybody were to be almost near normal a year form now, he would still have three more years, and other issues would surface," Blendon said. "What will be the defining issue is if it doesn’t work out.”

House passes George Floyd Justice in Policing Act

The House voted 220-212onWednesday evening to pass a policing bill named for George Floyd, the Black man whose death in Minneapolis last year led to nationwide protests against police brutality and racial injustice.

Why it matters: The legislation overhauls qualified immunity for police officers, bans chokeholds at the federal level, prohibits no-knock warrants in federal drug cases and outlaws racial profiling.

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Republicans are demanding a full 600-page reading of Biden’s COVID relief bill

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Why it matters: The procedural war is aimed at forcing Democrats to defend several parts the GOP considers unnecessary and partisan. While the process won't substantially impact the final version of the mammoth bill, it'll provide plenty of ammunition for future campaign messaging.

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Note: Bernie Sanders is an independent who caucuses with the Democrats. Data: Axios Research/ProPublica/NCSL; Chart: Will Chase/Axios

Nineteen seats in the U.S. Senate could potentially flip parties if there's an unexpected vacancy, according to Axios' analysis of state vacancy rules, which most often allow the governor to appoint a replacement.

Why it matters: Depending on the senator, a single resignation, retirement or death — by accident or old age — could flip control of the 50-50 Senate, or give Democrats a two-vote cushion.

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White House works with Democrats to ensure Biden quickly fills any federal court vacancies

The White House is quietly working with Senate Democrats to ensure President Biden has a steady stream of nominees for the federal courts, according to people familiar with the matter and an administration official.

Why it matters: Biden wants the federal judiciary to better reflect the country’s demographics, and to try to shield his unfolding legislative agenda from a judiciary currently dominated by Trump appointees.

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Journalists around the world face record persecution

Around the world, journalists are being targeted at record levels by despots, eager to silence the press.

Why it matters: Experts worry that the United States' wavering stance on press freedoms over the past few years may have empowered autocrats looking to gain power and undermine democracy by going after journalists.

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FBI, Homeland Security warn of increasing threat to Capitol

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security predict violent domestic extremists attacks will increase in 2021, according to a report reviewed by Axios.

Driving the news: The joint report says an unidentified group of extremists discussed plans to take control of the Capitol and "remove Democratic lawmakers" on or about March 4. The House canceled its plans for Thursday votes as word of the possible threats spread.

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Pope Francis set to make first papal visit to Iraq amid possible turmoil

Data: Vatican News; Map: Danielle Alberti/Axios

Pope Francis is forging ahead with the first papal trip to Iraq despite new coronavirus outbreaks and fears of instability.

The big picture: The March 5–8 visit is intended to reassure Christians in Iraq who were violently persecuted under the Islamic State. Francis also hopes to further ties with Shiite Muslims, AP notes.

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Biden on states lifting COVID restrictions: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking"

States that are relaxing coronavirus restrictions are making "a big mistake," President Biden told pool reporters on Wednesday, adding: "The last thing we need is Neanderthal thinking."

Driving the news: Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R) said Wednesday he will end all coronavirus restrictions via executive order, although some businesses are continuing to ask patrons to wear face masks. Mississippi is lifting its mask mandate for all counties Wednesday, per Gov. Tate Reeves (R).

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