Biden’s staff even had a motto: Don’t try to boil the ocean. “You can’t try to do all of the things,” explained Cecilia Muñoz, a senior transition official who oversaw the domestic executive actions. “A transition’s job isn’t to do everything. That’s the administration’s job.”
But now that Biden has undone the most easily reversible Trump policies, the hard part begins — especially after the impeachment trial hampered early Senate action. While liberals are pushing Biden to do more, goals such as expanding health care and strengthening gun control would probably require new laws, which are much harder to enact.
The coming months will tell how much Biden can erase his predecessor’s legacy and how much of Trump’s imprint, despite his chaotic style, will endure.
Some Biden supporters say the public will grow impatient if they do not see broader results fast. “We have a very short period of time to have people believe that government is the great equalizer of opportunity,” said Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), who co-chairs the House Progressive Caucus and worked with the Biden transition, noting that the Biden transition leaders internalized this urgency.
Biden signaled early that he was sensitive to accusations he would try to do too much unilaterally. When signing a batch of executive orders shortly after taking office, he took a defensive tone, saying that day’s actions merely aimed to “undo the damage Trump has done” and that “there’s nothing new that we’re doing here.”
But that modesty belies a massive effort, occupying hundreds of volunteers and several months, to plot Biden’s early actions and keep them to a manageable scope. The team included many Obama administration veterans who had seen their work reversed and were eager to help put it back together.
“A lot of us viewed this as among the most gratifying professional experiences of our lives,” Muñoz said.
Biden’s team even set up a shadow administration of sorts, recruiting Democrats with expertise in specific agencies to ensure that the orders would stand up to legal challenges.
The effort was driven by a view that Trump’s policies have been codified via an army of operatives who found endless ways, public and hidden, to turn federal policies in nefarious directions.
Even now, Democrats are digging layer-by-layer through federal orders and manuals — “bureaucratic archaeology,” in the phrase of Lucas Guttentag, a law professor who helped on the immigration efforts — in hopes of unearthing buried Trump initiatives.
Trump also opened his tenure with a flurry of executive orders, signing them with great ceremonial flourish. But his approach was less disciplined, and Biden’s onslaught frustrates conservatives who say he is contradicting his own high-flown rhetoric on bipartisanship.
“This isn’t the unity he promised,” Heritage Foundation president Kay James said. “He’s signaled that he’ll take unilateral steps that usurp Congress’s power and leave no room for debate or dissent.”
Other Republicans complain that Biden’s moves are highly damaging.
“It’s obviously true that Joe Biden can terminate a wide swath of policies [in ways] that we would argue would have very harmful effects,” said Stephen Miller, a senior adviser to Trump who helped set up some of the policies that Biden is now trying to unwind.
On immigration policy, where Miller was particularly influential, he acknowledged the Trump policies were fragile. “It doesn’t take much at all to topple the border security infrastructure that was painstakingly put in place,” he said.
Miller contended that powerful forces oppose Trump’s policies, and that big business, foreign governments and even organized crime support porous borders. “It actually requires a great deal of vigilance to keep the border secure,” Miller said. “Even just suspending that vigilance will cause it to fall apart pretty quickly, let alone trying to work in the other direction.”
On immigration, Biden signed executive orders ordering a review of Trump’s deterrent policies along the border and created a task force to reunite families, calling their separation under the Trump administration a “moral and national shame.”
Despite the methodical early moves, the Biden team is now facing the limits of what he can accomplish on his own. He has promised, among other things, to create a new public health care option, fix the nation’s roads and bridges, tackle the immigration system and enact tougher climate rules. All would require pushing complex bills through a bitterly polarized Congress or enacting time-consuming regulations.
Biden’s allies are bracing for this next phase. “There is an inevitable limit to how much a president can do with his or her own pen alone,” Guttentag said.
Jayapal said Biden’s unilateral actions on health care in particular are not enough to meet the need. “I am still very afraid that there are a lot of people who are uninsured across this country [and] even with the subsidies are going to be falling through the cracks,” she said.
In December, Biden cited the danger of overusing executive power, privately telling Black civil rights leaders that he intended to limit his unilateral actions. “I am not going to violate the Constitution,” Biden said, according to a tape obtained by the Intercept. “Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds.”
Muñoz, too, is aware of the limits of relying on executive actions, despite her role at the center of Biden’s planning. A MacArthur “genius grant” recipient and the daughter of Bolivian immigrants, she started her career as an advocate for immigrant rights before spending eight years in the Obama White House.
Muñoz disappointed some former allies at the time by defending President Barack Obama’s deportation policies, which he had deployed in the absence of a comprehensive immigration reform bill. When Biden invited her into his transition, immigration groups complained, and one even launched a petition to keep her out of the administration.
Unfazed, Muñoz last year drew up plans for quick executive orders on a range of subjects, organizing them into “buckets” for easy prioritization. One, termed “imminent harm,” was for edicts that had to be issued quickly to avoid people getting hurt — such as extending a ban on evictions and prolonging a freeze on student loan repayment.
A second bucket included things Biden had explicitly promised to do on his first day, such as rejoining the Paris climate accords and lifting the ban on travel from some majority-Muslim countries.
Others reflected Biden’s proactive agenda, including a “Buy American” edict and an order on racial equity that repealed Trump’s 1776 commission and aimed to root out racism throughout the federal government.
Many of the actions fell under the scope of what presidents typically do, including laying out ethics policies and proclaiming a national day of unity. Biden also lifted a restriction on taxpayer money for nonprofits that perform abortions overseas — a sensitive policy that gets reversed each time a new party takes the White House.
The process is ongoing, Guttentag said, adding that it “requires delving into innumerable details” and sorting “through these almost hidden and easily overlooked administrative actions that have incredibly long tentacles that have to undone, root and branch, to even begin the process of reform.”
Guttentag, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union Immigrants’ Rights Project, tracked more than 1,000 Trump-era changes to the immigration system alone. Even some of Biden’s executive actions that sound relatively modest — for example, directing agencies to review certain policies — amount to promissory notes that changes will be made, he said.
Valerie Jarrett, a senior adviser to Obama, cited an experience that reflects the challenges now facing Biden. On one particular day, she recounted, a major Obama immigration measure failed in Congress, while a gay rights provision advanced.
Jarrett recalled that people in the domestic policy team had worked in both areas for years, so half the staff was jubilant and the other half in despair. Jarrett told Obama about the high emotions engulfing his policy staff, and the president made an unscheduled visit to Muñoz’s office.
“He said to everybody, ‘For those of you who are so upset about the Dream Act, just remember that the people who’ve been trying to repeal “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” have been at it for 20 years. This change takes time,’ ” Jarrett recalled.
Because Muñoz fought for policies that Trump reversed, Jarrett said “there is a certain poetic justice to her having the opportunity to help the Biden administration shape the policies going forward.”
But Miller, the former Trump aide, said that even if Biden is able to rewrite federal regulations, his predecessor’s broader legacy — a larger realignment in politics and a growing distrust in the establishment — will be much more difficult to take on.
“Nothing that Biden can do can possibly touch that,” Miller predicted.