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Biden's first days in office were way better than I expected

I have no doubt that Biden will deeply disappoint me. That day is not today.
Photo collage of images of President Biden signing an executive order, delivering remarks in the State Dining Room of the White House and speaking with his fist up.
So far, Biden looks like he's on a roll.Anjali Nair / MSNBC; Getty: Zuma

I have a confession to make. During the Democratic presidential primaries, I was one of then-presidential candidate Joe Biden’s fiercest critics on the left. I reminded readers how he was the architect of the 1994 crime bill. I reminded listeners how he was the champion of the credit card industry. I reminded viewers how he had misled us over Iraq.

The former vice president, I averred, “would be a disaster.”

The former vice president, I averred, “would be a disaster.” Well… maybe… perhaps... I was wrong.

There, I said it.

The new president has been far from a disaster. His first 10 days were as smooth as any in modern presidential history — and that despite, perhaps, the worst presidential inheritance in all of American history.

He has signed more than 40 executive orders; an “opening-days blitz … essentially compressing 100 days into 10,” to quote The New York Times. “Biden has outlined the most liberal agenda in a generation,” Axios observed Sunday.

Forget Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene for a moment. Take a break from counting down the days till the Trump trial in the Senate, and cast your eye over Biden’s first 10 days of orders, proclamations, announcements and bills.

What’s not to like for progressives?

Climate change? Biden rejoined the Paris climate agreement; canceled the Keystone XL pipeline; ordered the conservation of around 30 percent of all federal land and water by 2030 and the suspension of new oil and gas leases on federal land and water; established a White House Office of Domestic Climate Policy, led by the first national climate adviser; and made climate change a national security and foreign policy priority.

Spending? When he began his presidency, Barack Obama told a White House summit on fiscal responsibility: "We cannot and will not sustain deficits like these without end... We cannot simply spend as we please.” Biden began his by telling reporters, “Every major economist thinks we should be investing in deficit spending in order to generate economic growth.”

The times they are a-changin'. In 2009, Obama’s chief of staff Rahm Emanuel told Obama there was “no f---ing way” any number that began “with a t” could be put in front of Congress. In 2021, Biden’s chief of staff Ron Klain conceded the Obama stimulus “wasn’t large enough, it didn’t do all the things we needed it to do, and our recovery lagged as a result.” Klain and his colleagues in the Biden White House are now pushing for a Covid-19 relief bill worth $1.9 trillion.

Klain and his colleagues in the Biden White House are now pushing for a Covid-19 relief bill worth $1.9 trillion.

Immigration? The Obama administration was accused of deporting a record number of migrants. On Day One of his presidency, Biden ended the Muslim ban; canceled construction of the border wall; included undocumented immigrants in the census count; blocked the deportation of Liberian refugees; issued a memo “preserving and fortifying” the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program shielding 650,000 immigrants from deportation; and announced a 100-day moratorium on all deportations (since blocked by a Trump-appointed judge). He also sent a bill to Congress offering a pathway to citizenship for around 11 million undocumented migrants and officially revoked the Trump administration's “zero tolerance” family separation policy at the border.

Racism? Rescinding the Muslim ban was a major blow to institutionalized racism and Islamophobia. On his first day as president, though, Biden also rescinded the Trump administration’s “offensive, counter-factual 1776 Commission” and its “harmful ban on diversity and sensitivity training,” while ordering federal agencies to conduct racial equity assessments and target “systemic racism. He has since signed an executive order explicitly “combating racism, xenophobia, and intolerance against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.”

Criminal justice reform? Biden barred the Department of Justice from renewing private prison contracts, calling it a “first step to stop corporations from profiting off incarceration.” According to NBC News, the Biden White House has “asked senators to recruit civil rights attorneys and defense lawyers for judgeships.” It’s also worth noting that the president chose not to include Rahm Emanuel, of Laquan McDonald murder cover-up infamy, in his Cabinet.

Workers’ rights? Biden ordered the Department of Labor to develop plans to ensure a $15 an hour minimum wage for federal employees. The president also asked the department to clarify rules establishing that “workers have a federally guaranteed right to refuse employment that will jeopardize their health” while still qualifying “for unemployment insurance.”

We cannot afford to lose sight of the big picture.

Foreign policy? The Biden administration announced its intention to renew “U.S. relations with the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people” and reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington, D.C. The president ignored right-wing Republican hawks like Sen. Tom Cotton and appointed the dovish Robert Malley as the U.S. special envoy on Iran.

His new director of national intelligence, Avril Haines, agreed during her confirmation hearings to release an unclassified government report on who was behind the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Perhaps, above all else, Biden ordered a pause on weapons sales to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates that had been agreed to by the Trump administration.

Do Biden’s slew of executive orders go far enough? Of course not — especially if the 46th president wants to live up to the example of the 32nd, Franklin Roosevelt, whose portrait now sits above the mantle of the Oval Office fireplace.

Should Biden, for example, go beyond a public option and embrace "Medicare for All," especially in a pandemic? Extend his ban on private prison contracts to the Department of Homeland Security? Agree to lift former President Donald Trump’s sanctions on Iran in order to revive the 2015 nuclear deal? Yes, yes, and yes. Was it a mistake for him to explicitly promise that $2,000 checks “will go out the door” but then include only $1,400 checks in his relief bill? Definitely.

Nevertheless, we cannot afford to lose sight of the big picture. Now is a moment for the left to be emboldened, not embittered. As Rep. Ilhan Omar tweeted last week: “As progressives, it is easy to become jaded about the possibility of meaningful change… but in just the first week, the Biden administration has acted on many of progressives’ top asks.”

Forget 100 days: Biden’s first 10 days look more like the fulfillment of a progressive wish list than a great centrist betrayal. Neither Bill Clinton nor Obama began their presidencies with such energy or ambition. Neither appointed a chief of staff like Klain, who has won plaudits from prominent progressives, understands the Democratic Party has shifted in a progressive direction, and is unashamed to work with the grassroots left.

“Progressives are beginning to be heard,” Waleed Shahid, a spokesperson for the influential left-wing group, Justice Democrats, told me. The Biden administration, he added, has taken major steps forward “in beginning to tackle the magnitude of the climate crisis and decades of wage stagnation.”

To be clear: it might sound like I drank the Kool-Aid but I’m far from naive. I am well aware of the fact that Biden is not Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren. I have called on the media to hold this administration to account. And I have no doubt whatsoever that one day soon, Biden and company will deeply disappoint me.

That day, however, is not today.