Biden pushes to get food, cash to crisis-hit Americans

Washington (AFP) –


President Joe Biden, in just his third day on the job, ordered help for hungry Americans Friday in a rush to pull the country from its multi-pronged pandemic crisis.

The latest orders boosting food aid and speeding up stimulus payments were modest in scale but reinforced Biden's message that he wants to act decisively against coronavirus and the related economic fallout.

It's a task he is trying to accomplish while simultaneously getting his government confirmed -- with defense secretary nominee Lloyd Austin winning Senate approval Friday -- and bracing for turmoil from a looming Trump impeachment trial.

"The American people can't afford to wait," Brian Deese, director of the White House's National Economic Council, told reporters.

"So many are hanging by a thread. They need help and we are committed to doing everything we can to provide that help as quickly as possible."

The new administration has brought a calmer style after the stormy Donald Trump era, but Biden's cascade of executive orders since Wednesday is making plenty of noise of its own.

Day one saw the 78-year-old Democrat sign 17 actions, day two he signed 10, and later Friday he was expected to reach for the box of ceremonial pens to put his signature on two more.

The slew of orders has covered top campaign agenda items, including the political hot potato of immigration reform.

Here, Biden extended protections from deportation for so-called "Dreamers" -- children of illegal immigrants who have grown up in the country.

But the offensive is overwhelmingly targeted on a Covid-19 pandemic that the new president described Thursday as a wartime-level catastrophe, with the current toll of more than 400,000 dead likely to hit half a million next month.

As well as ordering masks to be worn on trains, planes and in airports, Biden said Thursday that people coming to the United States will be required to quarantine on arrival.

He is simultaneously trying to reenergize and expand a faltering vaccination program. Only 16.5 million vaccines have been administered to Americans and Biden is calling for 100 million shots in 100 days.

- Congress role key -

With unemployment jumping by another 1.3 million applications last week, Biden argues that recovery from the initially catastrophic plunge in the US economy after the pandemic first hit last year is faltering.

"Much, much more is needed," Deese said.

Biden's flagship policy is a $1.9 trillion economic rescue package that he outlined last week.

But Congress, having already passed two huge economic relief bills, is reluctant. The president's Democratic Party has only a small majority in the House and a razor thin advantage in the Senate.

Biden is also relying on Congress to hurry up and approve his cabinet nominations.

A first key security figure was confirmed on Wednesday, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines. The Senate's confirmation of Austin on Friday makes him the first African American to lead the Pentagon.

Tony Blinken for secretary of state and Janet Yellen for treasury secretary appeared to be headed for confirmation either Friday or next week.

- Hungry Americans -

Much of Friday, however, the White House will be focused on promoting Biden's latest two orders. Biden was set to speak at the signing ceremony and his press secretary Jen Psaki was scheduled to brief journalists.

The Commerce Department reported in mid-December that 13.7 percent of adults live in households where they sometimes or often do not have enough to eat.

Hunger is becoming a threat in particular to millions of poorer children who relied on meals served by their schools -- now shut due to Covid-19.

Biden's Friday orders boost an existing payout, giving a family with three children an extra $100 or so every two months to supplement grocery shopping.

Other measures include asking the Treasury Department to step on the accelerator and get stimulus payments of up to $600 a person that were already approved under Trump out more quickly.