In one of the most memorable lines from the president-elect’s Saturday night victory speech, Joe Biden vowed to bring an end to “this grim era of demonization in America.” But what comes next? While the incoming administration has promised a symbolic return to dignity and to fill the vacuum of basic competency in the White House, there are very real limitations — a Supreme Court hostile to progressive legislation, an opposition party hostile to the very idea of Democratic legislation — obstructing the ambitions of Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. Until control of the Senate is decided by voters in Georgia on January 5, plans for an FDR-sized presidency are on hold.
But thanks to the current president’s choice to craft his legacy of deregulation, isolationism, and inhumane immigration policy through executive action, many of Trump’s signature orders can be rolled back moments after the lame duck takes his last flight on Marine One.
Trump’s first presidential action to cause worldwide backlash may be his first to go: Biden has said that he will “end the Muslim ban on day one,” overturning Trump’s order issued on day 12 of his presidency suspending visas for applicants from Muslim-majority countries including Iran, Somalia, Yemen, Libya, and Syria. Other day-one rollbacks are expected to include a return to the Paris Climate accords, a return to the World Health Organization, and a reinstatement of the Obama-era policy of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.
At home, according to reports and his own transition guidelines, Biden will be focused on controlling a pandemic that has resulted in over 100,000 new COVID cases for three straight days this week — a pandemic that will surely worsen as the nation enters the winter with a sitting president reluctant to take any action that could benefit the public health of the nation or the standing of his successor. According to CNN, the president-elect will name a 12-person coronavirus task force on Monday, and will be in contact with Dr. Anthony Fauci in the two months before taking office. While many of the Biden-Harris transition priorities would require legislation — including the tough prospects of a meaningful second COVID stimulus — their pandemic plan can be put into place at the federal level as soon as they’re up and running. As STAT News reports, Biden is already building out his coronavirus team:
In interviews with STAT, several Biden health advisers described a forthcoming effort to court skeptical mayors and governors, select and vet leaders for key public health agencies, and set a new tone for the nation’s pandemic response, even in the 10 weeks before he takes office …
Biden allies also indicated the president-elect’s transition team is unlikely to rely heavily on outgoing Trump administration staff at the Department of Health and Human Services, as is typical in a presidential transition. Instead, incoming Biden health aides plan to lean on career civil servants and, separately, on political appointees who left HHS when President Obama left office in early 2017 …
Several members of Biden’s health care team also acknowledged there will likely be unprecedented pressure to name the officials he intends to appoint for public health posts before Jan. 20. Nominees for those agencies typically come weeks or months into a president’s first term: Trump, for example, did not nominate an Food and Drug Administration commissioner until nearly two months after his inauguration, and he did not appoint a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director until July of his first term.
And as Biden’s transition framework explains, enacting public-health measures that are actually “informed by public health professionals” and not by the son-in-law of the president will be essential to controlling the pandemic. So too will be the use of the Defense Production Act to expand testing and boost the production of PPE “so that the national supply of personal protective equipment exceeds demand.”
Governing through executive action in the long-term could ultimately make Biden’s legacy as fragile as that of his immediate predecessor and former boss. But such actions will be crucial to his first 100 days in office, as his administration works to relieve the nation of Trump’s ugliest policies. As he prepares to take office facing simultaneous public-health and economic crises, Biden will be forced to handle new problems from the outgoing president as well. As his transition team reportedly plans to cater its appointees to the whims of Mitch McConnell, Trump is reportedly preparing a “flood” of sanctions on Iran in order to make it more difficult for Biden to bring the nation back to the table to agree once again to a nuclear deal.