Memo to Biden: Go big — use the moment to not only rebuild but to rebuild differently
Joe Biden and Kamala Harris won the 2020 presidential election decisively, and even before all the data are in, there are countless hot takes on why — on which communities formed the record-breaking majority who voted for them, and what motivated those votes.
That’s an important conversation to have, and there are, no doubt, countless lessons to be learned, but one thing that is already crystal clear: When they are sworn in on Jan. 20, Biden and Harris must move quickly to go big and to be bold — including using the levers of executive power when Congress will not act.
The new administration is inheriting multiple, simultaneous crises of unprecedented proportions. People from all walks of life are in pain. Government action is needed, and it is needed now. Business as usual or a return to a pre-Trump “normal” simply will not do.
Mismanagement of the pandemic has led to the deaths of more than a quarter of a million Americans; an economic depression has put millions on the brink; rampant racial injustice in policing, health care, and elsewhere continues to plague Black communities and people of color; and climate change is no longer a crisis of the future but is causing fires, storms, and floods that are destroying American communities right now.
Of course, the administration should do all it can to work with Congress to advance solutions, but we must also face a harsh truth: Even if the Democratic candidates in Georgia win their runoffs in January, the Senate will be divided evenly between Democrats and Republicans. Vice President Harris will be the tie-breaker, but that matters only if conservative Democrats or Republicans in the Senate give legislation at least 50 votes. And it’s of course possible that Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) will remain in charge. For years, McConnell’s Senate has hamstrung progress and skirted its responsibilities to the American people. There’s little reason to think he’d now try a different approach.
If prior performance is any indicator of future results, President Biden will need to do more than merely ask Congress to put forth a legislative agenda that addresses the crises currently devastating the nation. He will need to be prepared to deliver that agenda on his own, through executive action.
Importantly, he will have both the mandate and the power to do so. A popular-vote margin greater than that of Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, and George W. Bush has handed Joe Biden a mandate, and our Constitution has given all presidents discretionary power in the form of the executive order. With the stroke of his pen, President Biden can go big and go bold on an agenda that puts climate change, economic inequality, racial injustice, and, of course, recovering from COVID-19 at the top of the list for his new administration and America.
To be sure, there are critics of the executive order who will say it circumvents Congress, it’s too much power in the hands of one person, or it’s anathema to checks and balances. Observers may agree or disagree with these critiques, but the executive order is also part of American governance, and it has been one way American presidents have made major change throughout history. Not all of it was good, of course: For example, we interned Japanese Americans during World War II as a result of an executive order. But we also ended slavery with an executive order and integrated the U.S. armed forces with an executive order. And federal agencies have great power as well. President Obama used his executive authority to protect Dreamers, reduce smokestack pollution, and raise wages for workers. And just like the laws that the U.S. Senate has failed to pass, executive actions are subject to judicial review and legislative override, so checks and balances remain.
Let’s also be clear not just about the how but the why. Bold solutions are not only urgently needed by Americans in dire straits, but they are smart politics. Solutions to the pandemic, expanded access to health care, clean-energy jobs, criminal justice reform, and other progressive approaches to governance don’t just help people, they’re also wildly popular. They are what the voters are demanding.
From Reconstruction to the New Deal to Civil Rights, Americans have repeatedly supported their leaders when they advanced bold, necessary change. If ever there was a moment when the nation was primed for transformation, this is it. We need to use the moment to not only rebuild but to rebuild differently: equitably, justly, with more prosperity, sustainability, and fairness. The American people have spoken, and we are ready for change. President-elect Biden must be ready to make it happen, by whatever means necessary.
Epting is executive director of MoveOn.