Conflict Alerts

Conflict Alerts # 216, 21 January 2021

The US: President Biden issues 17 executive orders on day one
D. Suba Chandran

In the news
On 20 January 2021, Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States. In an address towards healing and pursuing a practical approach, he declared: "Politics doesn't have to be a raging fire destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn't have to be a cause for total war. And, we must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured." He also pledged to the fellow Americans on the first day of becoming the President, "I will be a president for all Americans – all Americans. And, I promise you, I will fight as hard for those who did not support me as for those who did."

On the same day, Kamala Harris was sworn in as the Vice President of America, the first woman to occupy the office. 

On the same day, in a record during the recent decades, President Biden showed urgency and a well-planned strategy as he issued several directives on the first day of assuming office. These directives cover a wide spectrum of internal issues focussing on COVID-19 management to rejoining the Paris Agreement and relaxing the visa restrictions for people from Muslim and African countries.

Issues in the background
First, a relatively smooth transition, despite the Trump tantrums and political uneasiness in the national and State capitals. The last two weeks, especially since the 6 January break-in at the Capitol Hill by a mob of pro-Trump supporters, there has been a tense situation in Washington and across the rest of the US. Within the Congress, the Democrats led by the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi passed a House resolution impeaching Donald Trump for the second time. This happened after former Vice President Mike Pence refused to relieve Donald Trump using the provisions under the 25th Amendment. Outside the Congress, there was a fear that the Trump supporters would violently intervene during 19-20 January 2021, disturbing the swearing-in of Joe Biden. Across the States and in Washington, security forces were strengthened to avoid any untoward incident. 

Second, the fallouts of Trump's exit. Dealing with the domestic and global fallouts of Trump's actions during his Presidency, especially the last year would be a bigger challenge for the new President and his team. Internally, the nation stands divided. It is easy for Biden to say, as he did while swearing-in that through the "Civil War, the Great Depression, World War, sacrifice and setbacks, our better angels have always prevailed…we can do that now." Easier to say; the road ahead for Biden to ensure that better sense prevails needs larger support, greater dialogue and more importantly a bigger heart with patience to heal. The swearing-in of Kamala Harris, the first woman to be the Vice President of the US, should provide the social space that Biden is looking for. However, this should not become a false start; there were similar expectations when Obama became the President. After two terms of Obama, the US has to witness a "Black Lives Matter" movement, highlights structural issues within the US. The task before Biden and Harris is challenging.

Third, the long list of directives that Biden issued on day one of assuming his office underlines the urgency in which the US has to engage the rest of the world, with a positive framework. During his last four years, Trump ensured that the US broke or left international commitments – from the Paris Agreement to the WHO. Biden's first day efforts hint the changes to come. Rest of the world should welcome.

In perspective
For Biden, the challenge is not just rebuilding, but building better – both internally and externally. A vibrant and engaging democracy in the US is an international need of the day. With spaces for democracy and dissent shrinking across the world, what happened in the US was during the last few months was disappointing to those who believe in the values of democracy, and its process. Biden has to rebuild these values better so that the American democracy becomes a beacon again.

Internationally, Biden has to build a better US engagement with the rest of the world – both at the State and society levels. While Trump tried to engage with the authoritarians from Russia to Saudi Arabia to North Korea, he let down the American allies in Europe. Biden has to rebuild ties across the Atlantic and also across the Pacific. His first-day directives on climate change and the migration shows his positive intent. He has to build further and consolidate.

Never before the rest of the world was looking at a new American President, with so much hope and expectations. Biden has this responsibility. 

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