President Joe Biden: What are the top priorities on his agenda?

US POLITICAL AFFAIRS: With burning issues at hand, the new US president is wasting no time getting down to business

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, after his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States. (photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden signs executive orders in the Oval Office of the White House on Wednesday, after his inauguration as the 46th president of the United States.
(photo credit: TOM BRENNER/REUTERS)
WASHINGTON – US President Joe Biden took the oath of office on Wednesday and hit the ground running. Shortly after arriving at the White House, he signed 17 executive orders.
Some of these orders, such as mandating wearing a mask on federal property, create a new policy. Others, such as rejoining the Paris Agreement and returning to the World Health Organization, reversed an existing policy set during the Trump administration.
As the Democrats now control both chambers of Congress, Biden will seek to accomplish some swift policy changes during his first months in office. What are the most pressing policies on the president’s desk?
Biden vowed to accelerate the vaccination process and to administrate 100 million vaccines during his first 100 days in office.
The White House announced that the US is returning to the World Health Organization and that Dr. Fauci will represent the US in an upcoming discussion.
Biden named a COVID-19 advisory board, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki vowed that the coronavirus task force would provide ongoing updates to the public about the state of the pandemic.
Stimulus package
Alongside the efforts to stop the spread of COVID-19, Biden vowed to pass an aid package to boost the US economy. The $1.9 trillion plan includes $1,400 in direct payments to Americans, in addition to $600 that was approved last month during the Trump administration. Some $440 billion is designated for small businesses and communities impacted by the pandemic. An additional $415b. is aimed at improving the administration response to the virus, including measures to reopen schools.
However, several Republican senators have already expressed their reservations over the plan’s price tag. The White House signaled that Biden might not be willing to negotiate the amount.
“The package wasn’t designed with the $1.9t. as a starting point. It was designed with the components that were necessary to give people the relief that they needed,” said Psaki at a White House press briefing.
Extension of the Trump-era eviction moratorium and student loans collection halt
These two Trump era measures will continue into 2021. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention director Rochelle Walensky said in a statement Wednesday night that “as a protective public health measure,” she would extend the current order temporarily halting residential evictions “until at least March 31, 2021.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has presented a historic threat to our nation’s health,” she said. “It has also triggered a housing affordability crisis that disproportionately affects some communities.”
Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums will be extended by the end of March as well.
In addition, the acting secretary of education will extend the pause on federal student loan payments and collections and keep the interest rate at 0% until the end of September. This policy might remain in a different shape afterward.
One of the demands of the progressive flank of the Democratic Party during the primaries was a full student loan forgiveness. Biden indicated that he would support a $10,000 forgiveness per person for federal loans, with additional forgiveness for students at state and community colleges.
This subject is likely to remain a key topic of debate in Congress, not only between Democrats and Republicans but also within the House Democratic Caucus itself.
Climate Change
As the Democrats will hold the majority in Congress at least until the 2022 midterm elections, Biden is poised to treat climate change as a top priority and make his mark. He appointed former secretary of state John Kerry as a special envoy for climate change, with a seat at the National Security Council. It was not surprising that on his first day in office, he rejoined the Paris Agreement.
On Wednesday, Biden also rushed to revoke the 2019 permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline facilities at the international border with Canada, and the controversial project will not be completed.
According to the White House press secretary, the president is scheduled to speak on Friday with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
“It is, therefore, the policy of my administration to listen to the science; to improve public health and protect our environment; to ensure access to clean air and water; to limit exposure to dangerous chemicals and pesticides,” Biden said in a statement, hours after taking office.
He directed all executive departments and agencies “to immediately review and, as appropriate and consistent with applicable law, take action to address the promulgation of federal regulations and other actions during the last four years that conflict with these important national objectives, and to immediately commence work to confront the climate crisis.”
And what could be the next steps?
Joshua Busby, associate professor at LBJ School of Public Affairs, University of Texas-Austin, and a senior research fellow at the Center for Climate and Security, told The Jerusalem Post recently that “in rejoining the Paris climate agreement, the United States will need to reaffirm its ability to meet its Nationally Determined Contribution and will be expected to increase the ambition of its NDC before the 2021 climate negotiations in Glasgow Scotland at the end of the year.
“The Biden administration may initially revive the Obama-era NDC, which was the US’s voluntary commitment to reduce its emissions 26% to 28% below 2005 levels by 2025.
“The US would also like to be able to enlist other major economies in coming forward with new commitments of their own,” he added.
Biden took a U-turn from all of Trump’s immigration policies. On Wednesday, he announced several key changes, reversing his predecessor’s agenda.
Biden signed an executive order stopping the construction of the border wall with Mexico.
“Building a massive wall that spans the entire southern border is not a serious policy solution,” he said in a statement. “It is a waste of money that diverts attention from genuine threats to our homeland security.”
He also promised to “take all actions he deems appropriate, consistent with applicable law, to preserve and fortify DACA” (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals immigration policy), and to give immigrants who arrived in the US as children illegally a path for citizenship.
Biden also announced that for 100 days, the Department of Homeland Security “will pause removals for certain noncitizens ordered deported to ensure we have a fair and effective immigration enforcement system focused on protecting national security, border security and public safety.”
In addition, he lifted travel restrictions from several predominantly Muslim countries.
But that was only the first step. Passing comprehensive immigration reform would be a complicated task and would take time. Biden already sent to Congress the “US Citizenship Act of 2021.”
The bill provides undocumented immigrants an opportunity to apply for temporary legal status, “with the ability to apply for green cards after five years if they pass criminal and national security background checks and pay their taxes.”
According to the bill, “Dreamers, TPS holders, and immigrant farmworkers who meet specific requirements are eligible for green cards immediately under the legislation.” After three years, green card holders could apply for citizenship.
It also calls to clear visa backlogs and support asylum-seekers and other vulnerable populations.
The president also expressed his interest in an infrastructure package that would revitalize bridges and roads and invest in clean energy.
According to the Engineering News-Record, an economic recovery proposal is the second item on Biden’s agenda after the stimulus package. It is due in February and Biden says it will “make historic investments in infrastructure, along with manufacturing, research and development and clean energy,” ENR reported.
Foreign Policy
Foreign policy is not expected to take center stage in the next year or so, but Biden and his secretary of state-designate, Antony Blinken, signaled to US allies that the incoming administration would consult with them before shaping policy, and not after.
Blinken said on Tuesday that when it comes to Iran policy, it is vitally important that the incoming administration would “engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and with our partners in the region to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries.”
He addressed the chances that the incoming administration would return to the Iran deal.
“The president-elect believes that if Iran comes back into compliance, we would, too,” Blinken said. “But we would use that as a platform with our allies and partners who would once again be on the same side with us, to seek a longer and stronger agreement.”
He said that such an agreement should “capture these other issues, particularly with regard to missiles and Iran’s destabilizing activities; that would be the objective.”
Suzanne Maloney, the vice president and director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution, told the Post in November that Iran will be a major early priority for the Biden administration, if only as a means of signaling to the world that Washington is re-embracing multilateral diplomacy as a mechanism for addressing tough transnational challenges, whether that’s proliferation or climate change.
“A public goodwill gesture early on, such as a humanitarian package that provides Iran with greater access to food and medicine, can help establish quiet talks with Tehran aimed at a coordinated series of steps on JCPOA compliance,” she said. “But they also appreciate that the deal itself is not the real objective here; success should be defined – at least in the first year – as returning to more routine diplomacy with Iran that can enable Washington, in close cooperation with our allies and our regional partners, to press for changes in the full scope of Iran’s problematic policies in the region and toward its own population.”
Another major challenge on foreign policy would be how to deal with China, America’s No. 1 competitor. The two countries are locked in a trade war, and despite efforts to defuse the tensions, the COVID-19 pandemic just increased distrust between the sides.
According to Ryan Hass, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, where he holds a joint appointment to the John L. Thornton China Center and the Center for East Asia Policy Studies, Biden and his national security team will pursue a competitive approach toward China.
“I expect the incoming team will be purposeful, working to address specific problems and advance clear objectives,” he told the Post in a November interview.
“The new team also will not give China a pass on actions that implicate American interests or values. Instead, I expect there will be serious efforts to deal forthrightly with differences while working to advance American interests and values amidst intensifying competition with China,” he added.