President-elect Joe Biden echoed many past presidential candidates when he promised on the campaign trail to take action on a host of issues his very first day in office.
That day is upon us.
In his first hours on the job, Biden is set to reverse executive orders issued by President Donald Trump and set a new direction for the country in four pressing areas: climate change, the ongoing pandemic, the struggling economy and racial inequality. A few of his initial steps were outlined in a memo over the weekend from Ron Klain, the incoming chief of staff.
“On Inauguration Day, President-elect Biden will sign roughly a dozen actions to combat the four crises, restore humanity to our immigration system, and make government function for the people,” Klain wrote.
Among specific moves cited in that memo: rejoining the Paris climate agreement that aims to keep global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius compared with preindustrial levels. Under the deal, the United States agreed to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by up to 28 percent by 2025.
Early in his administration, Trump announced he would withdraw from the agreement, citing what he described as the “draconian financial and economic burdens the agreement imposes on our country.”
Withdrawing from the agreement took time and was only finalized in November, but the barriers for rejoining are much lower. Biden can start the process right away, with the country back in the agreement 30 days after that.
From the pandemic response to climate change, Biden is looking to position the United States as a leader at home and abroad, said Mara Rudman, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress.
‘Resetting the table’
“It is literally resetting the table so that we can have those kinds of relationships,” Rudman said. “Because the United States is not in a place right now that we need to be for protecting people at home and connecting them with people around the world.”
While the Keystone XL pipeline is not specifically cited in the Klain memo, news reports indicate Biden will act to revoke federal approval of the pipeline on his first day. That project would transport large amounts of crude from the Canadian oil sands to U.S. refineries.
Trump signed an order in 2019 greenlighting the project, which has faced myriad legal challenges and fierce opposition from environmental groups.
“The Biden administration halting the Keystone XL pipeline is a momentous sign that he is listening, taking action, and making good on his promises to people and the planet,” Kendall Mackey, campaign manager for the Keep It In the Ground movement, said in a statement. “This decision to halt the Keystone XL pipeline on day one in office sets a precedent that all permitting decisions must pass a climate test and respect Indigenous rights.”
Candidate Biden promised to take immediate action on other environmental areas as well, such as requiring aggressive methane limits for oil and gas operations and permanently protecting the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. He said he would ban new fossil fuel leases on public lands and waters while also requiring public companies to disclose climate-related financial risks and their greenhouse gas emissions.
Having served in the Obama administration, Rudman is familiar with the mechanics of an incoming president and said that while Biden has the authority to take those actions, it might not be feasible to do them all on Day One.
“I would expect a lot of movement on the executive side in the environment space,” Rudman said. “I don’t know that I would expect it all on the first day.”
On the pandemic, Biden has made clear that he will move to increase mask usage in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19. That includes immediately requiring masks on federal property and during interstate travel.
Biden does not have authority to issue a blanket requirement for all Americans to wear masks in public, but even limited mask mandates send a message to governors and the private sector.
“That is no small thing,” Rudman said. “It is both practical in its impact and it’s symbolic in terms of being very clear, from the highest office in the land, this is a critical thing to be doing.”
On immigration, Biden has said he will immediately reverse the so-called “Muslim ban” that placed travel restrictions on citizens from certain majority-Muslim countries. That’s a relatively straightforward process because Trump put the ban in place through executive action. Biden also has said he will move swiftly to protect those brought into the country illegally as children, often called Dreamers.
The Trump administration sought to eliminate protections put in place for them during the Obama administration. Trump’s effort was blocked by the courts, however, leaving the Dreamers in limbo.
“He would be taking them out of limbo,” Rudman said of Biden.
The Klain memo highlighted that Biden will space out some of his early actions in order to better highlight them for the public. He also could pair many of those actions, such as protecting Dreamers, with more comprehensive legislative proposals sent to Capitol Hill. Getting those proposals through Congress will require a heavier lift than just signing an order, however.
The memo said Biden will immediately extend an existing pause on payments and interest for millions of Americans with federal student loans. That should be a simple matter given existing authorities, said Anne Hyslop, a former policy adviser in Barack Obama’s Education Department and current assistant director for policy development and government relations at the nonprofit Alliance for Excellent Education.
“There is a widespread, bipartisan recognition that that is a good thing to do and makes a lot of sense,” Hyslop said of the student loan pause.
The Biden campaign said previously that his first day in office would include reinstating Obama-era guidance protecting transgender students’ access to sports, bathrooms and locker rooms based on their gender identity. The Trump administration rescinded that guidance.
Hyslop noted that while Biden officials might add language reflecting recent court cases, simply reinstating that guidance should be pretty straightforward.
“It will be pretty easy for them to execute because the guidance documents already exist,” Hyslop said.