Headlines: January 21, 2021
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President Joe Biden spent his first day in office signing a flurry of executive orders in a first step toward undoing the disastrous legacy of his predecessor. Issuing a total of 17 orders, proclamations and memoranda, Biden took on the big issues of the pandemic, the nation’s immigration crisis, and attacks on the environment. As part of his pandemic response Biden has issued a 100-day “mask challenge,” and on Thursday released a federal government blueprint called the National Strategy for the COVID-19 Response and Pandemic Preparedness. The plan includes invoking the Defense Production Act to marshal industries to generate supplies, expand vaccine supplies and strengthen distribution. The new administration was reportedly aghast upon finding that the plan to distribute vaccines nationwide was nonexistent, with one person telling CNN, “There is nothing for us to rework. We are going to have to build everything from scratch.” Biden also rejoined the World Health Organization, prompting the government’s top infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci to give a speech praising the resumption of global cooperation to end the pandemic. The pandemic continues to rage in the U.S. and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have now projected there may be 100,000 additional deaths from the virus in the next few months.
As part of his day-one initiatives Biden reversed via executive order several anti-immigrant policies that had been enacted over the past four years. These included reversing the so-called Muslim Ban, strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, ending the emergency border proclamation that was used to justify building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, and ensuring undocumented immigrants are counted in the U.S. Census. On Wednesday the Biden administration also sent a fact sheet outlining a comprehensive immigration reform plan to lawmakers that would offer a path to legal residency and then citizenship to DACA registrants, TPS (Temporary Protected Status) holders, and farmworkers, while also allowing other undocumented immigrants a longer path to do the same. The bill could impact about 11 million undocumented immigrants. It also includes a massive aid package to Central American nations whose poverty and violence has fueled an outflow of people northward to the United States.
Environmental activists celebrated the rejoining of the Paris Accords to begin to address climate change, as well as rescinding the construction permits of the Keystone XL pipeline, a controversial project designed to transport tarsands from Canada across the U.S. Indigenous leaders are now urging Biden to go further and also cancel the similarly notorious Dakota Access Pipeline that has faced mass opposition for years. Biden also ordered federal regulatory agencies to review and begin reversing the hundreds of policy changes that were harmful to the environment implemented by the previous administration.
Having had the transition process deliberately hampered against them, the Biden Administration also faces the challenge of ensuring that critical Cabinet positions are filled as quickly as possible. As of Thursday morning Avril Haines as Director of National Intelligence was the only Biden appointee to be confirmed. The President has requested that Congress grant a requisite waiver to his nominee for Pentagon head, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin. As per government rules, military generals need to be retired from their positions for at least 7 years before holding civilian positions in government. Austin has been retired for only four years. Biden’s Transportation Secretary nominee Pete Buttigieg will face U.S. Senators on Thursday in a confirmation hearing. Mr. Biden has decided to keep Christopher Wray on as FBI director but decided to act against some appointees of the previous administration who refused to step down, such as a Labor Board general counsel that was fired, and a high-ranking GOP lawyer for the NSA who was placed on administrative leave. Meanwhile Democrats took tenuous control of the U.S. Senate on Thursday controlling exactly 50 seats and Vice President Kamala Harris presiding as a tie-breaker.
The latest Labor Department figures on weekly unemployment benefits are out and show only a small drop in joblessness from the week before. New applications for benefits totaled a whopping 900,000, highlighting the depth of the economic problems Mr. Biden has inherited. Among his COVID-19 related actions taken on day one, the new President extended moratoriums on evictions and foreclosures as well as student loan repayment.
Puerto Rico’s Governor Pedro Pierluisi on Wednesday implored the Biden administration to release hurricane-related aid that the previous administration had held up for years. In a video chat with Biden administration officials, the governor explained that of the $60 billion Congress had appropriated, less than half had been sent to the island. He said, “This is outright discrimination that we need to stop.”
On Wednesday the new White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki held the administration’s first press briefing and signaled immediately that it would be stark contrast from the past four years in that there would be less lying. Gone was the defensive and accusatory attitude toward press presented regularly by Psaki’s predecessors Kayleigh McEnany, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Sean Spicer.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi also hailed the new era in government and during her weekly press briefing on Thursday answered questions of Republican demands for “unity” as she prepares to send an article of impeachment against the previous president to the Democratic controlled Senate.
Meanwhile, those who were so loyal to the former President Donald Trump, twice impeached, are struggling to reconcile his departure with their expectations that he would remain president despite having lost an election. Some of his supporters, like the chauvinist hate group Proud Boys, are apparently rejecting him as a “total failure,” while others, especially believers in the far-fetched conspiracist QAnon movement are confused saying, “he sold us out,” or even believing now that President Biden is “Q.” Meanwhile new evidence shows the extent to which figures linked to the Proud Boys, QAnon, Oathkeepers and other pro-Trump groups attacked Capitol police. Despite embracing the phrase “Blue Lives Matter,” the rioters brutalized outnumbered cops with flag poles, fire extinguishers, and their own fists.
Finally, in international news, a suicide bombing in crowded Iraqi market in the capitol Baghdad has claimed the lives of more than 30 people. An Iraqi general explained that the suicide bomber, “blew himself up after pretending to be sick to gather people around him.” Iraqi authorities suspect the suicide attacker was linked to the Islamic State group.