The Transition of Power: A Look at President Biden’s Early Days of Office

Isabel Smith, Copy Editor

On Jan. 20, 2021, President Joe Biden was officially sworn into office as the 46th president of the United States, and hours into his term, he could already be found in the Oval Office signing a hefty stack of 17 executive orders and kicking off his administration. The orders addressed a variety of issues, from pandemic procedures to international climate response, and he signed many more later in the week. The administration is also working to address some of the promises that Biden had made on the campaign trail, whether it be through Congressional bills that Biden pledged to back on or other means.

At the brunt of the nation’s issues is the pandemic response and how to handle the staggering effects of this disease that has subject millions of Americans to financial instability, work insecurity, and mental and social burdens. So far, Biden has set an example for the rest of the nation by applying a mask mandate to federal property and set the stage for a better-advised pandemic response with international cooperation by appointing diverse, qualified individuals to his COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force, reinstating health offices that were previously closed by former President Donald Trump, and extending ties to the World Health Organization.

Outside the power of executive orders, he is committed to—and has succeeded in—passing a federal stimulus check that would bring some economic relief to individuals across the country. The federal government has also been leading the roll-out of vaccines across the country, trying to vaccine individuals at an expeditious rate. However, the policy that has captured the attention of students and parents alike has been Biden’s pledge to re-open schools nationally—on every level—within his first 100 days. Some students, though, have significant doubts about its feasibility. Freshman Evanka Singh said, “I feel that opening schools at the end of this school year is too short of a span of time. With the vaccine roll-out and needing to vaccinate many teachers, it seems a lot harder to open by the end of the year. We also need to understand the situation of many kids at home, who may have difficulty transitioning back to an in-school environment.” Senior Bismuth Kassner echoed this hesitance when they commented, “I think it’s a bit optimistic. A lot of schools are overcrowded and they wouldn’t be able to safely open with the facilities and student bodies that they have. I want to hold out hope, though, because I’m graduating and I want to do some senior things.”

Another notable issue that needs to be addressed internationally is the climate crisis. Early into his administration, Biden was signing executive orders that revoked the federal building permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline, an oil pipeline connected to Canada that would run through several Great Plains states, and halted oil and natural gas drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It should be noted that both of these projects, while they would streamline the transportation of oil and increase its supply, were predicted to cause colossal amounts of environmental damage to protected areas, harm wildlife that various indigenous tribes depended on, and violate treaties that defined the boundaries of indigenous land.

Other than halting these projects, Biden has signed a letter to re-enter the United States into the Paris Climate Accord after Trump had pulled out of the agreement in 2019. Junior Naina Shankar whole-heartedly approved of this action, saying that “it shows a level of maturity and commitment to environmental issues that I think has been lacking. It really helps us out, the younger generation, who will be living in these horrible conditions.” However, environmental policy is difficult to dictate through executive order, and if the Biden administration wants to actively fight the effects of climate changes, environmental legislation could be in the near future.

Yet another issue that will shadow the duration of Biden’s term is human rights. Long-lasting and effective human rights laws are not going to come through executive order, but Biden has already taken some steps towards expanding human rights on the federal level. On his sixth day, Biden signed an order that reversed the ban on transgender people serving in the military, and he has made a commitment to the LGBTQ+ community to pass the Equality Act, a bill that prohibits discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, within his first 100 days of office, saying that “no one should ever face discrimination or live in fear because of who they are or whom they love.” Two weeks ago, the Equality Act passed through the House of Representatives and is pending approval in the Senate.

However, LGBTQ+ rights are far from the only sector of human rights that needs to be touched on. In the past few years, the rights of Black and indigenous communities have been heavily-violated and these groups are also some of the hardest being hit by the pandemic. The intrusion of the federal government on indigenous land and the reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement over the summer of 2020 are not simple matters that have been forgotten by the American public. Hopefully, progress on these issues is soon to come.

Overall, these first days of the Biden administration have set the priorities and attitude of the federal government going forward—all built on the idea of unity that Biden stressed repeatedly in his inaugural address. However, “unity” is not so easily defined and certainly not a concept that always holds a positive connotation. Although, Singh viewed the call for national unity as a “sound ideology” that would promote “the greater good of the people and all of America,” Kassner saw the idea in a different light, saying, “It was mostly a call to unify the political parties and, I hate to say it, but one of those parties is outright evil and that’s terrifying. It doesn’t feel like it’s going to make that much of a difference to America to unify with a party that cares so little about the issues of the people.”

Beyond unity, Biden’s strategy of rapidly implementing policy through executive order has received a mixed response from the American public. Shanker saw it as a political necessity to counteract harmful measures taken by Trump and a reflection of Biden’s dedication to his job. Senior Dani Madan agreed that Biden’s use of executive orders was justified, but also brought up concerns about the longevity of policy created through this method: “Executive orders are a good place to start addressing the issues in this country, but it also makes a lot of work temporary and that’s scary. I wish there was more push to make changes through legislation, where the effects would be more long-lasting.”

An additional, mounting problem that the Biden administration has to address, though, is calls for radical reform in the government. Kassner was particularly passionate about resisting the biases for corporations and religious affiliation that has permeated American politics for decades, asserting that “unless there’s major political reform, all the changes that Biden makes will be temporary. You can’t make a change in a gradual way because by the time you’ve made any progress, it’s already someone else’s turn to lead and you don’t know what they’re going to turn back. We’re trying to fix the problem without addressing the cause, and that’s not something I want to see more of from the Biden administration.”

Biden has taken incremental steps, but a multitude of issues still need to be tackled. Luckily, the Biden administration is barely within its first two months, and high expectations are being set for Biden’s first 100 days and the hundreds ahead.