President Biden’s first day in office signaled a new era in American politics, Stanford scholars say

Stanford scholars reflect on the sweeping number of executive actions President Biden ordered on his first day in office, including pledges to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, immigration, the climate crisis and racial injustice.

As President Joe Biden starts his first day in office, he faces many pressing challenges: a worsening pandemic, an intensifying climate crisis and a national racial reckoning – to name just a few.

On President Biden’s first day in office, a dizzying number of executive actions were made to address some of the country’s most urgent challenges, including the COVID-19 pandemic, the climate crisis and racial injustice. (Image credit: Courtesy

“Few people in our nation’s history have been more challenged or found a time more challenging or difficult than the time we are in now,” remarked President Biden in his inaugural address. With the speed and urgency he inspired in his address, President Biden signed a series of notable executive actions on Wednesday to tackle some of these issues.

At the top of Biden’s agenda was addressing the COVID-19 pandemic and protecting public health. His very first executive order as president was to institute a national mask mandate on federal property and interstate travel.

“From a public health perspective that is really a great leap forward. That never should have been a political question from the start,” said Dr. Kevin Schulman with the Clinical Excellence Research Center at Stanford Medicine.

Another plan that Biden committed to was the creation of a new position: a COVID-19 Response Coordinator. This person will be responsible for organizing a national response for addressing the pandemic, including vaccine distribution – an issue top of mind for many Americans waiting to receive their first jab.

Biden has also pledged to administer 100 million doses of vaccine in 100 days, or by the end of April. This presents a series of challenges that the new administration is going to have to address, including a clearer understanding of vaccine supply and distribution, said Schulman.

“The first is to really get a handle on what our vaccine supply really is – the states didn’t get the vaccine that they expected this week, so where is the supply? What do we know about the supply? And where are we in terms of executing these contracts to provide vaccines to the country?” said Schulman.

Another challenge, he added, will be creating a transparent process for distributing the vaccine and establishing clear lines of accountability. Questions remain, including whether the distribution will be undertaken by the public or private sector, or a combination of both. “Those are all being worked out at a very local level,” Schulman said, “and unfortunately it’s all being worked out while we desperately fight this new surge of the pandemic.”

The other significant action that Biden made was rejoining the United States to the World Health Organization, which Schulman said is crucial for the scientific and medical community.

“That is going to be critical in terms of our ability to understand the spread of this virus,” Schulman said. “Now that the virus is unfortunately mutating, we will need to work together with other nations to keep track of the different mutations in case we need to develop a second generation of vaccines down the road.”

Reversing changes to immigration policies

Other pledges Biden made on his first day in office was to undo some of the Trump administration’s policies on immigration, like reversing the “Muslim Ban” and preserving earlier commitments, such as the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA).

According to Stanford law professor and founding director of the Stanford Law School’s Immigrants’ Rights Clinic Jayashri Srikantiah, there are different types of immigration reforms Biden’s administration can pursue. She predicts that a major effort will involve undoing the 400-plus changes to immigration policy, many of them decried as unfair and discriminatory, that the Trump administration made during its four years in office.

“Undoing that is going to be a critical priority but also a complicated and big task,” Srikantiah said.

Biden’s reversal of the “Muslim Ban” – a policy that restricted entry from foreign nationals coming from predominantly Muslim and African countries, which include Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen – signals his intent to reverse those changes, Srikantiah said.

“I think this is really an important step forward. It’s a way to definitely indicate that this administration is moving in a very different direction than the Trump administration, which was widely criticized for the Muslim ban as a sign of xenophobia,” she added.

Biden’s re-commitment to protect students who have been covered under the DACA program that the Obama-Biden administration adopted in 2012 is another notable action, Srikantiah said.

The DACA program allows nearly 700,000 undocumented immigrants who came to the United States as children to live, work and study here legally. Since 2017, the Trump administration has tried to eliminate the program, but a Supreme Court ruling rejected those efforts and a federal judge restored the program in full.

“Everybody expected to see the president take action on DACA as one of the first things on the first day because it has been such an important issue for so many people and in the country’s discussion of immigration,” Srikantiah said.

Biden also revoked Trump’s executive order that expanded immigration enforcement on his first day and signed another order halting construction of the U.S.-Mexico border wall that Trump funded by diverting billions from the military.

Biden could also choose to enact more inclusive immigration policies, Srikantiah added. For example, his administration could offer more support, protections and pathways for legalization for people who are in living in the U.S. undocumented and have long-standing ties to the U.S., or have children with U.S. citizenship. In the long term, she hopes to see more changes that will also support refugees and asylum seekers.

Emboldened plans to tackle climate change

Addressing climate change was one of Biden’s major campaign promises, and one that he advanced in a major way during his first hours in office. One of his first executive actions served to rejoin the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, which according to Chris Field, the Perry L. McCarty Director of the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, is one of the most important international agreements of the last century. The agreement establishes not just an international standard for what is a fair way to address climate change, it also establishes a clear global directive, Field said.

“The Paris Agreement is really about getting everybody headed in the same direction and finding a shared pathway for building ambition,” said Field, who is also a professor of Earth system science and of biology and a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy.

The U.S. is central to a successful climate change strategy, Field said, because it was and is a major emitter of greenhouse gases and it also has the ability to deliver solutions that other nations can capitalize on. “So when all those things fit together, the Paris Agreement is really central to building a sustainable world in the 21st century,” he added.

Even as Biden’s team strives to build a more sustainable world, Deborah Sivas, the Luke W. Cole Professor of Environmental Law, hopes his administration will also put forward some bolder and better environmental policies. “I hope where Biden is going is something much better actually than what Obama did,” said Sivas. “The Obama administration did some pretty progressive things but were not as bold as they might have been.”

She pointed to the Jan. 19 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit that struck down the Trump administration’s attempt to repeal and replace the Clean Power Plan as an example of what is possible.

“I think a lot of people are thinking really hard about what the new administration could put into place that would make real progress on this tough issue of greenhouse gas emissions from power generations and how could we do that in a way that would be really robust and would survive Supreme Court scrutiny when the inevitable legal challenge comes,” Sivas said.

Sivas said there is also an opportunity for Biden to create new jobs, including positions for people who used to work in the coal industry, such as in coal mines or coal-burning plants. “How do you put those people back to work in a way that is contributing to the solution and not the problem? There is a lot of mining that has gone on in coal country that has really devastated the land and there is a lot of restoration that needs to be done out there. So how about we create green jobs for people who are used to working out in the environment?” Sivas suggested.

Addressing racial injustice, systemic racism

The new administration also vowed to support underserved communities and advance racial equity in the federal government. As part of that effort, Biden has asked each agency to examine whether its programs or policies hurt or hinder people of color and other underserved groups and how to promote equity in those proposals.

For Steven O. Roberts, a psychologist who has written extensively about racism in America, Biden’s pledge to address racial justice at such a high level is uplifting. “Biden’s explicit commitment to racial equity is like a breath of fresh air after gasps of toxicity,” said Roberts, an assistant professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences (H&S). “I am thankful that President Biden acknowledges the reality of systemic racism and is committed to working against it. I hope to see that commitment fulfilled.”

Political scientist Hakeem Jefferson is also encouraged by the steps Biden is taking. “Joe Biden has a real opportunity to bring a measure of justice to communities of color as he promised to do throughout his campaign,” Jefferson said.

But achieving some of these promises will be difficult, warned Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science in H&S. “Though it is encouraging to see the president use the power of his office to begin this hard task of ensuring liberty and justice for all, the road ahead is likely a frustrating one, as the most meaningful change will require legislative acts, including the passage of a 21st Century Voting Rights Act and other democracy-enhancing reforms that will help us realize the promise of our democracy for all people.”

Biden’s team has also pledged to enact a dizzying number of other measures, including ones that provide economic relief, protect American workers and rebuild public trust in the U.S. government by ordering an ethics pledge to be signed by every appointee in the executive branch – to name a few.

“The thing that I am most impressed at so far is the way that the Biden team has looked at the challenge of governance as an integrated one,” Field said. I don’t think there is a way to address any of them unless you address all of them together.”