Joe Biden has only been in office for three weeks, but the rave reviews are already in. He’s returned the United States to “normal,” gotten the customary comparisons to Franklin D. Roosevelt he’s been reaching for, and even former Biden critics are dazzled by his performance.
Especially when compared to his predecessor, Biden has indeed done genuinely good things, many of which warrant the praise. Yet this is also a political climate in which, long before Biden was even inaugurated, let alone started putting pen to paper, a political press basking in a sense of relief has sometimes acted more like a cheerleader than a watchdog.
For the average news consumer, it can be hard to figure out: Is Biden really crafting the most progressive agenda in US history? Or is this just spin from a media determined to wash the Trump years from collective memory?
Several parts of Biden’s signing blitz live up to the hype. Perhaps chief among them are the bulk of his executive orders on climate change, namely those that: create government bodies for treating climate as an all-of-government concern; end fossil fuel subsidies; pause new oil and gas leases on federal land; direct the federal purse to stimulate clean energy; create a New Deal–style Civilian Climate Corps; look to conserve 30 percent of US lands and waters; and drive up renewable energy production on public lands and offshore waters.
Biden’s moves on this front have been surprisingly aggressive, given that his initial climate plan in the Democratic primary got a D- from Greenpeace, which only eventually bumped it up to a B+. Not for nothing, climate activists have given Biden cautious praise for this start.
Also significant are Biden’s actions on the immigration front, another area he was criticized for during the campaign. Early on, Biden directed the attorney general to “preserve and fortify” Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program keeping Dreamers — the undocumented immigrants brought to, and raised in, the United States by their parents — from being deported; established (eventually) a task force to reunite migrant families separated by Trump; and imposed a hundred-day moratorium on any deportations, a measure that’s since been struck down in court. The administration also sent an expansive bill to Congress creating a pathway to citizenship for undocumented Americans.
Other notable actions include directing the Justice Department to end private prison contracts and banning discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity. Among the measures sure to have the broadest benefit are those allowing workers to continue receiving unemployment insurance if they turned down work that would have jeopardized their health, expanding existing food aid to a starving populace, and speeding up the delivery of already passed direct payments. These are joined by a flurry of more technocratic orders aimed at improving the country’s pandemic response by boosting testing, data collection, government coordination, production of critical supplies, and setting up a limited mask mandate.
A host of the most high-profile Biden measures are simply reversals of egregious actions Trump had taken, resetting things to the Obama-era status quo. Quite sensibly, that means the United States is back in the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, while the policy casualties include the Muslim ban, the Keystone XL pipeline, the military transgender ban, and further border wall construction. It also means federal workers have the civil service protections and collective bargaining rights that Trump ripped away from them.
A particularly important one is Biden’s ending of US support for the Saudi war in Yemen, reversing not just Trump’s policy but Barack Obama’s as well. The monstrous war has already killed more than two hundred thousand people, created the largest cholera outbreak in recorded history, and repeatedly brought the country to the brink of full-scale famine.
Some reversals are simply part of standard presidential partisan to-ing and fro-ing. This includes Biden’s ending of the Mexico City policy, a measure he originally backed that bars federal funds from foreign NGOs performing abortions, and which has been regularly ended and reinstated by Democratic and Republican presidents, respectively, over the last forty years.
A few other positive measures are actually extensions of some of the rare good things Trump did. These include extensions of Trump’s federal student loan payment deferral and his moratoriums on (some) foreclosures and evictions, the latter a policy Trump was quicker to support than Biden during the campaign.
Even for the most cynical leftist, there’s a lot to like in the Biden agenda so far. But of course, that’s not the whole story.
“The devil’s in the details” is a cliché for a reason, and it’s as true when it comes to executive orders as any other legal document. Take a closer look at the fine print, and there’s plenty the new administration falls short on.
Take climate. As some commentators have pointed out, Biden’s pause on new oil and gas leases is carefully worded to give plenty of wiggle room: it’s a pause, and even then only “to the extent possible,” leading to what the Financial Times called a “collective sigh of relief” among a fossil fuel industry that had feared a ban on new drilling or permits.
As one industry told the paper, it was a “best-case scenario for the oil industry” because “leases are already plentiful — it’s the permitting that matters.” Case in point: while being roundly praised for the pause, Biden quietly approved more than thirty new permits for drilling on federal land and coastal waters after his first week.
On foreign policy, Biden has both embraced and rejected parts of Trump’s agenda, mainly in a worse direction. He has halted Trump’s troop drawdown in Germany and is looking to reverse his withdrawal from Afghanistan. He has accepted Trump’s inflammatory decision to move the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, is continuing to support the coup-mongering Juan Guaidó in Venezuela, and has adopted Trump’s stance on Iran, refusing to ease murderous US sanctions until the country re-complies with the Obama-era deal that the Trump administration unilaterally reneged on. Even his Yemen war announcement was carefully worded to provide just enough wiggle room for continued US support.
But the disconnect between reality and publicity is perhaps biggest in the area of immigration. Headlines have portrayed Biden as “dismantling” or “reversing” Trump’s immigration agenda, following the lead of the president himself, who said he was “eliminating bad policy” as he signed the orders. In truth, unlike the hacksaw Biden’s taken to other parts of Trump’s legacy so far, Biden’s most recent orders preserve — temporarily, the administration says — some of Trump’s most controversial immigration measures by ordering them to be “reviewed,” breaking repeated campaign promises to immediately end them.
One is the public charge rule, essentially a wealth test for permanent residency. A particularly cruel one is the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP), or “Remain in Mexico” program, which has already sent (and is still sending) more than one thousand asylum seekers to be tortured, raped, abducted, or killed in Mexico while they wait to be processed, and which Biden had pledged to eliminate on “day one.” It has been misleadingly reported that Biden is beginning to end the program, when he has merely stopped new enrollments into it.
Left out entirely from Biden’s orders is Trump’s Title 42 public health order, denounced as the height of white supremacy under the former president, allowing border agents to summarily expel migrants who turn up at the border without any due process or possibility of asylum. Just last week, 140 Haitians were dropped in Mexico under the policy. Taken together, keeping this and MPP in place, while also blocking any more enrollments in the latter, in practice seals the Southern border off to migrants and asylum seekers more completely than even Trump had done, even if it is temporary.
Meanwhile, Biden’s private prison order conspicuously left out the Department of Homeland Security, meaning that the 81 percent of ICE detainees in private detention will stay there, and that another campaign promise goes unfulfilled for the time being. Biden is now reopening what was meant to be an improved emergency shelter for migrant kids that had been shut down under Trump, prompting criticism from some immigrant advocates. In 2019, Amnesty International called for the facility’s closure, saying that “emergency shelters are never a home for children,” and that taking kids into custody was “unnecessarily cruel and shameful.”
This pattern carries over to the bread-and-butter policies that, we were told, were the core of a bold, new, progressive direction by the administration. As expected, Biden’s central campaign promise of a public option for health insurance has vanished, with the president instead pushing a health insurer giveaway cribbed from lobbyists. He has been resisting calls to follow through on his already limited plan for forgiving federal student loans. His extension of Trump’s eviction moratorium left in place all the flaws and loopholes put in by the former president. And he now appears to be walking back the effort to pass a $15 minimum wage — one of the few policy overlaps between himself and Bernie Sanders, and a policy that got more votes than either presidential candidate in Florida last year — as part of his stimulus bill.
More potentially significant, however, has been Biden’s backtracking on the $2,000 stimulus checks, which inarguably had been the deciding factor in the Democrats’ shock takeover of the Senate. Biden has now gone back on three core promises he made to voters on the eve of the Georgia elections about the checks, declining to try to get the money out “immediately,” lowering the sum to $1,400, and opening the door to sending money to fewer people than Trump did — though it appears he has now been overruled on that last one. The walk-back has angered both organizers and ordinary voters.
Some of the Biden administration’s measures so far don’t fit neatly in either of these boxes and can’t really be evaluated until we see what they look like in practice. We can roughly group those into good and bad, too.
On the more positive side of the spectrum are Biden’s planned strengthening of DACA and his order requesting recommendations for increasing federal workers’ pay to at least $15 an hour. The devil will be in the details with these, too, but we don’t yet have the details. Biden is reportedly also planning to make good on a campaign promise to force federal contractors to pay their employees a $15 minimum wage. Lastly, it remains to be seen what the Keystone permit cancellation means: Just another reversal of a Trump reversal of Obama policy, or a sign the administration will take climate activists’ side in the many other pipeline fights to come?
On the potentially negative side of things, there’s Biden’s order to treat climate change as a national security issue. This could mean either a “war on terror”–style total reorientation of US domestic and foreign policy around the singular goal of preventing climate catastrophe, or a “war on terror”–style beefing up of the military and national security state to violently deal with the displaced people, scarcity, and instability the crisis produces.
There’s also Biden’s pledge to “safely” reopen schools in his first hundred days, which has the potential to both end up a public health disaster and a bruising battle with organized labor. Particularly worth keeping an eye on will be his counterterrorism measures at the domestic level, which, if not derailed by left-wing opposition, could well end up striking a fatal blow to people’s movements while lurching the country toward future authoritarian rule.
Then there’s the things the Biden administration could do, but aren’t even part of the conversation. As David Dayen and the American Prospect have painstakingly outlined, there is a raft of executive actions that have been available to Biden from the start of his presidency that could make real, measurable improvements to people’s lives, from seizing (or threatening to seize) patents to lower drug prices, to effectively making college tuition-free, to using the unprecedented public health emergency plaguing the country to expand Medicare to everyone while the pandemic rages. There is no indication any of these are even in the running right now.
This goes double for measures that could be pursued through the legislative side, where the sky is very nearly the limit, such as large-scale debt cancellation, monthly direct payments, or legalizing marijuana. Given the stakes, Biden’s refusal to go there should be as much a part of any evaluation as what he has already done.
More BHO than FDR
It’s far too early to deliver a verdict on the Biden administration. Which means it’s far too early either for progressives to be swooning or right-wingers to be hyperventilating, as both groups are already doing — similar to early reactions to Biden’s former boss, based on the mistaken perception the current president is governing like a left-wing radical.
But a clear-eyed look at Biden’s first few weeks reveals a pretty standard modern Democratic administration: some important progressive steps forward tempered by an instinctual conservatism and a reluctance to wield power as boldly as conditions demand, coupled with a quiet acceptance of key parts of his hard-right predecessor’s agenda. As with every Democratic president of the post-Reagan era, a flurry of activity and a good use of fine print has papered over the new administration’s conservatism and its more regressive actions.
Biden’s rejection of deficit concerns and proposal of a nearly $2 trillion stimulus — outdoing Obama in the process — is certainly a sign of the times, a vivid demonstration of how historical conditions can force even the most cautious conservatives to do what they would once have regarded as unthinkable. Whether this lasts, and whether simply outdoing the last guy instead of pegging your solutions to the moment will actually be enough for this crisis, are open questions.
Perhaps Biden really can govern as a Roosevelt-style progressive. But two things are for sure: his first weeks of the job are closer to a third Obama term than a path-breaking economic populism; and pretending otherwise isn’t going to make him get there.