Joe Biden will sign a series of executive orders in his first days in office, attempting to roll back damage done at home and abroad by Donald Trump, whom the Democrat will replace as president on Wednesday.
Biden, 78, has already outlined plans to send an immigration bill and a Covid stimulus and relief package to a newly Democratic-controlled Congress. On Friday he said he would shake up the delivery of vaccines against Covid-19, mired in chaos under Trump.
Biden plans to return the US to the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, overturn Trump’s travel ban against some Muslim-majority countries, restrict evictions and foreclosures under the pandemic and institute a mask mandate on federal property.
In a memo released on Saturday, the incoming White House chief of staff, Ron Klain, said: “These actions will change the course of Covid-19, combat climate change, promote racial equity and support other underserved communities, and rebuild our economy in ways that strengthen the backbone of this country: the working men and women who built our nation.
“While the policy objectives in these executive actions are bold, I want to be clear: the legal theory behind them is well-founded and represents a restoration of an appropriate, constitutional role for the president.”
The memo did not mention rejoining the World Health Organization, previously mentioned as a priority. Klain said subsequent orders would address “equity and support communities of color” and address criminal justice reform, access to healthcare and other priorities.
Trump leaves office impeached twice, the second time over an attack on the US Capitol he incited and which left five people dead. The coronavirus pandemic is out of control, the death toll approaching 400,000, the caseload close to 24m. There were nearly 3,300 deaths on Saturday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The economy has cratered, unemployment rising steeply.
Among historians assessing the challenge faced by Biden, the Roosevelt and Lincoln biographer Doris Kearns Goodwin told the Washington Post it was “huge”.
“History has shown when you have crises like this,” she said, “it’s an opportunity for leaders to mobilise resources of the federal government. All the presidents we remember, they dealt with a crisis. When you’re given that chance, the question is: are you fitted for that moment?”
Biden will enjoy Democratic control of both houses of Congress, if by a slender margin in the House and by Kamala Harris’s casting vote as vice-president in a 50-50 Senate. But Senate business, including confirmation for Biden’s cabinet nominees, will soon be dominated by Trump’s impeachment trial.
On Sunday Klain told CNN’s State of the Union: “It’s important for the Senate to do its constitutional duty, but also to do its constitutional duty to move forward on these appointments, on the urgent action the country needs.
“During the last time President Trump was tried the Senate was able to hold confirmation hearings for nominees during the morning [and] was able to conduct other business. I hope that the Senate leaders on a bipartisan basis find a way to move forward on all their responsibilities. This impeachment trial is one of them but getting people into the government and getting action on coronavirus is another one of those responsibilities.”
If Trump is convicted, he could be barred from running for office again. Ten Republican House members voted to impeach over the Capitol riot, making Trump’s second impeachment the most bipartisan in history. Senior party figures are anxious to move on but a clear majority of Republican voters support Trump and back his baseless claim the election was stolen through voter fraud. In Congress, 147 Republicans in the House and Senate objected to electoral college results.
Biden has urged unity and pledged to use his experience in Congress – he was a senator for 36 years – to reach across the aisle. But in the Guardian on Sunday, former US labor secretary Robert Reich sought to urge the new president towards radical action and away from seeking significant Republican support.
“I keep hearing that Joe Biden will govern from the ‘center’,” Reich wrote. “He has no choice, they say, because he’ll have razor-thin majorities in Congress, and the Republican party has moved to the right.
“Rubbish. I’ve served several Democratic presidents who have needed Republican votes for what they’ve wanted to do. But the Republicans now in Congress are nothing like those I’ve dealt with. Most of today’s GOP live in a parallel universe. There’s no ‘centre’ between the reality-based world and theirs.”
Speaking to the Post, House majority James Clyburn, a key Biden ally and a leading African American voice, said he had reminded the president-elect of the power of executive orders, which Harry Truman used to desegregate the military and Lincoln used to begin the end of slavery.
The new White House press secretary, Jen Psaki, is scheduled to give a briefing on Wednesday, inauguration day – four years after Sean Spicer kicked off the Trump presidency by aggressively lying about the size of the crowd for Trump’s inaugural address.
Biden will speak and take the oath of office amid massive security, a Washington lockdown prompted by fears of new attacks in the wake of the Capitol riot.
Clyburn urged Biden to “lay out your vision and invite people to join you in the effort. But if they don’t join you, whatever authority you’ve got, use it.”