President Joe Biden has twin crises to contend with on his first day in office: a disastrous pandemic and a decimated economy. But, by announcing a series of soon-to-be-signed executive actions, he’s trying to tackle that devastation right away.
Almost immediately after his swearing-in ceremony around noon Wednesday, Biden is set to greenlight “a combination of executive orders, memoranda, directives, and letters,” his transition team announced just hours before his inauguration.
They include asking the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to extend the federal eviction moratorium, requesting the Department of Education to continue pausing student loan payments, and having the U.S. rejoin the World Health Organization, a relationship that President Donald Trump tried to trash last year.
Biden’s flurry of executive actions on Wednesday comes at a time of dread and national upheaval: The U.S. death toll surpassed 400,000 people Tuesday, and 10.7 million Americans were unemployed as of last month.
His administration will now be under great pressure not just to address those problems but also to act boldly in ways that are more progressive than Democrats have been before. But some of his impending executive actions have already disappointed activists, who say he’ll have to take further steps to address the country’s most pressing economic issues.
Here are the areas that Biden said he will tackle through executive action hours after taking the oath of office:
On the pandemic
A “100 days masking challenge”: Biden plans to issue a mask mandate on federal lands. His executive order will require face coverings and social distancing among federal employees and contractors, while also demanding the same behavior in “all federal buildings, on all federal lands.” For people outside of federal property, Biden’s “asking the American people to do their part—their patriotic duty—and mask up for 100 days.” For his part, Trump once mocked Biden for wearing masks regularly, and downplayed their effectiveness. Some public health experts say Trump’s mixed messaging created confusion and politicized mask-wearing.
Getting back on friendly terms with WHO: Earlier in the pandemic, the Trump administration sought to yank funding from the World Health Organization, accusing the group of being too deferential to China. He later moved to formally withdraw the U.S. from the organization. Biden said he will “take action” to end that withdrawal, and send Anthony Fauci to participate in the WHO executive board meeting this week.
A unified COVID response: The night before his inauguration, Biden spoke before a display of 400 lights illuminating the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, representing the 400,000 Americans who’ve died of COVID-19. "It's hard sometimes to remember, but that's how we heal. It's important to do that as a nation," Biden said. Under the Trump administration, the federal government was repeatedly accused of failing to take meaningful action to prevent unnecessary COVID deaths, particularly due to its lack of a coordinated, nationwide response. Biden will sign an executive order to create a “response coordinator” position in an attempt to smooth out the pandemic response across different government agencies. The order will also restore the National Security Council (NSC) Directorate for Global Health Security and Biodefense, which the Trump administration disbanded pre-pandemic. That team is tasked to deal with domestic and global biological threats, including pandemic preparedness.
On the economic crisis
Eviction and foreclosure moratoriums will exist a little longer: The Biden administration will ask the CDC to extend its eviction moratorium—which protects nonpaying renters from homelessness if they meet a certain set of criteria—through at least March 31. (The moratorium, which was first announced in September, was otherwise set to expire at the end of this month.) This executive action was met with some disappointment from housing advocates, who had hoped for a more aggressive announcement. Biden will also ask Congress to extend the moratorium even further, and approve funding for rental assistance, according to his transition website. Tara Raghuveer, the director of the Homes Guarantee campaign at People’s Action, said in a Twitter post Wednesday that it “would have been easy to improve this failed Trump policy, but they chose not to. Beyond just being disappointing, this will come at the cost of human life.” Meanwhile, Biden will ask the departments of Veterans Affairs, Agriculture, and Housing and Urban Development, as well as the Federal Housing Finance Agency, to extend their own foreclosure moratorium and forbearance programs through the end of March, offering protections for homeowners.
Student loan relief: Sen. Chuck Schumer, the incoming Majority Leader, called on Biden last month to forgive up to $50,000 in student loan debt per borrower on Day One of his presidency, saying Biden only needed “the flick of a pen” to get it done. Instead, Biden will ask the Education Department to “consider immediately extending the pause on interest and principal payments for direct federal loans” through at least the end of September. The Debt Collective, a debt advocacy group, pushed back on that with a Twitter post Wednesday. “Biden is extending the pause on student loan payments through Sept. 30. But remember, this is only a continuation of Trump's policy,” the collective said. “Biden needs to go all the way and cancel all student debt within the first 100 days of his presidency.”