Activists Want Biden to be Like Trump in Only One Way: His Use of Executive Power

A week into Donald Trump's presidency, he had already pulled the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, instituted the so-called Muslim Ban—banning travel from many Muslim-majority countries—and signed executive orders on immigration to build a wall along the Southern border and designate all 11 million undocumented immigrants as priorities for removal from the country.

So, what will President-elect Joe Biden do in his first week?

A pillar of Biden's campaign was undoing the excess and overreach of Trump's executive power with his own set of administrative orders, some on day one, others within his first 100 days. Biden's transition has prioritized having a large number of staff in place on day one to hit the ground running, with executive orders to reinstate Obama's DACA program, rejoin the Paris climate accords, and end the Muslim ban, all expected shortly after Biden's inauguration.

Trump's approach showed the ability for a new president to set the tone during their first week, but some Democrats and activists, from climate to criminal justice and immigration, question whether Biden will have the appetite to exercise broad executive power as his predecessor did.

One senior Democrat assessed how the mood of some members of Congress has shifted since Biden was last in office, ahead of his upcoming inauguration.

"They've been putting up with sh** for four years with a crazy, racist president and they're not in the mood for white, establishment White House advisers telling them nothing is possible," the source told Newsweek.

Advocates shared what they would like to see Biden do during his first week that would reveal he understands the breadth of his executive power and reflect the urgency of the moment.

After a summer in which Black Lives Matter protests spilled onto the streets in the wake of the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis, The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) said it is pushing for the creation of a new cabinet position, a national adviser focused on racial justice equity and advancement, who would report directly to the president. The group, like others, told Newsweek they would like to see this done administratively during Biden's first week.

Other civil rights groups would like to see Biden clear the way for Justice Department investigations into abuses by rogue law enforcement agencies against people of color, as well as an executive order that all agencies reinstate requirements for anti-racial bias training for federal workers.

Biden's website says he will expand and use the Justice Department power to trigger pattern-or-practice investigations and consent decrees to address circumstances of "systemic police misconduct" and to "restore trust between police and communities."

"Executive power is where all groups will have to push Biden to use that authority," a member of a racial justice group said. "We'll have to agitate—not like we did with Trump—but enough to get the point across."

Declaring "our house is ablaze with a fire fanned by Trump for four years," 380 climate groups on Wednesday released a draft executive order they would like to see Biden sign declaring a climate emergency under the National Emergencies Act. The action would unlock special powers that the groups want him to use to reinstate a ban on crude oil exports and redirect a portion of military spending to clean-energy infrastructure.

Biden is expected to take at least 10 executive actions related to the climate and lowering emissions on his first day, including using the federal government procurement process to work toward 100 percent clean energy and zero-emissions vehicles, develop new fuel economy standards to lessen greenhouse emissions, and requiring federal permit decisions to consider climate change and emissions.

"The intention is to be aggressive," a source close to the transition told Newsweek of the use of executive power. "Not just to restore [Obama-era rules] but to affect quick change in some capacity or another."

Still, while the use of administrative power is expected, Biden-world bristles at calls by activists for an endless stream of executive orders to try to get around the legislative process.

"The constraints Congress places are very real. There's only so much an administration can do through executive order, you still have to deal with Pelosi and McConnell, these are not things you can get around," the source added. "So for anyone to say Biden needs to do more, your gripe is with the Constitution."

Executive orders are not the end all, be all. People point to Trump, but he was a failed president. Let's not use him as a model for how things should be done.
Maria Cardona, veteran Democratic strategist

Democrats and activists respond that most of Trump's barrage of attacks on the immigration system, for example, were done by executive order.

While Biden has said he will reverse those Trump orders, prioritizing the reunification of any children still separated from their families due to Trump's zero tolerance policy, ending the prosecution of parents for minor immigration violations as "an intimidation tactic," and ending Trump's dismantling of the asylum system, activists say rolling back Trump's policies isn't sufficient.

Jacinta Gonzalez, a senior organizer for Mijente, who leads work around immigration policy and criminal justice, said Trump showed how much can move from the executive branch in very real ways. She said her group, which is working in Georgia on the Senate runoff elections, wants to make sure a moratorium on deportations that Biden promised in his first 100 days does not have too many exceptions because of the pain the community has suffered already.

Mijente also wants the end of Operation Streamline, which facilitates the mass prosecution and deportations of people who cross the border. Gonzalez said this isn't some fanciful ask by activists, as it was included in the Biden-Sanders unity task force document ahead of the Democratic convention.

"Is their message going to be, 'We hear you, we follow agreements, we're going to execute them,' or 'We make promises we can't keep' and keep kicking the can down the road?" she said.

Maria Cardona, a veteran Democratic strategist close to the Biden team, said fixing the immigration system has to happen through legislative action.

"Executive orders are not the end all, be all," she said. "People point to Trump, but he was a failed president. Let's not use him as a model for how things should be done."

The Biden administration wants to actually solve problems, she said, not just look like they're solving problems.

"Let's judge him both on what he says and on what he does."

Joe biden climate
President-elect Joe Biden named the deeply experienced Antony Blinken for secretary of state, also nominating the first female head of intelligence and a czar for climate issues, with a promise to a return to expertise after the turbulent years of Donald Trump. CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP/Getty