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President Joe Biden’s raft of executive actions are designed to represent a U-turn from the Trump administration’s policies on everything from Covid to climate change to the border wall.
But this yo-yo style of government is not how things are supposed to work in the US. Big policy changes are supposed to move through Congress and then to the president’s desk, molded by the compromises necessary to get everyone to agree. Instead, with Congress absolutely stuck on key issues for the past 15 years – give or take – presidents have settled into a pattern of making executive policy on their own, which has resulted in them doing and then undoing each other on key issues. (That is, unless the courts step in first.)
Presidents have power. The actions Biden signed on Thursday were meant to focus the federal government’s efforts on Covid, create a national effort to get kids back in schools, encourage mask usage, mobilize FEMA and the national guard to help get vaccines into communities, harness local pharmacies and reinsert the US in the worldwide Covid effort. Read more here.
But other actions he signed, including the major ones on Wednesday – re-joining the global climate change effort and protecting undocumented children raised in the US – are the duct-tape version of governing. Biden essentially undid what Trump had done to undo what Obama had done.
Consider immigration. Biden plans to push for a pathway to citizenship for millions of undocumented immigrants. Presidents have been trying to get a comprehensive immigration plan through Congress for 15 years.
A bill passed through the House during the George W. Bush administration. A bill passed through the Senate during the Obama administration. But legislation never passed through both chambers. So President Barack Obama promised to protect undocumented kids if they came out of the shadows under a program called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Many did. Then Trump tried to end that program, although he was slowed by the courts. Now Biden is trying to protect it.
Trump, who started with a GOP-dominated Congress, came in with his own agenda involving a border wall. He didn’t really even try the normal route, instead declaring a national emergency at the border to funnel money to his wall project. So Biden has rescinded Trump’s national emergency and halted the wall.
And climate change. An existential threat deserves actual legislation to address the problem in a serious and effective way. But a coordinated climate change policy to cut greenhouse gas emissions is, if anything, more difficult to achieve than immigration reform.
Think about this:
Bill Clinton put the US in a global climate agreement. (Kyoto)
George W. Bush pulled the US out.
Obama put the US in a global climate agreement. (Paris)
Trump pulled the US out of Paris.
Biden is putting the US back in.
No wonder it’s hard for Americans and other countries to figure out where the US stands on climate change. It changes every few years. Biden puts a transition away from fossil fuels as one of his top priorities. If he wants to get something lasting accomplished, he’ll need to get it through Congress – which at the moment rests on an evenly divided Senate, where one Democrat is West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin. West Virginia is a coal state, and Manchin once cut a campaign ad where he shot a hole in the middle of the cap-and-trade bill. (Watch it here.)
Legislating is hard on purpose; it’s what was supposed to generate compromise in our big, messy democracy. Instead, it’s led to absolute gridlock. Even when Congress can get something big done (Obamacare, for instance), the effort to protect it from being undone becomes so all-consuming that making reasonable fixes becomes impossible.
More policy yo-yos: drilling in the Arctic, the Keystone pipeline and protections for LGBTQ Americans.