President Biden signed a package of 17 executive orders immediately following his inauguration on Wednesday. The orders are a mixed bag — some have very little substance and are primarily symbolic, but others deal with measures that have significant effects on people’s lives. As socialists and other fighters for the working class develop our assessment of the new administration as it takes shape, it is important to understand why Biden made this his first major political act after assuming office. Is this a sign that the Biden administration will aggressively pursue progressive policies?
Many of the orders deal with the Coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic fallout. They suggest for the first time that there will be a coherent, federally-directed strategy to tackle the virus. Whether or not this strategy is an effective one that takes into consideration the needs of poor and working people is still an open question. The federal eviction moratorium is now extended through the end of March. The pause on student loan payments has been extended through September, although this falls short of the demand for Biden to use his executive authority to cancel student debt.
Biden issued several orders relating to immigration. One order overturned Trump’s infamous Muslim ban, another halted construction of the border wall, and other executive orders protected people from Liberia from deportation and reversed Trump’s effort to exclude undocumented immigrants from the 2020 census. Biden has also already unveiled a proposal on comprehensive immigration reform to send to Congress that includes provisions that would legalize millions. The prominence of the issue of immigration is a reflection of immigrant workers’ central role in the economy — and by extension their ability to disrupt it — as well as the tireless efforts of immigrant rights organizers, such as those who held a protest near Biden’s headquarters in Wilmington, Delaware last month. Whether or not a pathway to citizenship will be won for millions of undocumented people depends on the intensity of this struggle.
Another batch of executive orders move to have the United States rejoin the Paris climate agreement and protect important swathes of land from being opened for oil and gas drilling. While these do address some of the minimum demands of the growing climate justice movement, it is also important to note that the carbon emission reduction targets in the Paris agreement are not enforceable and the accord falls vastly short of what is needed to stave off environmental catastrophe. Instead, it primarily serves as a signal that “America is back in the game” and no longer governed by an administration that spins conspiracy theories to reject basic climate science — a position so outlandish that it had a discrediting effect on U.S. imperialism’s ability to project power around the world. The order to rejoin the World Health Organization serves a similar purpose.
The order to revoke the permit for the notorious Keystone XL pipeline is a victory for the determined movement that fought against its construction for over a decade, including courageous, mass acts of civil disobedience. The pipeline would have had a devastating effect on communities along its route, especially many Native nations, and contributed greatly to climate change.
Why did Biden sign the orders?
It would be a serious error to think that Biden, a reactionary politician who has pushed right wing positions his entire career, or the team of establishment political operatives and arch-imperialists he has assembled, have had some kind of road to Damascus moment and will now usher in an era of progressive change. Instead, the initial wave of executive orders should be understood as evidence that the Biden White House feels they must build into their political calculations the existence of a formidable left wing capable of playing a major role in the country’s politics.
Biden’s Inaugural address, along with countless prior public statements, shows that his strategic focus will be on an attempt to forge unity with the right wing, rebuilding ruling class consensus in a return to pre-Trump “normality”. Such an approach is a stinging rebuke to the millions of people who have taken to the streets in recent years demanding an end to the war on Black America, full rights for immigrants, an end to massive wealth inequality, dramatic action on climate change and more — and the tens of millions of others who agree with these movements’ aims. By immediately taking executive action to implement (albeit limited) progressive measures, the Biden administration hopes to temporarily neutralize the left and buy political space to carry out its true agenda.
Giving Biden the benefit of the doubt and allowing him to enjoy a “honeymoon” period with muted opposition would be a grave mistake. This would make it far easier for Biden to consolidate his alliance with (at least sections of) the Republican Party. If that comes to pass, he will feel far more secure in his political standing and therefore far less vulnerable to pressure from people’s movements. In addition, if progressive people and organizations adopt a non-confrontational posture then fascistic forces have a greater opportunity to establish a monopoly on opposition to the Biden government. This would be especially disastrous in the wake of the Jan. 6 fascist-led assault on the Capitol. Now is not the time to ease up in the fight.