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President Joe Biden speaks during the 59th presidential inauguration.
Patrick Semansky/AP

Biden’s flurry of first-day executive actions, explained

The actions reverse Trump policies and launch a more progressive policymaking era.

President Joe Biden isn’t waiting for Congress to start enacting his policy agenda. His presidency is beginning with an aggressive first 10 days in the Oval Office with a suite of executive orders and actions.

The promised actions span from the substantive to more symbolic. Some repeal key parts of former President Donald Trump’s agenda; others lay the groundwork for some of Biden’s own progressive promises.

On his first day, Biden will sign 17 executive initiatives. He’ll mandate masks on federal property. He’ll rescind Trump’s decision to withdraw from the World Health Organization. He’ll extend eviction and foreclosure moratoriums as well as a student loan pause. He’ll take multiple actions on global warming, including rejoining the Paris agreement. He’ll move on immigration, reversing Trump’s travel ban and stopping construction of a wall at the US-Mexico border. He’ll reinforce commitments to racial equity and nondiscrimination protections for LGBTQ people. And more.

Biden’s team emphasized in a call with reporters that these day-one actions were only the start. A memo from White House chief of staff Ron Klain outlined Biden’s plans to tackle “four overlapping and compounding crises”: Covid-19, the economy, global warming, and racial justice. Short of congressional action, Biden will sign “dozens of executive orders, presidential memoranda, and directives to Cabinet agencies” to address those areas and more.

“In the coming days and weeks we will be announcing additional executive actions that confront these challenges and deliver on the President-elect’s promises to the American people, including revoking the ban on military service by transgender Americans, and reversing the Mexico City policy,” spokesperson Jen Psaki said in a statement on Tuesday.

There are limits to what Biden can do through executive actions. Addressing some issues — including the most immediate crises of Covid-19 and the economy — will require more money. Biden will need Congress to approve that. While Biden has proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus package (which includes a $400 billion Covid-19 plan), Democrats hold only the slimmest majorities in Congress, and it’s unclear yet if policymakers will approve a proposal with such a high price tag.

Joe Biden is sworn in as the 46th president of the United States. Behind him is now Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Andrew Harnik/AP

Biden’s executive actions, in part, acknowledge that reality, and ensure that he’ll be able to claim some movement in his first few days as the hard work of getting legislation through Congress gets started.

Some of the moves will also have an immediate impact — helping millions of Americans who would struggle to pay rent and student loans, providing some relief to undocumented immigrants, and shifting the country toward combating climate change.

The scope of the actions is a reflection of Biden running on one of the most progressive agendas in history. But it’s also an acknowledgment that Democrats didn’t perform well enough in congressional races to fully implement that agenda. Now Biden will need to use his more limited executive powers to fill some of the gaps between his campaign promises and hard political realities.

What Biden’s executive actions do

Biden will take a range of executive actions quickly, simultaneously aiming to move the nation past the Trump era, address pressing crises, and fulfill campaign promises. The full details can be read in a fact sheet and memo, but here are some of the bigger components:

  • Action on Covid-19: Biden will impose masking and physical distancing requirements on federal property — part of his “100-Days Masking Challenge” to get Americans to wear masks. He’ll move to rejoin the World Health Organization, following Trump’s decision to withdraw from the group. He’ll create a position of Covid-19 response coordinator and reestablish the National Security Council’s Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, an executive team that Trump disbanded that handled pandemic response. More action is reportedly coming, including efforts to expand testing and set up “clear public health standards” regarding Covid-19.
  • Economic relief: Biden will ask federal agencies to extend federal moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures through at least March 31, which will likely help millions of Americans. He’ll also extend a pause on interest and principal payments for direct federal student loans through at least September 30. And Biden vowed to direct his Cabinet “to take immediate action to deliver economic relief to working families bearing the brunt of this crisis.”
  • Efforts to fight global warming: Biden will rejoin the Paris agreement, an international treaty binding countries to combat global warming. Biden will also sign an order reversing a wide range of Trump’s actions on climate change and taking new actions of his own. Included in that list: directing federal agencies to revise vehicle fuel economy and emission standards, imposing a moratorium on oil and gas leasing in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and revoking the Keystone XL pipeline permit. Biden’s team also promised further action in the coming weeks “with the urgency the science demands.”
  • Immigration reform: Biden will sign several actions and orders on immigration, largely reversing Trump’s work in this area. Biden will reinforce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which has provided legal protections to the children of undocumented immigrants. He’ll also reverse Trump’s travel ban, rescind Trump’s attempts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census, and move to stop construction of the border wall, among other steps. With Biden already proposing legislation to reform the immigration system, this is an area he’ll certainly come back to in the future.
  • Rejecting bigotry: Biden will sign an executive order establishing that “advancing equity for all … is the responsibility of the whole of our government,” directing federal agencies to act on that principle. The order will also rescind Trump’s 1776 Commission and limits on diversity and inclusion training within federal agencies. Separately, Biden will sign an order that acknowledges the ban on sex-based discrimination in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and prohibits workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, including in federal agencies.
  • Improving government’s function: Biden will sign an order requiring “every appointee in the executive branch to sign an ethics pledge” and aiming to “ensure that executive branch employees act in the interest of the American people and not for personal gain,” building on similar action by former President Barack Obama. He’ll also pull back Trump-era rules on establishing new regulations while directing the director of the Office of Management and Budget to improve the regulatory review process. And he’ll issue a regulatory freeze to give his administration time to review new regulations imposed during Trump’s final days.

Much of the executive actions are focused on reversing Trump’s legacy, especially on his iconic issue of immigration. From the travel ban to the border wall, Trump did a lot on this topic that Biden and Democrats opposed. But because much of it was tied to executive instead of congressional actions, a new president has the chance to undo the bulk of that work.

Biden’s team emphasized more is to come — particularly to make it easier in the coming months and years to claim asylum in the US, which Trump made much more difficult in his years in office.

But Biden will also take a slew of actions that essentially build on Obama’s presidency. On climate change, for example, Biden’s moves to rejoin the Paris agreement and bring back rules first imposed by Obama start where the last Democratic administration finished. Climate change remains a top issue among Democrats, so this is a logical area, politically, for Biden to focus some proactive energy on.

And some of the actions simply address the most pressing issues of the day, particularly Covid-19 and the economic crisis.

Still, these actions are limited. They stand to provide some relief to millions of Americans and make other improvements here and there, but they won’t come close to solving any of the continuing and compounding crises that Biden’s team has acknowledged. That will take an act of Congress — and likely weeks, months, or years of work.

Biden is doing what he can for now

Although he was widely considered the moderate option in the Democratic presidential primary, Biden ultimately ran a very progressive campaign once he won the nomination. From economic inequality to health care to global warming, Biden promised a big shift to the left on a host of issues. As Matt Yglesias wrote for Vox, “His platform is in many ways a surprisingly progressive approach to policy that the left sees as a triumph of their own work in trying to change the terms of debate in American politics.”

“Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path,” Biden said in his inauguration address. “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured.”
Patrick Semansky-Pool/AP

Progressive hopes were largely dashed on Election Day 2020 when Democrats lost seats in the House of Representatives and didn’t take control of the Senate. Some of those hopes were rekindled by the Georgia runoffs, which handed Democrats a razor-thin majority in the Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote. But with such a slim majority, and moderates like Sens. Joe Manchin (WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (AZ) effectively setting the limits of the Democratic agenda, there’s a ceiling to how far Biden will be able to go.

That doesn’t mean Biden has given up. He’s already proposed a $1.9 trillion stimulus plan, including a $400 billion Covid-19 plan, and a comprehensive immigration reform bill. He’s spoken about finding common ground with Republicans — which would defy the polarized trends of the last few presidential administrations but would give Biden some wiggle room to get more done.

The reality, though, is this is going to be a tough political environment for the sweeping agenda that Biden ran on. There’s likely to be action on some of the more pressing issues, particularly Covid-19 and that stimulus plan. But more controversial actions, particularly those that can’t pass the Senate with a simple majority as tax-and-spend measures, seem less likely, such as building on the Affordable Care Act, a minimum wage hike, democratic reform, sweeping action on climate change, or significant criminal justice legislation.

Turning to executive actions is a way for the Biden White House to hit the ground running. But it’s also a reflection of that broader political reality.

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