Since Thursday, Republican representatives and observers have accused Joe Biden, who has signed approximately 20 executive orders in three days, of governing like a dictator without consulting Congress and without keeping his promise of bringing people together.
The image isn’t a good one: Biden got down to business as soon as he came to power on Wednesday by signing a pile of executive orders: the fight against COVID-19, climate change, and changing the cap on immigration. The new president wants to show Americans and the rest of the world that he was already at work implementing his new ambitious political program. However, it only took a few hours for him to be quickly caught up in partisan conflicts, a Congress that he does not fully control and a pandemic that is difficult to stop.
Television cameras have been invited into the Oval Office every day since the president’s inauguration. After he had signed about 10 executive orders on Wednesday, Biden enacted eight others on Thursday and an additional two on Friday. The president wanted to “roll up his sleeves and get going,” according to his Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
But since Thursday, Republican representatives and observers have accused Biden of governing like a dictator, without consulting Congress and without respecting his promise to bring people together. “These executive orders and proposals — bypassing Congress … do not represent an agenda to unify the country” criticized Andy Barr, Republican representative of Kentucky.
Arkansas Sen. Tom Cotton, who is one of the potential candidates for the next presidential election, deplored the fact that on his first day, Biden reversed a series of policies laid out by Donald Trump — overturning the entry ban into the country for nationals of several Muslim countries; the ban on access to work permits for illegal immigrants who entered the U.S. as minors; the construction of the border wall with Mexico; and the Keystone XL pipeline. “The president preached unity from the inaugural stand, yet he signed [a series] of executive orders,” criticized Cotton on Fox News, arguing that it was “not a good start.”*
In three days, the president has signed more than three times the total number of executive orders enacted by Trump in all of 2017 (19 compared to 55).
“So far Biden has talked like a centrist but governed from the radical left”, Sen. Marco Rubio said on Twitter. He is also a probable Republican candidate for the presidency in four years.
Reluctance in Congress
Furthermore, Rubio and Cotton have immediately rejected the bill on immigration brought to Congress by the new president. Biden also hopes to offer a pathway to American citizenship for some 11 million undocumented immigrants and is investing in technology to secure the border with Mexico, instead of Trump’s desired wall, a bill that is “doomed to fail,”* Rubio stated this week even before Biden had officially become president.
Likewise for his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 stimulus package. Even more moderate Republican senators, whom the Democrats will need if they want to pass it, seem to be opposing it.
Sen. Mitt Romney from Utah recalled that Congress had just adopted a plan for $900 billion; “I’m not looking for a new program in the immediate future.” Sen. Susan Collins from Maine noted that the $900 billion plan, voted on at the end of December, was not yet entirely distributed, and that a new stimulus package, twice as large, seems “premature.”
The Democrats have resumed control of the Senate this week. The upper chamber is split 50-50; therefore, it is Vice President Kamala Harris who breaks all ties. But the Democrats need to get 60 votes in order to avoid a filibuster, which allows for bills to be delayed or blocked.
An Already Entrenched Pandemic
In addition to obstacles to his political ambitions, Biden has also inherited a country already ravaged by the pandemic. The U.S. surpassed 400,000 deaths on Tuesday. More than 24 million Americans have contracted COVID-19.
The president, who has made the fight against COVID-19 his absolute priority for the start of his term, has proposed an ambitious stimulus package to get the American economy back on its feet. He has also commanded the procurement of equipment to enhance the country’s vaccination capacity; the creation of 100 federal vaccination centers; and the wearing of face masks in all places under federal jurisdiction, as well as on all inter-state transport. As for the rest of the country, Biden has launched the “100-day mask challenge,” in order to attempt to convince the American public to adopt the practice ridiculed by his predecessor for a year.
The objective of vaccinating 100 million Americans within his first 100 days seems to be underway. The United States is already vaccinating approximately a million people a day. But at this rate, it will take more than a year to give two doses of the vaccine to the 209 million adult Americans, warned Celine Gounder, M.D., one of the members of the U.S. COVID-19 Advisory Board.
The Biden team’s vaccination strategy, however, has come a long way since the Trump government long deprived them of information, noted Benjamin Brunjes of the University of Washington. “Rather than being able to get to work immediately, Joe Biden must first understand that state of the situation. […] There needs to be a timeline,”* stated the associate professor of public policy.
It All Depends on Uncooperative States
Meanwhile, the president continues to express the need for citizens to practice social distancing and to wear masks. Yet, school safety guidelines and the safe reopening of schools and businesses rest under the jurisdiction of states, according to William Resh. The wearing of masks, ordered this week by Biden at a federal level, remains a symbolic gesture. “It is essentially about setting an example,”* concludes the associate professor at the School of Public Policy of the University of Southern California.
A survey at that university revealed this week that only 51% of Americans wear a mask when they come into close contact with members of a different family group.
Mr. Resh nevertheless estimates that President Biden may have an important “power of persuasion” over state leaders, notably by attaching conditions to certain financial aid programs, as is often the case in deals between the Canadian government and its provinces — or even by threatening to impose certain regulations regarding the protection of workers, for example.
Simply having the president hammer home a message consistent with that of public health authorities could also help convince states and citizens to change their behaviors. “There has already been progress”* compared to the previous government, professor Resh points out.
A study carried out among average voters revealed that respondents didn’t know whom to listen to given that President Trump and the Center for Disease Control advocated different approaches. “When there is a uniformity in message between government agencies and the president, especially during a public health crisis, it is likely at the very least to have a marginal influence on public opinion and their behaviors.”*
Biden recognizes that he will not be able to turn the tide for a few months. It is predicted that the number of deaths in the United States is at risk of passing half a million in February. “But let me be clear, we will get through this,” he promised, in spite of it all.
*Editor’s Note: Although accurately translated, the quoted passages could not be independently verified.
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