Jan 25, 2021

Biden's executive orders.

Biden's executive orders.

What has he done so far?

I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free, subscribe for Friday editions and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.

Today’s read: 12 minutes.

A round-up of Joe Biden’s executive orders. We’re skipping today’s reader question, as the central story takes up a lot of space. For a simple breakdown of what Biden signed on day one, check out our Instagram page!

Quick hits.

  1. The House of Representatives will transmit its article of impeachment against Donald Trump to the Senate at 7 p.m. EST tonight. The trial will begin on February 9th. (NPR)
  2. Trump considered replacing the acting attorney general with another official who was prepared to ask the Supreme Court to invalidate Joe Biden’s victory in Georgia. (Wall Street Journal, subscription).
  3. A bipartisan group of senators raised questions and opposition to Joe Biden’s COVID-19 plan, on the grounds it’d do too much to benefit wealthy Americans. (Politico)
  4. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that she is running for governor of Arkansas today. (CNN)
  5. The Senate confirmed Gen. Lloyd Austin as secretary of defense by a vote of 93-2, making him the first Black man to ever run the Pentagon. Avril Haines was confirmed as director of national intelligence last week, making her the first woman to ever hold that position. (Axios)
  6. 10 House Republicans who voted for impeachment are already facing primary challengers, censures and rebukes from Republicans in their hometowns, illustrating the influence former President Trump still has on the party. (The New York Times, subscription)

What D.C. is talking about.

Biden’s executive actions. In his first day in office, President Joe Biden signed 17 executive orders, chiefly aimed at undoing the actions taken by his predecessor, President Donald Trump. By Sunday, he had signed 30 executive orders and actions in his first three days in office. The flurry of orders was the most action any recent president has taken on day one, and it covered everything from the pandemic to climate change to racism.

Here’s a brief list of 17 executive orders and actions tracked by Politico that were passed in Biden’s first 24 hours on the job.

  1. He rejoined the Paris climate accords, which President Trump had left last year. This commits the U.S. to level off our greenhouse gas emissions.
  2. He revoked the permit for the Keystone XL pipeline, which was opposed by climate activists, and was going to take fossil fuels from Canada and transport them through the U.S. to the Gulf of Mexico. The same order also reinstates drilling bans in national parks.
  3. He is ordering a mask-wearing mandate on federal property, in federal buildings and for federal employees and contractors.
  4. He rejoined the World Health Organization.
  5. He created a White House COVID-19 office that will coordinate across the federal government on the vaccine rollout, distributing more PPE, expanding testing and reopening schools. It will report directly to him.
  6. He froze student loan debt collection until at least September 30th.
  7. He extended the moratorium on evictions through the end of March.
  8. He strengthened legal protections for the recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protects undocumented immigrants brought here as children.
  9. He nixed the Trump administration’s ban on people from majority-Muslim countries and restarted visa processing for those nations.
  10. He stopped the border wall construction.
  11. He canceled a Trump executive order that had expanded interior enforcement on immigration and broadened the range of people whom agents should work to detain and deport.
  12. He banned workplace discrimination against LGBT employees, signing an order that his administration interprets the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as prohibiting discrimination against LGBT people.
  13. He implemented an ethics pledge that commits all executive branch employees to refrain from political interference with the Justice Department or using their office for personal gain.
  14. He signed an order reversing the Trump administration’s efforts to exclude undocumented immigrants from the census.
  15. He ended the 1776 Commission, a project that was designed to create a more conservative history curriculum for U.S. schools, reversed a Trump administration ban on race and diversity training and directed all federal agencies to create an action plan within 200 days to “address unequal barriers to opportunity in agency policies and programs.”
  16. He protected Liberians from deportations.
  17. He froze several of the regulations that the Trump administration tried to implement on the way out the door.

Since then, he’s also signed executive actions that will expand food stamp access, call for an equitable coronavirus response, call for the Department of Education and HHS to create guidance for safely reopening schools, and restore collective bargaining power and worker protections for federal workers and lay the groundwork for $15 minimum wage.

Obviously, these 30 orders span a lot of different political debates and arguments, making it hard to address each one specifically or expansively. But I’ve collected some compelling responses to the orders, particularly those focusing on climate change and racial equality (which seemed to draw the most response, as a lot of the COVID-19 orders were less controversial).

What the right is saying.

The right is critical of most of the orders, particularly those around climate change, minimum wage and race.

The Washington Examiner editorial board said rejoining the Paris climate accord delighted our allies and was a top priority of the left, but most of all “it was a gift to China.”

“Federal action to reduce the world growth of carbon emissions, particularly action as ineffective as that embodied in the Paris accord, should not be taken at the expense of U.S. citizens in relation to foreigners,” the board wrote. “Yet that is exactly what an immediate return to the Paris accord means. It commits the United States to reductions that will entangle American businesses and jobs in new lengths of red tape, and will also probably increase electricity prices. Supporters of the Paris climate accord underplay or ignore these concerns. But it is a simple fact that renewable energy mandates have driven up household energy bills in states where they have been introduced.”

In the National Review, the editorial board criticized Biden’s “foolish sabotage” of the Keystone Pipeline, saying he is yet to be sworn in but “already, he is at war with American energy — which is to say, at war with American prosperity.”

The Pipeline “would benefit Canadian producers and their investors, American refineries and their large, excellently paid work forces — those good, high-paying, blue-collar jobs Biden talks about — and, most important, American consumers, who would have access to yet another source of fuel at attractive prices from a nearby friendly country,” the board wrote. “Fossil fuels, far from being the great villain of the climate story, have been the main source of greenhouse-gas reductions in the United States over the past several decades, as relatively clean-burning natural gas displaces relatively dirty coal in electricity generation. But that is not the kind of intelligent tradeoff that interests American environmentalists, who are moralists and romantics and committed to the notion that hydrocarbon fuels are, simply, evil — and that they must be fought on every front.”

The New York Post’s Steven Malanga said Biden is already undoing Trump’s business-friendly policies.

“By the time Trump took office, the bill for administering all the federal government’s red tape amounted to an estimated $70 billion a year. The costs to individuals and businesses ran to the hundreds of billions,” he wrote. “Obama’s Labor Department, meantime, issued a ‘persuader’ regulation requiring lawyers working on union affairs for companies to register and file reports as consultants, even if they just advised the firms without speaking directly to employees. So onerous was the reporting requirement that some labor-law firms declined any further work that would require them to file as a persuader. The Labor Department also required firms with federal contracts to inform workers that they have the right to form a union and required contractors working in some federal programs, such as stimulus-funded weatherization, to pay prevailing wages (generally equivalent to union wages).”

What the left is saying.

The left is supportive of the executive orders, and relieved to see an immediate attack on Trump’s most controversial policies.

In The New Yorker, Bill McKibben called Biden’s cancellation of the Keystone Pipeline a “landmark in the climate fight.”

“Environmentalists have won many of these infrastructure battles, and they’ve added delay and cost to projects,” McKibben wrote. “But there have been plenty of losses, too, and Biden will get to help decide the fates of two other critical projects that resemble KXL in many ways… perhaps this son of Scranton is uniquely positioned to solve this conundrum. What’s needed is a grand bargain, which replaces fossil-fuel-infrastructure jobs with jobs building solar panels, wind turbines, water pipes that don’t carry lead, and so on.

“These jobs need to be comparable in terms of pay; there has to be necessary retraining for workers; and someone has to figure out how to allocate this new work to existing unions, so that no one gets left out and that all kinds of Americans share in those jobs,” he added. “It is, in other words, the messy work of a ‘just transition’ that, in this moment of economic and climatic peril, can’t be dodged any longer.”

In Wired, Eric Niiler asked if returning to the Paris Climate Accord will matter.

“Trump’s four years were marked with disdain for science, the weakening of environmental regulations, and outright denial of the perils of climate change,” he said. “And despite Biden’s fast start, the Earth will continue to heat up over the next decade as lawmakers and policy experts debate how best to slow down society’s petroleum addiction. In fact, 2020 was either tied or in second place for the warmest year on record, according to data released by federal scientists last week. It’s a dangerous trend that climate scientists say will continue even if carbon emissions were stopped today.

“Still, Biden’s decision to rejoin the Paris accord means that the US will at least take baby steps, along with other nations, to lift the curse of climate change, a human-caused catastrophe that is leading to more frequent and more powerful storms, increased droughts, and intense rainfall across the planet.”

In The Washington Post, Catherine Rampell wrote about how Biden’s executive action will reduce hunger, noting that “even with Congress’s temporary increases, for example, the average food stamp recipient still receives only $2.30 per person, per meal.”

“On Friday, however, President Biden took some important steps toward relieving this hardship,” she wrote. “As part of an executive order on economic relief, Biden set in motion three major changes to food assistance programs. The first would increase food access for millions of children who have not gotten their usual free or reduced-price school meals because of school closures… A second change would ask the Agriculture Department (USDA) to increase the value of food stamp allotments for the poorest families.

“Biden’s third policy would almost certainly take longer to implement — but would, of the three, ultimately be Biden’s most significant and enduring change to the nutrition-related safety net: revamping the ‘Thrifty Food Plan’… The Thrifty Food Plan is the USDA’s estimate of a minimum, nutritionally sufficient diet and it’s the basis for determining how much households get in food stamp benefits.”

Another view.

Andrew Sullivan, who abandoned the American conservative movement but is a frequent critic of both sides, joined the right in opining harshly about Biden’s “culture war aggression.”

“The vast majority of Americans support laws that protect minorities from discrimination, so that every American can have equality of opportunity, without their own talents being held back by prejudice,” he wrote. “But Biden’s speech and executive orders come from a very different place. They explicitly replace the idea of equality in favor of what anti-liberal critical theorists call ‘equity.’ They junk equality of opportunity in favor of equality of outcomes. Most people won’t notice that this new concept has been introduced — equity, equality, it all sounds the same — but they’ll soon find out the difference.

“In less tortured English, equity means giving the named identity groups a specific advantage in treatment by the federal government over other groups — in order to make up for historic injustice and ‘systemic’ oppression,” he wrote. “Without ‘equity,’ the argument runs, there can be no real ‘equality of opportunity.’ Equity therefore comes first. Until equity is reached, equality is postponed — perhaps forever… You don’t get to unite the country by dividing it along these deep and inflammatory issues of identity.”

My take.

Last week, during one of Biden’s press secretaries’ first day, The New York Times’ Michael Shear asked this question:

“If there's this call for unity that the President made in his speech yesterday, but there has so far been almost no fig leaf even to the Republican Party. You don't have a Republican cabinet member like President Obama and I think President Clinton had. The executive orders that he's come out of the gate have been largely designed at erasing as much of the Trump legacy as you can with executive orders, much of which the Republican Party likes and agrees with. You've put forth an immigration bill that has a path to citizenship but doesn't do much of a nod towards the border security. And you've got a $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill that folks have said already drawn all sorts of criticism. Where is the actual action behind this idea of bipartisanship?”

It’s a good question (aside from bungling the “olive branch” expression), and one worth asking. It’s also nice to see — despite the constant attacks from media critics — that this kind of question is being asked by a reporter with alleged left-wing bias.

The question also illustrates the bind Biden is in. He did run on unity, but he also just handily won an election with support from across the Democratic party — and that support should be, at the very least, a mandate to go after things as flimsy as executive orders. That Biden could undo so many “Trump achievements” on his first day without Congress’s help is a good reminder of how many of Trump’s achievements were accomplished without real legislation and in a temporary fashion.

Canceling the Keystone XL pipeline is a fantastic example of the challenges the left faces. On the one hand, obstruction of the pipeline is an example of protecting indigenous land and indigenous people who have seen their lands ransacked throughout American and Canadian history. The framing of the issue as big oil vs. indigenous people has both truth and a potent political message, and it’s a clear win for anyone worried about the destruction of our planet. It also doesn’t tell the full story.

That’s because the other side of this is another progressive issue: labor unions and the working class. The projects Biden stopped were going to create thousands of good-paying, union jobs — a priority both of the Biden administration and the progressive left. The issue of desperately needed, $90,000 a year union jobs vs. dividing up more indigenous land to subject it to the threat of environmental destruction is a more nuanced and difficult political sell — which is why “giant oil corporations” became the enemy, not the labor unions who have been extremely supportive of the pipeline and other similarly problematic projects.

Rejoining the Paris climate accord was a more straightforward and obvious move, but it was also a missed opportunity. Trump was wrong to leave it with no effort at changing it and Biden was wrong to re-enter it without strengthening it. Small increases in electricity or energy prices here are a worthwhile sacrifice nearly every left-of-center American would make — and many centrist Americans, too — for the sake of slowing global warming.

But not when India is emitting half as much carbon each year as we do and increasing their emissions every year. Not when China is emitting twice as much carbon as we are and currently developing 250 gigawatts of coal-fired power. That doesn’t sound like a country committed to being carbon neutral by 2060, as China’s dictator Xi Jinping says. Because it isn’t. Biden had an opportunity, with a more thoughtful re-entry, to confront the nations truly undermining the agreement while we have actually taken significant steps to reduce our own emissions here in the U.S. Maybe he wants the moral high ground, which is a reasonable position — but if he doesn’t do something soon to change the dynamics we have now, it’ll be an utter failure.

The food stamp changes Rampell wrote about are fantastic. I want to be unambiguous there: it’s an absolute shame that it takes an executive order to do what Biden did. If Uncle Sam is going to take 30% of my income, I’d much prefer it goes to programs helping feed Americans who are literally starving. I’ve got no qualms there.

I feel similarly about the ending of the 1776 commission Trump tried to start, which was a plagiarized, historically inaccurate curriculum he attempted to make the distorted version of history taught in our schools. It was a wholly embarrassing spectacle and I’m glad it’s over.

I feel far less certain about Biden’s apparent insistence that the federal government adopts the policies of Ibram X. Kendi, which some of his executive orders appear to be hinting at. Sullivan’s piece is thought-provoking and challenging, and I think he’s right that Biden is endorsing the Kendi idea that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Here’s another excerpt from his piece:

Helping level up regions and populations that have experienced greater neglect or discrimination in the past is a good thing. But you could achieve this if you simply focused on relieving poverty in the relevant communities. You could invest in schools, reform policing, target environmental clean-ups, grow the economy, increase federal attention to the neglected, and thereby help the needy in precisely these groups. But that would not reflect critical theory’s insistence that race and identity trump class, and that America itself is inherently, from top to bottom, a “white supremacist” country. Biden just endorsed that with gusto.

This assessment seems reasonable, and makes me incredibly uneasy, if for no other reason than the simple fact that I reject any form of government discrimination regardless of whether it’s a means to a positive end.

That being said, it’s also valuable not to get out over our skis. Biden’s orders, for now, do little more than call on the federal government to assess inequities in things like hiring practices or invest in historically underserved communities — which is exactly the kind of thing Sullivan (and I) have also endorsed. This seems positive. So as uneasy as this might make me feel, it’s also worth seeing what they come up with before passing judgment on how effective it is.

Finally, I think it’s worth pointing out a few things Biden didn’t do that he promised he would do on his first day in office: He did not yet set up a commission to reunite children separated at the border, he didn’t end Trump’s tax cuts or remove any tax cuts for the super-wealthy, and he didn’t repeal liability protections for gun manufacturers. All of these were day one promises, though despite insisting he’d change tax law on day one, critics have long pointed out he’s going to need Congress to do that. His tax law plans have also likely changed in wake of the coronavirus pandemic. Bloomberg (subscription) has a great write-up comparing Biden’s day one or early administration promises to a more sober look at what it’d take to accomplish them.

A story that matters.

One in five children in the United States is now obese, an all-time high with rates increasing across income, racial and ethnic groups, according to the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. The 10-month long school closures and pandemic are only expected to worsen the problem, as previous studies have shown that kids typically gain weight when school is out during the summer months. Not only are school meals critical to students’ health, but schools also provide exercise via gym classes and commuting. Childhood obesity is typically a strong indicator for adult obesity, which leads to poorer health outcomes, more health care spending, and greater risk from diseases like COVID-19. (Axios)


  • 38. The number of U.S. Capitol Police employees who have tested positive for coronavirus since the January 6th attack on the Capitol.
  • 69%. The percentage of Americans who say they approve of Joe Biden’s handling of COVID-19, according to a new Ipsos poll.
  • 81%. The percentage of Americans who support Joe Biden’s executive order for a mask mandate and social distancing in federal buildings and on federal property.
  • 77%.The percentage of Americans who support Joe Biden’s executive order to create a government-wide approach to equity, civil rights, racial justice, and equal opportunity.
  • 65%. The percentage of Americans who support Joe Biden’s executive order to rejoin the Paris Climate Accords.
  • 55%. The percentage of Americans who support Joe Biden’s executive order to reverse the travel ban on visitors from primarily Muslim countries and African


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Have a nice day.

The New York Times recently published an awesome story about how public experts are underselling the COVID-19 vaccine, and “why the vaccine news is better than you may think.” Right now, the public dialogue around vaccines consists mostly of warnings about their limitations — which are partly true and important to remember. But “the sum total of the warnings is misleading.” Via The New York Times:

“We’re underselling the vaccine,” Dr. Aaron Richterman, an infectious-disease specialist at the University of Pennsylvania, said.

“It’s going to save your life — that’s where the emphasis has to be right now,” Dr. Peter Hotez of the Baylor College of Medicine said.

The Moderna and Pfizer vaccines are “essentially 100 percent effective against serious disease,” Dr. Paul Offit, the director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said. “It’s ridiculously encouraging.”

If anything, the 95 percent number understates the effectiveness, because it counts anyone who came down with a mild case of Covid-19 as a failure. But turning Covid into a typical flu — as the vaccines evidently did for most of the remaining 5 percent — is actually a success. Of the 32,000 people who received the Moderna or Pfizer vaccine in a research trial, do you want to guess how many contracted a severe Covid case? One.

Although no rigorous study has yet analyzed whether vaccinated people can spread the virus, it would be surprising if they did. “If there is an example of a vaccine in widespread clinical use that has this selective effect — prevents disease but not infection — I can’t think of one!” Dr. Paul Sax of Harvard has written in The New England Journal of Medicine.

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