When President-elect Joe Biden takes office on Jan. 20, he'll be facing a deadly pandemic, a possibly divided Congress and a large chunk of the populace questioning his legitimacy due to President Donald Trump's baseless claims about election fraud.
Still, there are a few issues that observers expect Biden to address right away, and he has said he will not hesitate to use executive orders as he sets his agenda.
Some of the issues where Biden could act quickly upon taking office:
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Shortly after Trump confirmed the country’s formal exit from the Paris Agreement -- a global pact aimed at averting the threat of catastrophic climate change -- Biden announced his intention to rejoin. The move would be easy enough. In an interview with Vox, Andrew Light, former U.S. State Department Senior Climate Change Adviser, said that 30 days after informing the U.N., the U.S. would formally be re-inducted. And as many have noted, Biden's climate change message runs deeper with John Kerry's recent appointment as special presidential envoy for climate, especially considering Kerry played a part in brokering the Paris Agreement. But the more difficult task is to reduce carbon emissions, which could face some setbacks in Congress and potentially the Supreme Court, according to NBC News.
As the Washington Post reports, Biden has also targeted Trump’s 100-plus environmental protection rollbacks, concerning wildlife, air quality, drilling and other issues. Even in his final days in office, Trump is aiming to scale back environmental protections further, AP reports. For Biden, reversing all of these actions will be a more piecemeal process than a single executive order.
Sam Sankar, senior vice president of programs for the environmental law organization Earthjustice, said that many of the Trump administration’s actions are already in court, and that the Biden administration’s task will be to evaluate them. If Trump’s moves were done legally, the Biden administration may have to defend them in court and have them “undone through later regulatory processes.”
Although this process of reinstating climate policies could take some time, as a whole, Sankar said, “the environmental community and the state attorneys general were actually pretty successful in holding the line because so much of the Trump de-regulatory activity was either inept or just flat-out illegal.”
Ultimately, Biden’s climate promises include a $2 trillion investment and net-zero emissions by 2050. While the Trump administration's environmental rollbacks may have largely been stonewalled, the U.S. remains one of the world's three largest producers of greenhouse gases, along with China and the European Union, and those emissions will be difficult to rein in.
Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council, said that a ban on travel from mostly majority-Muslim countries could be undone. The ban was an executive order Trump signed on Jan. 27, 2017, restricting entrance to the U.S. for people from several majority-Muslim nations, and it was ultimately upheld by the Supreme Court.
Biden is also expected to move quickly on DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals), which allows certain undocumented immigrants to stay and work in the U.S. Trump has attempted to weaken the program several times. While the Supreme Court blocked Trump's attempts to end DACA, the Department of Homeland Security released a memo earlier this year indicating it would reject new DACA applications and shorten re-applicants’ renewal from two years to one year. According to Loweree, a new administration could re-instate the program in full through a similar memo.
Beyond these immediate changes, there have been a number of alterations to the immigration system that seem more entrenched.
The U.S. has been unable to locate the parents of more than 600 children who were separated from their families, although the Trump administration turned over information in November that might help in the search. A U.S. Department of Health and Human Services report from last year outlines mental health impacts children in HHS custody face, in part due to family separation. To start to address the effects of family separation, Loweree suggests efforts to compensate separated families and allow them to reunify in the U.S.
Beyond that, during the campaign, Biden promised to remove for-profit detention centers and “end prolonged detention and reinvest in a case management program.”
Biden also campaigned on a pathway to citizenship, but the terms of such potential legislation remain undetermined. Immigration advocates such as Madhuri Grewal, federal immigration policy counsel for the ACLU’s National Political Advocacy Department, have called for a “clean bill” that provides a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants “without caveats or tradeoffs,” such as increased funding for border surveillance. A clean bill will be difficult to get through what will likely be a divided Congress.
As with the environment, it may be difficult to quickly roll back Trump’s immigration agenda. AP reports that reversing course could require time-intensive maneuvers, leaving predicted outcomes obscure for certain issues - namely Temporary Protected Status. But they do point out that Biden has promised to cease construction — and the corresponding Pentagon funding — of Trump's border wall. The asylum system may also prove complex to overhaul, according to NBC News.
Beyond these immigration-specific policies, Loweree said that COVID-19 relief has largely excluded non-citizens and sometimes mixed-status families from provisions, including some non-citizens who are essential workers.
Biden’s coronavirus plan included the promise to “fully use the Defense Production Act to ramp up production of masks, face shields and other PPE.” In a New York Times interview, Dr. Céline Gounder, a member of Biden’s team of coronavirus advisors, said that utilizing the Defense Production Act will likely be through an initial executive order.
In terms of monetary assistance, Biden has been negotiating and trying to persuade Congress to pass another COVID-19 releif bill, but there doesn’t seem to be much more he can directly do to coerce them to speed the process along.
In terms of containing the spread of the virus, Biden campaigned on the necessity of masks, stating that if governors refuse to enact mask mandates, he will “go to the mayors and county executives and get local masking requirements in place nationwide.” And he may well have to, as Politico reports that many of the 16 Republican anti-mask mandate governors are “ready to reject Biden’s plea.”
In terms of a federal mask mandate, Biden promised that “as president I’ll mandate mask wearing in all federal buildings and all interstate transportation.” According to a CNN Fact Check, Biden doesn’t have the power for an omnipresent mask mandate. CNN says that the Public Health Service Act allows for the secretary of Health and Human Services to put forth regulations to obviate interstate and foreign transmission, but depending on how leniently the Biden administration interprets this act, it may face some legal pushback.
On Dec. 4, Biden said he'll ask all Americans to wear a mask during his first 100 days in office.
Racial justice was a major focus of Biden’s campaign talking points. During the first presidential debate, Biden cited that “one in 1,000 African Americans has been killed because of the coronavirus,” a number that matches an APM Research Lab study. And Gounder in the New York Times pointed to plans to ensure adequate coronavirus testing in communities of color.
However, in Biden’s initial round of expected executive orders, there isn’t any mention of prisons or the criminal justice system. Biden’s campaign promises include passing the SAFE Justice Act and stopping the federal use of private prisons, but it remains to be seen how criminal justice will fully play out, amidst calls for prison abolition and defunding the police.
The country could see changes in other areas where racial disparities are apparent. For instance, the Washington Post reports that 238 organizations signed on to a letter imploring Biden to forgive debt, citing as one justification, its disproportionate repercussions due to the racial wealth gap. And senators Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer argue that a president has at his disposal, "existing authority under the Higher Education Act to cancel up to $50,000 in Federal student loan debt for Federal student loan borrowers." However, while Biden has supported canceling some debt, he hasn’t promised to use executive power to achieve this.
Biden has expressed interest in re-joining international agreements. In addition to the Paris Agreement, he has also stated that he would rejoin the World Health Organization, extend the New START treaty and return to the Iran nuclear deal (although as New York Times reports, Iran may be looking for reimbursement for incurred loss under Trump sanctions, so that may not be as simple an act as hoped). The recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, also may impact Biden's diplomatic efforts.
In all, Biden hasn't released many details on foreign policy plans. Under his campaign promises on foreign policy, Biden discusses domestic goals in relation to America’s perception and stature abroad as opposed to specific diplomatic stances. As Biden's cabinet picks develop, including international positions, progressives have been critical, and more is to be seen in the coming months as the new administration transitions in and stances become more concrete.