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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

As President Biden begins his term in office today, he'll be tasked with leading a country beset with deep, long-term problems.

Why it matters: Though the pandemic has made them worse, existential challenges around inequality, social alienation and political division in the U.S. were in place well before SARS-CoV-2 arrived on American shores. The country's future will depend in large part on whether the choices made over the next four years can flatten the curve of American decline.

If the American Dream has a meaning, it's this: Children have a fair opportunity to surpass their parents economically.

  • But every generation since the Silents — Americans born between 1928 and 1945, which includes Bidenhas seen social mobility dwindle, a trend that accelerated in recent years.
  • For Americans from the middle percentile of income born in the 1980s, less than half were able to outearn their parents at the age of 30, thanks to sluggish wage growth, a sharp increase in the costs of necessary services like health and education, and the increasing concentration of income gains among the upper class.
  • The U.S. labor market has fractured in half, with the college-educated largely thriving and those without a degree increasingly left behind, a trend intensified by the effects of automation and globalization.

The decline of social mobility and the rise of inequality — the U.S. has the highest level of income inequality among all G7 countries — are just two measures of a country that is deeply struggling.

What's happening: The pandemic — which has now taken the lives of more than 400,000 Americans, with more dying in the time it takes you to read this article — will worsen nearly every one of these trends.

Yes, but: The American story is far from over, and in the midst of some of our darkest days, that story isn't all bad.

  • There's a reasonable case to be made that the corner has been turned on climate change, with the world likely to avoid the worst projected effects of global warming even before Biden took office with a mandate to act.
  • If America is a less economically equal country than it was decades ago, it's a largely freer one for women, people of color and LGBTQ people, though significant progress still needs to be made.

The bottom line: "Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we’re in now," Biden said in his inaugural address.

  • Biden was referring to the American people, but the words are just as true for the 46th president as well, as he takes up the task of binding up the nation's now decades-old wounds.

Go deeper

Jan 25, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's latest executive order: Buy American

President Joe R. Biden speaks about the economy before signing executive orders in the State Dining Room at the White House on Friday, Jan 22, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

President Joe Biden will continue his flurry of executive orders on Monday, signing a new directive to require the federal government to “buy American” for products and services.

Why it matters: The executive action is yet another attempt by Biden to accomplish goals administratively without waiting for the backing of Congress. The new order echoes Biden's $400 billion campaign pledge to increase government purchases of American goods.

Updated 1 hour ago - Politics & Policy

Here come Earmarks 2.0

DeLauro at a hearing in May 2020. Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The House Appropriations Committee is preparing to restore a limited version of earmarks, which give lawmakers power to direct spending to their districts to pay for special projects.

Why it matters: A series of scandals involving members in both parties prompted a moratorium on earmarks in 2011. But Democrats argue it's worth the risk to bring them back because earmarks would increase their leverage to pass critical legislation with a narrow majority, especially infrastructure and spending bills.

Ben Geman, author of Generate
2 hours ago - Energy & Environment

UN says Paris carbon-cutting plans fall far short

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Nations' formal emissions-cutting pledges are collectively way too weak to put the world on track to meet the Paris climate deal's temperature-limiting target, a United Nations tally shows.

Driving the news: This morning the UN released an analysis of the most recent nationally determined contributions (NDCs) — that is, countries' medium-term emissions targets submitted under the 2015 pact.