President-elect Joe Biden has pledged to take action “on Day One” to fulfill a wide range of campaign promises, including on climate change, immigration and taxes.

But the “Day One” part is largely a rhetorical flourish, meant more to underscore a readiness to take office than an actual to-do list.

After all, President Donald Trump also promised “executive actions on Day One,” which he actually took on day four, day nine, day 11, day 68, day 89 and day 112.

While some of Biden’s promises can be accomplished with the stroke of a pen, others will require him to prod the bureaucracy to act. Some will rely on his ability to strike deals with Republicans in Congress. And still others are likely to be dead on arrival.

Biden’s mandate to govern got a boost when two Georgia Democrats won runoff elections, giving the Senate a narrow Democratic majority with the tie-breaking vote of Vice President Kamala Harris.

But the new president will also face a Congress still traumatized by the mob assault on the U.S. Capitol, and deciding when to begin a trial for Trump’s impeachment. That will be a factor in how quickly the Senate can turn to Biden’s legislative priorities, including the US$1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package he unveiled Thursday night.

A scorecard of some of what Biden has promised — and what it will take to keep those promises:

The economy and taxes

Only Congress can set tax law and spend federal money, so Biden will need to work with Capitol Hill to get just about anything done on the economy. With their new majority, Democrats can use the budget reconciliation process to bypass the filibuster and pass fiscal policy on a simple majority vote — but there are limits on how many times Congress can use that tool.


Biden promise  What it would take 
 “On Day One, if I’m president of the United States, you’re going to see the end of Trump’s tax cut for the top 10th of 1 per cent.” (Speech to the Philadelphia AFL-CIO, September 2019)  Changes in the tax code require legislation, and major tax reform is unlikely in the short term because it’s not a top priority for Democrats during the coronavirus pandemic.
 “There is no going back to business as usual on trade.... He will ensure we negotiate from the strongest possible position.” (Statement on campaign website.) Trade is one area where Biden has not promised wholesale reversals of Trump policies. He has promised to consult with environmental and labor groups on any new trade deals, which would also require congressional approval. 
 “Let’s pay them a decent wage, at least $15 per hour, ending the tipped minimum wage and sub-minimum wage for people with disabilities, and strong benefits so they can live a middle class life.” (Biden-Harris economic recovery plan) Much of what Biden calls for in his jobs plan would require Congress to act — including a minimum wage increase, expanded bargaining rights and paycheck anti-discrimination laws. He does have some tools at his disposal, like appointments to the National Labor Relations Board, rules for federal contracting and Medicaid regulations on home health care workers. 

Climate, energy and the environment

The president has considerable influence over environmental policy, but it’s often slow and indirect. He can negotiate nonbinding agreements with other countries. He can also order regulatory change; it just takes a little time.


 Biden promise What it would take 
 “We’re going to get to work, delivering results right on Day One. We’re going to reverse Trump’s rollbacks of 100 public health and environmental rules, and then forge a path to greater ambition.” (Speech in Wilmington, Delaware, July 14, 2020) Biden might begin the process on Day One, but results could take months or years. While the Clean Air Act gives the executive branch authority to set emissions limits, those regulations can subject to a lengthy process of scientific study and public comments. 
 “The United States will rejoin the Paris Agreement on Day One of my presidency.” (Remarks on the fifth anniversary of the Paris Climate Agreement, December 12, 2020) The Paris accord is an executive agreement, meaning it doesn’t require ratification by the Senate as a treaty would. Biden can petition to rejoin the agreement on Day One, with re-entry to take effect 30 days later. 
 “In his first 100 days in office, Biden will convene a climate world summit to directly engage the leaders of the major greenhouse gas-emitting nations of the world to persuade them to join the United States in making more ambitious national pledges, above and beyond the commitments they have already made." (Statement, April 22, 2020.) Biden’s focus on climate became clear in the days following his election, when the topic came up in congratulatory phone calls with leaders of every country except Israel. But he will be under pressure to deliver even more ambitious carbon reduction goals if he’s going to convince other world powers — especially China — to do more. 
“Biden strongly opposed the Keystone pipeline in the last administration, stood alongside President Obama and Secretary Kerry to reject it in 2015, and will proudly stand in the Roosevelt Room again as President and stop it for good by rescinding the Keystone XL pipeline permit.” (Statement from Biden adviser Stef Feldman, May 18, 2020) The granting of presidential permits for cross-border pipelines can be a bureaucratic process. Trump reversed Barack Obama’s decision to deny the permit, and Biden could order a new review. Or, because the process is governed by executive order, Biden could simply change the process to deny it outright. 


The president has authority over how the immigration laws are enforced — Obama, for example, made a priority of the deportation of violent criminals and deferred action on so-called “Dreamers” who entered the country illegally as children. Wholesale changes in citizenship would take an act of Congress, but Biden can undo Trump’s executive orders on enforcement.


Biden promise What it would take
“On Day One, Joe Biden will rescind the un-American Muslim travel and refugee bans.... Biden will re-establish the United States as a welcoming destination for those seeking to pursue the American dream, including immigrants from the Arab world.” (Statement, August 29, 2020) Trump’s ban on travel from predominantly Muslim countries has now been expanded to 13 nations. Because the ban was imposed by presidential proclamation, Biden can simply rescind it. Allowing more refugees requires consultation with Congress every September.
“I’ll send a bill to Congress on Day One that will create a road map to citizenship for the 11 million undocumented individuals already living in and strengthening the United States.” (Statement, October 21, 2020) Every president since George W. Bush has tried for a major immigration overhaul, but all have failed to get it through a divided Congress. Biden said Friday he would introduce his plan “immediately” after taking office but did not outline details. Citizenship for undocumented immigrants could be a stumbling block.
“The gentleman says, what about the 545 kids who were kidnapped. That’s why I announced immediately on Day One I’m setting up a special commission. We’re gonna find those kids and we’re gonna unite them with their parents. We’re gonna make sure their parents are together.” (Speech in Detroit, 10/31/2020) Nothing impedes Biden from setting up a commission whose end goal is to reunite children who were separated from their families at the border and who the Trump administration can no longer find in order to return them to their parents.
“Building a wall will do little to deter criminals and cartels seeking to exploit our borders. Instead of stealing resources from schools for military children and recovery efforts in Puerto Rico, Biden will direct federal resources to smart border enforcement efforts, like investments in improving screening infrastructure at our ports of entry, that will actually keep America safer.” (Statement on Biden campaign website.) Trump’s use of a rarely invoked emergency power to redirect spending to the U.S.-Mexico border wall means that Biden can shut down the project simply by ending the emergency. Still, additional funding for a border wall could be a bargaining chip in any negotiations with Congress on a comprehensive immigration bill.

The coronavirus pandemic has put an unprecedented focus on the president’s power over public health. But public health remains primarily a state function, so the federal role has been largely limited to encouraging personal safety measures and the development of a vaccine.


Biden promise What it would take
“We’re going to act. On Day One we’re going to act to get COVID under control. On Day One of my presidency I’ll put in action a plan that I’ve been talking about for months, masking, social distancing, testing, tracing, a plan for full and fair and free distribution of therapeutics and vaccines when we get one.” (Speech in Pittsburgh, 11/2/2020) Biden has expounded on his campaign promise to include an executive order requiring masks in federal buildings and in interstate transportation. Last week his transition team said he would also change the Trump administration policy of keeping half of vaccine doses in reserve so people are assured of a second shot. “The government should stop holding back vaccine supply so we can get more shots in Americans’ arms now,” a spokesman said.
“Americans are safer when America is engaged in strengthening global health. On my first day as president, I will rejoin the WHO and restore our leadership on the world stage.” (Biden tweet, July 7, 2020) Rejoining the World Health Organization is the easy part, but experts say it will take sustained work to repair relationships and re-assert U.S. leadership in global health.
“What I’m going to do is pass Obamacare with a public option, become Bidencare. The public option is an option that says that ... you’re automatically enrolled providing competition for insurance companies — that’s what’s going to happen.” Congress used the streamlined budget reconciliation process to pass Obamacare, so it could do the same with Biden’s health care proposals. But Biden could get some resistance from both the left and right, since his plan falls short of the “Medicare for All” that progressives have espoused. Instead, Biden would allow a government plan as an alternative to private health insurance plans without eliminating them completely.

National security

The president’s role as commander-in-chief gives him broad powers to run the military and conduct foreign relations, and Congress has largely delegated to him the authority to impose economic sanctions on other countries.


Biden promise What it would take
“The last godda** thing we need in that part of the world is a buildup of nuclear capability. In consultation with our allies and partners, we’re going to engage in negotiations and follow-on agreements to tighten and lengthen Iran’s nuclear constraints, as well as address the missile program.” (Interview with the New York Times, Dec. 2, 2020) The deal first signed in 2015 will be hard to revive. Iran began to breach the limit on uranium enrichment after Trump re-imposed sanctions. Tehran says it can reverse those efforts, but it expects its economy be made whole.
“Biden will direct the U.S. Department of Defense to allow trans-gender service members to serve openly, receive needed medical treatment, and be free from discrimination.” (Biden campaign website.) Trump banned trans-gender service members from the military by executive order, which the Supreme Court has allowed to stand while being challenged in the courts. Biden could reverse Trump’s executive order with his own order reinstating the Obama policy.

Domestic policy

Domestic policy is largely the province of Congress, but the president does have some tools at his disposal.


Biden promise What it would take
“To gun owners out there who say, well a Biden administration means, they’re going to come for my guns. Bingo. You’re right if you have an assault weapon,” (CNN interview, Aug. 6, 2019) Biden, who helped pass a 10-year assault weapons ban as a senator in 1994, has also made clear that most gun-control efforts require Congress. “No one has fought harder to get rid of assault weapons than me, but you can’t do it by executive order,” he told civil rights leaders this month. Still, Biden could expand enforcement and tighten up background checks.
“President Obama used his clemency power more than any of the 10 prior presidents. Biden will continue this tradition and broadly use his clemency power for certain nonviolent and drug crimes.” (Statement on Biden criminal justice policy.) The presidential clemency power is one of the most absolute — with neither Congress nor the courts having any control over its use. There are a record 14,282 formal clemency petitions pending with the Justice Department, which Trump has largely ignored in favor of a more political process.
“This is an inflection moment in American history. A moment where we must make substantive changes now. Change in the American police is long overdue. But it goes beyond just police reforms. We have to change the enforcement of the civil rights laws.” (Remarks at NAACP Town Hall, June 10, 2020) Policing in the U.S. is still largely conducted by state and local departments. But Congress can use civil rights laws to define and prohibit excessive use of force, like choke holds. On his own, Biden could also reinstate some Obama policies, like a ban on transferring surplus equipment to local police, and linking some Justice Department grants to local reforms.
“Under the Biden plan, individuals making US$25,000 or less per year will not owe any payments on their undergraduate federal student loans and also won’t accrue any interest on those loans.” (Statement, March 31, 2020) Progressives are urging the president-elect to forgive student loans by executive order, but Biden says he doesn’t have that power. “I think that’s pretty questionable. I’m unsure of that. I’d be unlikely to do that,” he told the Washington Post. However, his transition team said Friday that Biden will order the Education Department to extend deferrals on loan payments during the pandemic.