Joe Biden knows he must work harder and faster than any president since Franklin Delano Roosevelt to restore the confidence of the American people in a government that his predecessor rendered dysfunctional in the face of a pandemic, turned against Americans who cried out for racial justice, and, finally, attacked by inciting his supporters to storm the Capitol on January 6. Biden recognized his responsibility with an inaugural address that announced, “We’ll press forward with speed and urgency for we have much to do in this winter of peril and significant possibilities. Much to repair, much to restore, much to heal, much to build, and much to gain.”
The American presidency provides the world’s greatest bully pulpit, and Biden grabbed hold of it on a slightly snowy Wednesday, as he became the 46th president of a nation that has lost more than 400,000 of its own to a deadly virus and suffered the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. “I ask every American to join me in this cause. Uniting to fight the foes we face: anger, resentment, and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness, and hopelessness,” Biden declared on Wednesday. He promised: “With unity we can do great things, important things. We can right wrongs. We can put people to work in good jobs. We can teach our children in safe schools. We can overcome the deadly virus. We can reward work and rebuild the middle class and make health care secure for all. We can deliver racial justice and we can make America once again the leading force for good in the world.”
There was a measure of poetry in Biden’s speech and in the moment of transition.
But at a point so perilous as this, words must be matched with deeds. Biden recognized this reality by acting on his inaugural day—via executive orders and agency directives—as no president before him in the 232–year history of the executive office. He began by doing what Trump never did: making the fight against Covid-19 the first priority of the administration and the nation. Trump’s criminally negligent response to the pandemic earned an overwhelming rebuke from the American people, who swept the 45th president from office in November—giving Biden the highest percentage of the vote for any challenger to an incumbent president since FDR defeated Herbert Hoover in the Great Depression election of 1932.
Roosevelt defined our modern understanding of an activist presidency. But the 32nd president did not issue his first executive order—a personnel clarification—until days after taking office. Biden moved immediately, issuing 17 orders and directions during his first hours in office. He also signaled that he would approve an array of additional actions over the coming 10 days.
This was the most important signal from his inauguration day—more vital than the speeches or the songs—because Biden was making real his promise that “the will of the people has been heard and the will of the people has been heeded.” The orders that Biden made on Wednesday were described as a “blizzard.” Good!
The Biden-Harris administration should bury Washington obstruction and inertia with a blizzard of executive orders.
That will inspire complaints, as Vice President Kamala Harris learned when she argued during her own bid for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination for an expansive view of “executive action.” She took hits for proposing executive orders on gun control and immigration reform—“Kamala Harris Can’t Stop Promising To Do Things Via Executive Order,” griped Reason magazine.
But the radicalism of 2019 is emerging as the common sense of 2021.
Amid Wednesday’s festivities, which were tempered by the reality of a pandemic that remains unchecked and a vaccination program that has yet to hit warp speed, Biden initiated five executive actions to address the “national emergency” created by Covid-19. He established the position of “COVID-19 Response Coordinator” to manage the production of medical equipment and vaccines. He returned the US to the World Health Organization and dispatched Dr. Anthony Fauci to address Thursday’s WHO board meeting. He addressed the economic crisis by extending existing moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions until March 31 and pausing federal student loan payment requirements until September 30. He mandated masking and physical distancing in federal buildings and on federal lands; and he initiated a “100 Days Mask Challenge” that asks Americans to wear masks for the first 100 days of his tenure.
That reference to 100 days was, at once, practical and historical. It embraced the legacy of Roosevelt, whose first 100 days of activist governing set the New Deal benchmark for ensuing Democratic administrations. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a 2020 Democratic presidential rival who became a key Biden backer in the fall, argues that the challenges plaguing America demand that Biden govern as “the most progressive president since FDR.” That’s a tall order for the new president, especially one who served in the Senate and the vice presidency as a centrist and who campaigned more as a humane alternative to Trump than a visionary change agent. But no matter what challenges arise on Capitol Hill, Biden has the power to govern in a dynamic and defining way. “Obviously, as Donald Trump has shown us, the power of a pen on executive orders is very significant,” Sanders said after Biden’s election, “and I hope [the new Democratic president] utilizes it.”
Biden did that on Wednesday, issuing orders that combined urgent measures to combat the coronavirus with agenda-setting initiatives on climate change, immigrant rights, and racial equity. Reversing the Trump administration’s climate denialism, he re-embraced the Paris climate accord, canceled the Keystone XL pipeline, and initiated what League of Conservation Voters President Gene Karpinski hails as an “all-of-government approach to climate action, environmental justice, a clean energy economy, and a healthy democracy.”
Recognizing the need to bury Trump’s twin legacies of racism and xenophobia, Biden put an end to the anti-historic efforts of the 1776 Commission to make excuses for human bondage, ordered federal agencies to take steps to ensure racial equity, barred workplace discrimination on the basis of gender identity and sexual orientation, and required that noncitizens be included in the Census. He halted construction of Trump’s border wall, reversed the former president’s expansion of immigration enforcement, and ended a Muslim ban that, in the words of Representative Ilhan Omar, stemmed “from a hateful ideology that justifies dividing people based on their religion and country of origin.”
Even as Biden issued Wednesday’s orders, however, evidence of the congressional obstruction he will face came into focus, as noxious Missouri Senator Josh Hawley blocked quick consideration of Homeland Security nominee Alejandro Mayorkas. This Democratic president will have a Democratic House and Senate to work with, but the margins are so narrow that the fights on Capitol Hill will be difficult—especially with an impeachment trial in the offing. Biden, a veteran of 36 years in the Senate, is familiar with such difficulties. But he cannot allow obstructionists like Hawley and Texas Senator Ted Cruz—or reluctant Democrats like West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin—to delay action. The Biden administration must be prepared to govern by every means necessary. His administration is reportedly preparing to take additional action on coronavirus policies, economic relief, “Buy American” procurement standards, racial equity, climate change, health care, immigration, and international affairs and national security by February 1. It must do all of that—and more, including the gun violence issues that Harris proposed to address with executive orders.
Some vital initiatives will take 100 days, or longer. But the identification of this new presidency as an activist response to the failures of the past, and to the demands of the future, requires a first 10 days “blizzard” of executive orders—and it looks like that’s what’s going to happen.