Biden doesn't need Manchin: 5 executive actions he can take right now to build back better

Congress is broken. But the White House can still do plenty to fix national problems and restore Biden's popularity

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published December 21, 2021 1:17PM (EST)

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers brief remarks before a meeting with his coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team in the State Dining Room at the White House on December 09, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers brief remarks before a meeting with his coronavirus response coordinator Jeffrey Zients and members of the White House COVID-19 Response Team in the State Dining Room at the White House on December 09, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Democrats are feeling utterly demoralized these days.

This week, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia finally came out and admitted he never had any real intention of being the tie-breaking Democratic vote to pass President Joe Biden's Build Back Better Plan. The supposed Democratic "pivot" to voting rights lasted about as long as a carefully constructed cake on the "Great British Baking Show," demolished by Sen. Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona, whose corporate masters are skeptical of letting the people pick their own leaders. It's become clear to Democratic leaders what progressives have been saying for months now: These two senators are far too corrupt to let any progress happen

It's reasonable to worry that the next year will also be a waste, as any hope of getting anything done goes down the tubes, the economy suffers, and Biden's popularity continues to decline. But the situation doesn't have to be as dire as it seems. Congress may be broken, but there's plenty Biden can do without them. He and some of his more important appointees just need to find the guts to use the power they already have. 

RELATED: Virginia election: Democrats left listless without Donald Trump

This is a lesson that Biden's old boss, President Barack Obama, also learned the hard way. Stymied by an obstructionist GOP-controlled Congress for most of his presidency, Obama leaned heavily on executive orders and the regulatory power of the White House to enact reforms on climate change, immigration, and health care. And Biden himself has already leaned into this power in some regards, on the environment, school safety, and fighting the pandemic

Still, as Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez argued on Twitter, there's far more Biden can do to turn the ship around before the 2022 midterms. Here are five ideas: 

1: Arrest and charge the people who conspired to overthrow the 2020 election

One reason that Trump's attempt to steal the 2020 election failed is many of the Republican election officials Trump leaned on to break the law for him were more afraid of jail than they were of Trump. But the Department of Justice has failed to arrest and charge the coup's ringleaders, despite extensive evidence of guilt, including a taped phone call of Trump telling Georgia's secretary of state to falsify votes for him. That just signals to potential conspirators that they can help Trump steal the election in 2024 without worry of criminal charges.

RELATED: Lock him up! Prosecuting Trump won't save democracy, but it sure will make doing so easier    

Attorney General Merrick Garland could change that, by getting aggressive about charging Trump and his co-conspirators for election interference and criminal conspiracy. This would have the added bonus of making the continuing conspiracy to overthrow the government harder to execute, as the primary leaders will be in jail or preoccupied with court proceedings, making another conspiracy harder to pull off. 

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2: Forgive student loans

After learning that Manchin was torpedoing Build Back Better, Goldman Sachs downgraded their economic forecast, predicting significantly slower economic growth. One main reason is the child tax credit — which Manchin reportedly believes working parents will use to buy drugs — will disappear, shrinking American wallets and thus consumer spending. 

But there's another way for Biden to get money into the pockets of the very same people who benefit from the child tax credit, namely working Americans in their 20s through their 40s. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., told voters in September, "The President of the United States has the power to cancel student loan debt on his own." 

Student loan forgiveness would have the same effect as the child tax credit, freeing up finances for millions of Americans and infusing the economy with cash. Nor would it only benefit the elite, as critics contend. As a Brookings analysis shows, "having student debt is now a marker of relative disadvantage," because it's held largely by people whose families did not pay for college. Therefore, "the beneficiaries of cancellation would be the lowest-income subset of student loan borrowers."

3: Ban the unvaccinated from airplanes

This is something Biden should have done months ago, and if he had, it would have dramatically stymied the walloping the omicron variant is about to deliver to the country's hospital systems, as the unvaccinated spread the virus for the holidays.

Still, better late than never.

Biden's employer vaccine mandate continues to be tied up in court, taking away one of the only tools he has to actually get shots into the arms of the millions of Trumper holdouts. But unlike the employer mandate, Biden's authority to regulate safety protocols for domestic travel is irrefutable. It's the power he's already using to require masks on planes. A vaccine mandate for air travel would send a strong signal that Biden isn't messing around and reassure his voters he's doing something to end this pandemic. Plus, it might actually save some lives. 

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4: Instruct the FDA to take up the cause of over-the-counter abortion pills

Research shows that the two-pill regimen to abort an unwanted pregnancy at home is safe and that patients can handle the instructions without guidance from a doctor. Plus, pregnant people are already getting and using abortion pills without a doctor's supervision, a practice that will only escalate once Roe is overturned in June, as it's expected it will be. The FDA under Biden has already loosened restrictions to access to abortion pills for these reasons. It's time to go all the way and make it legal for patients to get the pills directly from a pharmacy, with no prescription necessary. 

RELATED: When SCOTUS guts Roe: The covert plan to provide abortion pills on demand – and avoid prosecution

This won't make abortion legal in states that ban it. But it would go a long way to relieve the trauma and pain caused by those bans, allowing people to purchase the pills in a state where it's legal, and get them to people who need them in states where it's not. It would also be a strong sign of support from the Biden administration to the women of America: Yes, Republicans hate you and want to take your health care away, but Democrats will do everything in their power to stop that from happening. 

5: Reschedule marijuana

Biden can't single-handedly legalize marijuana, but he can reclassify it under current law, so possessing it is a far more minor crime and lower law enforcement priority. As Pennsylvania's Democratic Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, who is running for Senate next year, told McClatchy, marijuana is the "big bazooka" and "[w]hoever owns legal weed nationally, it's all gravy." 

It's not just that legalizing weed is politically popular, with 60% approval nationally. It's the sort of policy change that will filter down to the low information, young voters that Democrats need. A lot of those folks tune out when politicians talk about voting rights or the child tax credit, but if they know Biden supports their right to smoke up without going to jail for it, they might actually start to pay attention. 

It might also be a rare opportunity to pass something through Congress. There are actually quite a few Republicans who support decriminalizing marijuana, so much so that there's a very real chance that Republicans will get to own this issue if Democrats won't do anything about it. But as McClatchy puts it, there's a "growing chorus of Democrats calling for full legalization of recreational marijuana, which include Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York among other party leaders." There's a lot of young voters up for grabs — the right is certainly circling them through outlets like Joe Rogan's show — but Biden could become a hero to them if he just got on board with this plan. 

As AOC noted, Biden has been neglecting his executive power for a year now, out of what appears to be a misguided belief that a functional Congress is possible in its current iteration. So there's plenty more beyond these five items Biden could tackle. It's possible that Congress could get better in 2023, but that requires electing more Democrats, ideally enough that Manchin and Sinema's votes are no longer necessary to pass bills. For that to happen, voters need to see more action from Biden.

These items may not fix everything that's wrong with our country. But they would capture people's attention — often the attention of people who barely pay attention — and prove that Democrats do care and aren't just twiddling their thumbs. This, in turn, may be the juice Democrats need to get the real power to do real things before time runs out in Biden's first term. 

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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