Opinion | 9 Ways Biden Could Change America in January

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Even as Democrats were celebrating the result of the election over the weekend, it was apparent that the outcome contained for them the seeds of political disaster: Unless they effectively retake the Senate in January by winning two Georgia runoffs, much of their agenda — bolstering voting rights, creating a public option for health insurance, passing climate change legislation — will die on Senator Mitch McConnell’s desk.

But as the past four years have shown, the president still has the power to change the country through executive action. Here are some issues on which President-elect Joe Biden could make headway, with or without Congress’s help.

The virus

Mr. Biden is already making preparations to bring under control a pandemic that has claimed nearly a quarter of a million American lives and, having entered a fearsome new phase, could claim well over another 100,000 by Inauguration Day.

While the president does not have the authority to unilaterally impose a national mask mandate or mail another round of stimulus checks, Mr. Biden will be able to establish a unified national strategy, the absence of which is widely regarded as a critical failure in America’s pandemic response.

That plan, guided by a 13-member task force of public health experts announced on Monday, would include appointing a national supply chain commander, establishing a pandemic testing board and invoking the Defense Production Act to order businesses to ramp up manufacturing of necessary supplies. And national mandate aside, he has said he plans to require masks on all federal property and interstate transportation.

[Read more: “Joe Biden will inherit a raging pandemic. Here’s what he plans to do next.”]

Housing presents a potential gap in Mr. Biden’s pandemic plan. As Marissa Evans, a reporter for The Star Tribune in Minnesota, pointed out on Twitter, he has not explicitly addressed the looming eviction crisis, which President Trump aimed to forestall through an eviction moratorium that will expire at the end of the year.

Climate change

The United States officially withdrew from the Paris climate accord the day after the election, a decision Mr. Biden has vowed to reverse on Day 1. By itself, the move would be only gestural, as the Paris Agreement has no binding legal force. And while Mr. Biden has a $2 trillion plan to meet the agreement’s targets, its most important elements, such as transitioning the country to 100 percent emissions-free electricity by 2035, would almost certainly require congressional cooperation.

But that doesn’t mean Mr. Biden’s hands are tied. He could, for example, rescind the executive order President Trump issued early in his tenure that revoked Obama-era regulations intended to curb global warming and promoted fossil fuel development.

“Revocation of executive orders can be done immediately,” Michael Burger, the executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University, told The Times. “That’s a big deal because the executive orders give direction to administrative agencies about how to exercise their discretion and what the priorities are for the administration.”

Mr. Biden aims to pursue at least 10 executive actions on climate change, according to Vox, including the reinstatement of a waiver revoked by the Trump administration that allowed California — and by extension, the country as a whole — to raise emission standards for cars and trucks; aggressive pollution limits on methane, which by some estimates has 80 times the heat-trapping power of carbon dioxide; and prohibitions on new oil and gas permits on federal lands and water.

Student loan debt

Americans hold more than $1.6 trillion in student loan debt, an enormous sum that more than doubled in the past decade. Because the bulk of that debt falls under the purview of the Department of Education, activists, legal scholars and lawmakers have argued that the president has broad authority to cancel it.

“There’s a tremendous amount that can be done without Congress,” Felicia Wong, who serves as an adviser on the Biden transition board, told The Times.

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden took a more conservative position on student debt than either Senator Elizabeth Warren or Senator Bernie Sanders, offering to forgive $10,000 for all borrowers as well as the remainder for graduates of public or historically Black colleges who earn less than $125,000 a year.

But there are signs that the Democratic Party is moving leftward on the issue. Last week, Senator Charles Schumer, the minority leader, told Anand Giridharadas that he has “a proposal with Elizabeth Warren that the first $50,000 of debt be vanquished” with “the pen as opposed to legislation.”


There are few domains where President Trump — with the help of Stephen Miller, a top adviser with a documented affinity for white nationalism — has made a more profound impact than immigration policy and administration. “Through administrative orders, strict enforcement and mere threat,” the Times editorial board wrote in October, “the White House has attacked virtually every aspect of immigration, legal and illegal.”

Mr. Trump’s influence on the immigration system has been so far-reaching that many experts say reversing his legacy will be difficult. “There’s so much change that has happened in the last four years, there’s no way a new administration could reverse things in four or even eight years,” Sarah Pierce, a policy analyst at the Migration Policy Institute, told The Times.

Still, there are many counteractive measures Mr. Biden could — and has promised to — make:

Reinstate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which President Trump moved to terminate in 2017.

Increase the number of annual refugee admissions into the United States, which the Trump administration slashed to a record low of 15,000 from 110,000 under the Obama administration, to 125,000.

Create a task force to reunite the remaining 545 children who were separated at the border by the Trump administration with their families.

Rescind the Trump administration’s ban on travel from 13 countries, most either majority-Muslim or African.

End policies that aim to deter migrants from exercising their right under international law to claim asylum by inflicting maximum hardship at the border.

Deport only undocumented immigrants who are convicted of felonies.

In the long term, Mr. Biden’s immigration agenda may also diverge from that of his former boss: The Obama administration deported millions of immigrants, which Mr. Biden called a “big mistake.”


Mr. Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris have expressed their intent to work with Congress to pass a suite of policing reforms. Some of these, however, could be accomplished in full or in part through executive action, according to The American Prospect:

Create a clear federal standard on use of police force.

Reinstitute an Obama-era executive order that restricted the transfer of military equipment to police departments.

Increase oversight by creating a national police review commission.

Direct the Justice Department to issue consent decrees for local police departments, which were rolled back under former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, to crack down on misconduct.

Strengthening labor

Mr. Biden cannot impose a minimum wage for all workers nationwide. But he can raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $15 an hour or more from its current $10.80; fortify the employment protections of government workers, which were weakened under the Trump administration; and use federal incentives and the National Labor Relations Board to protect workers’ rights to organize.

The Obama administration did take steps to facilitate workplace bargaining, but some labor leaders argue it was slow on the uptake. “It took too long in that previous administration to figure it out,” Mary Kay Henry, president of the Service Employees International Union, told HuffPost. “And now that they figured it out, it’s much easier to imagine getting it done.”

Challenging capital

While Mr. Biden will not be able to enact the entirety of his tax plan without Congress, his administration could still act on its own to raise taxes in a few areas by changing or reinterpreting the regulations tied to Mr. Trump’s 2017 tax law. He could also instruct the Department of Justice to direct its power against employers who violate labor laws, monopolistic corporations and serious white-collar criminals instead of small-fry offenders.

Foreign policy

For better and for worse, the modern presidency confers vast powers to wage military and economic war against other nations. Mr. Biden’s commitments on the subject have been relatively vague, as Emma Ashford has written for The Times, but he seems poised to continue the interventionist approach that has defined U.S. foreign policy since the Second World War (in deed if not always in name).

But as with the Paris Agreement, President-elect Biden has both the power and the apparent willingness to forge and honor international agreements, which President Trump has generally spurned. “President Trump has lowered the bar so much that it wouldn’t take much for Biden to change the perception dramatically,” Robert Malley, chief executive of the International Crisis Group and a former adviser in the Obama White House, told The Times.

Already, Iran’s president has called on Mr. Biden to return to the Iran nuclear deal, which President Trump unilaterally withdrew from in 2018, and Mr. Biden previously offered to do so.


Mr. Biden opposes legalizing marijuana for recreational use, unlike most Americans, but he does support decriminalizing it, and Ms. Harris pledged as recently as September that a Biden-Harris administration would.

The most sustainable path to decriminalization runs through Congress, but Gabrielle Gurley argues in The American Prospect that the president could still make progress by rescheduling marijuana under the Controlled Substances Act to a lower tier of restriction. Marijuana currently falls under Schedule I, the highest tier, alongside such drugs as heroin.

“The next president can upend the drug war and the damaging effects on communities of color,” Ms. Gurley writes. “By pursuing administrative remedies, pardoning minor offenders, and prioritizing science and research over the reefer madness fears of the remaining prohibitionists, the next president can strengthen the case for moving forward on marijuana.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at [email protected]. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.


“The 277 Policies for Which Biden Need Not Ask Permission” [The American Prospect]

“President-elect Biden needs to get to work on the Covid-19 pandemic. Today.” [The Washington Post]

“How Biden Can Govern in Spite of Everything” [The New York Times]


Here’s what readers had to say about the last debate: Was 2020 the year that polling died?

Shane from California: “The shift from landline to mobile phones, and the wide availability of various privacy and filtering apps, has made things easier than ever for those whose primary — or more accurately, only — phone is a smartphone to be able to recognize and block numbers. …

I know there are people who are more diligent than myself in not answering calls from unknown numbers. In my experience, those who are more conservative are less likely to take calls from numbers they don’t recognize. This could very well have a major impact on poll results.”

Estelle from Australia: “If the message being constantly fed to people of all political persuasions is that the Democrats are way ahead in the polls, a Republican might be discouraged from voting (‘what’s the point?’) — as could a Democrat (‘we’ve got this in the bag’).

“In Australia, by comparison, if the polls are saying people are going to vote one way or the other, well, we have to vote, so besides the usual margin of error with people potentially changing who they vote for, at least the communication of polls isn’t going to have an impact on how many votes are made overall — which in the U.S. seems to have a huge bearing on the outcome of the election.”

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