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It's time for Biden to use the power of his office 

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at Mill 19, a former steel mill being developed into a robotics research facility, on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on January 28, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks at Mill 19, a former steel mill being developed into a robotics research facility, on the campus of Carnegie Mellon University on January 28, 2022 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. (Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

In February, it’s not unusual to feel a sense of impending doom as the dark days of winter grind on. But adding to the churn for many of us this winter is a series of diminishing returns and ominous projections for the Democratic Party, with the midterm elections only 10 months away.

President Biden’s ambitious social spending package — the Build Back Better Act — remains stalled in Congress, due to the recalcitrance of Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema. The administration was also caught unprepared for the surge of the omicron variant, sluggishly sending free at-home tests and N95 masks to people only after being criticized for their lack of planning. The president’s approval ratings, which hit a new low of 41% last Thursday, have also been significantly dinged by inflation and an overdue but poorly planned withdrawal from Afghanistan.

All of this is to illustrate just how urgently the Biden administration needed the victory of passing landmark legislation like the Build Back Better Act.

The bill would make a tangible difference in the lives of millions of Americans by restoring relief measures such as the child tax credits that expired in January, and investing much-needed capital into affordable housing, caregiving and climate resilience projects. But with Congress just as gridlocked as it’s been for the last decade, the bill is likely to die in committee or be whittled down to a singular climate policy package, leaving Democratic voters in a funk just before the Democratic Party needs mass voter turnout if they have a prayer of maintaining control of Congress.

When President Biden chucked his hat into the 2020 presidential primary, he built his campaign around two promises. The first was that he could beat Donald Trump. But the loftier promise was that Biden, a self-professed bipartisan dealmaker, could return Congress to working order and deliver help to the American people during a series of intersectional crises.

[T]he Biden administration seems committed to the idea that Congress should be the engine of social policy making

Things got off to a promising start when Biden signed the American Rescue Plan shortly after taking office in January of 2021. The $1.9 trillion pandemic relief package transferred much-needed financial support to vulnerable American households, while also vesting cities and states with billions in funding, allowing them to emerge from the pandemic recession with resurgent economic power.

But now, even with Build Back Better in mothballs indefinitely, the Biden administration seems committed to the idea that Congress should be the engine of social policy making — even in situations where Biden could use executive power to deliver piecemeal relief on his own.

Take the student debt crisis. On the campaign trail, Biden declared that he would forgive up to $10,000 in federal student loan debt for every eligible borrower. It wasn’t exactly the $50,000 that senators like Elizabeth Warren and Chuck Schumer have implored Biden to erase, but it would be a long overdue act of clemency that would chip away at the racial wealth gap and help the economy. But President Biden hasn’t leveraged his executive authority to cancel this debt, arguing that for the policy to survive suits by courts, he would need a bill from Congress.

Worse yet, the Biden administration came dangerously close to ending the student loan payment freeze that was initiated by the Trump administration in 2020. After mass outcry over their initial plan to resume loan payments in the midst of a COVID surge, the Biden administration used its power to extend the freeze at the 11th hour.

A similar sequence of events played out when the Biden administration announced its plan to have Americans seek reimbursement for COVID rapid tests from their private health insurers. The plan was lambasted by public health experts and pretty much anyone who’s had the misfortune of dealing with a health insurer. Several weeks after the initial announcement, Biden announced that the government would use the U.S. Postal Service to offer free tests for Americans (albeit, in very limited numbers). While it’s unfortunate that the Biden administration once again had to be cajoled into using its executive power to help the general public, Biden listened and — to some degree — he delivered.

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Imagine a flurry of executive orders aimed at partially compensating Americans for the relief that Congress still won’t let them have.

These one-off acts of using executive power to ease the stress and suffering of Americans illuminate a possible path through the midterms for Biden and the Democrats. Imagine a flurry of executive orders aimed at partially compensating Americans for the relief that Congress still won’t let them have. While Biden can’t single-handedly greenlight stimulus checks or tax credits, the president has the power to take actions that would make life a little easier for millions. It could be expanding access to Affordable Care Act programs, abolishing debts (not just student loan debt but medical debt too), or permanently offering free pandemic supplies like rapid tests.

These executive orders couldn’t provide the same heft of social support that the Build Back Better Act would offer, and Biden would need to be prepared to go horn-to-horn with courts that challenge his decisions. But in the absence of legislation, these orders and the resolve to defend them from legal challenges, would be welcomed by many Americans during a period of historic anxiety, depression and despair, which was ever present before the pandemic even began. They would help rehabilitate Biden’s image as an empathetic president who understands the tribulations that most people endure in American life.

But more importantly, a big flex of executive power from the Biden administration in 2022 would signal recognition of what Americans need now: help from the government during hard times. Biden spent his first year trying to deliver this to Americans. His big mistake was promising Americans that he could do this by “fixing” Congress, and not pivoting when the plan crumbled.

Now, let’s hope that Biden discovers the power of the presidency — ideally before November.

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Miles Howard Cognoscenti contributor
Miles Howard is an author, journalist, and trail builder based in Boston.

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