Biden’s orders signal an early willingness to flex his executive authority to advance core policy goals — though he has notably steered clear, so far, of using such powers to tackle the biggest wish-list items from progressives in his party. With a tied Senate, a slim House majority and a lasting Trump imprint on the federal judiciary narrowing the avenues open to Biden to enact his agenda, many Democrats have urged him to lean heavily on his executive powers in the years to come.
Biden himself has repeatedly said he would rather work with both parties in Congress than use his executive authority unilaterally. But his team boasted that the 15 executive actions surpassed the number his four predecessors took on their first days in office.
The executive orders as previewed by Biden’s team in the days leading up to his swearing-in include a nationwide mask and social-distancing mandate on federal lands, in federal buildings, and for federal employees and contractors, the creation of a Covid-19 response team that reports directly to the president, and the termination of Trump’s so-called Muslim ban. They also include revoking the Keystone XL pipeline, and repealing the Trump administration’s interior immigration enforcement order that sought to withhold federal funds from cities that shielded undocumented immigrants.
Additional actions include halting construction of the border wall, “shoring up” protections for so-called Dreamers, and rejoining the Paris climate accord, which would make the U.S. party to the agreement in 30 days. Biden will also ask the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other relevant agencies to extend federal eviction and foreclosure moratoriums through March, and will ask the Department of Education to extend the pause on interest and payments for federal student loans through September.
Though many progressive advocates and lawmakers, including the soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, have pressed Biden to issue an executive order forgiving student loan debt, Biden will, at least initially, kick the decision to Capitol Hill.
Biden “supports Congress acting immediately to cancel $10,000 of federal student loan debt per person,” said Brian Deese, incoming National Economic Council director.
Though several actions that Biden had previously promised to take are missing from the Day One blitz — including a reversal of Trump administration restrictions on funding for abortion providers and a 100-day moratorium on deportations — top officials in the incoming administration stressed to reporters on the Tuesday night call that additional announcements would soon follow.
“There’s much more to come. This is just the beginning,” said incoming Press Secretary Jen Psaki, adding that Biden would take more actions “over the next 10 days.”
Specifically, Psaki confirmed that Biden would move in the early days of the administration to reverse the Mexico City policy — a decades-old rule barring U.S. foreign aid from going to any organization that provides abortions, along with other health services that the Trump administration dramatically expanded — and revoke Trump’s ban on transgender people serving in the U.S. military.
And incoming director of the Domestic Policy Council, Susan Rice, said instituting a 100-day moratorium on deportations “is not a presidential action” but “has to happen from the agencies.”
Biden’s top priority upon taking office is tackling the pandemic as it enters its deadliest phase to date. His incoming pandemic response coordinator, Jeff Zients, said on Tuesday night that several day-one executive actions will signal “a new day and a new, different approach” to Covid-19, including the nationwide mask mandates on interstate transportation and across federal properties.
“This is clearly a national emergency and we will treat it as such,” he said.
Biden will also move on Wednesday to create a White House Covid-19 response team, led by Zients, that will coordinate across the federal government and with states on ramping up vaccinations, distributing more masks and gloves, expanding testing capacity, reopening schools and more. The team’s structure and mandate are modeled on the one that incoming White House chief of staff Ron Klain led during the Ebola crisis under President Barack Obama.
Another part of Klain’s past pandemic work that Biden plans to revive is a focus on cooperating with other countries on virus outbreaks and other health threats. On Wednesday, the new administration plans to cancel Trump’s move to withdraw from the World Health Organization and, in an early show of commitment to the global health body, to send Dr. Anthony Fauci to speak at the WHO’s virtual board meeting later this week. Biden will also restore the National Security Council’s directorate for global health security and biodefense — an office disbanded by the Trump administration.
“America’s withdrawal from the international arena has impeded progress on a global response and left us more vulnerable to future pandemics,” Zients said.
Biden’s first day will also see a launch of a sweeping immigration overhaul. In a Wednesday memo, Biden will direct the Homeland Security and Justice departments to preserve and fortify the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which shields undocumented immigrants brought to the country when they were children. Rice said the action would “shore up” DACA, but she didn’t elaborate on the mechanics or potential length of extended protections.
Separately, Biden will introduce an all-encompassing immigration bill, titled the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021, which will provide a path to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants in the country, overhaul border security operations, and address root causes of migration by assisting the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. A limited outline of the legislation provided to reporters did not specify a dollar amount for new funding to border security.
The bill will provide an expedited citizenship pathway for Dreamers, those with temporary protective status and farmworkers, who would be able to get green cards immediately and apply for naturalization three years later. Other undocumented immigrants, including all other essential workers who don’t fit in those three categories, can seek temporary legal status, followed by a green card after five years, and then apply for citizenship after an additional three years.
Biden officials did not say whether any Democrats on the Hill were co-sponsors of the bill, adding that the incoming administration was still in conversations with lawmakers.
In a sign of the Hill’s preparation, Rep. Linda Sanchez (D-Calif.) told POLITICO that she, Reps. Raul Ruiz (D-Calif.) and Joaquin Castro (D-Texas) had a discussion about immigration legislation with Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Tuesday. For the past two years, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus immigration task force has been working on measures they want to see in an immigration bill and top members have been in regular communication with Biden’s transition.
“It is definitely a priority,” Sanchez said, “to get done very quickly.”
Biden’s Day One list also includes a number of actions aimed at advancing racial equity, including executive orders terminating the Trump administration’s “1776 commission,” which aimed to push a more conservative history curriculum in U.S. schools, and scrapping the administration’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the U.S. census and cut short the timeline for counting the nation’s population.
“The president-elect has promised to root out systemic racism from our institutions,” Rice said, adding that Biden and his team would “hold the federal government accountable for advancing equity for families across America.”