RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President-elect Joe Biden campaigned on a sweeping agenda. But Democrats face an uphill battle to control the Senate, and they have lost seats in the House. So as NPR's Scott Detrow reports, Biden may have to rely on executive actions.
SCOTT DETROW, BYLINE: Joe Biden is going to have a busy first couple days on the job.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
JOE BIDEN: Now, the first thing I would do, Day 1 as president, I'd rejoin the Paris climate accord, which we, Barack and I, put together.
DETROW: In addition to that much-promised order, Biden said in the final debate that he'll also reestablish the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, DACA, which President Trump tried to end.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
BIDEN: And all of those so-called DREAMers, those DACA kids, they're going to be immediately certified again to be able to stay in this country.
DETROW: He's promised scores of other orders, redoing many of the Obama-era actions that Trump spent years undoing. The bulk of Biden's pandemic response will involve executive actions, too.
But what about that big agenda Biden promised? As Democrats face a slim House majority and maybe continued minority life in the Senate, two of President Barack Obama's chiefs of staff argue Biden can still get a lot of things done. Denis McDonough ran the White House during Obama's second term. McDonough says the presidency holds a lot of power.
DENIS MCDONOUGH: There's no reason that President-elect Biden should not use the authority that's available to him.
DETROW: McDonough, now a Notre Dame professor, points out Trump expanded the use of executive orders and that Biden should follow that precedent. Another Obama chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, agrees. He says most presidents get as much done as possible when their party controls Congress and then turn to orders when they deal with divided government.
RAHM EMANUEL: Trump changes that and moves aggressively on executive orders - a multitude of them on multiple fronts - everything on immigration and et cetera - without any legislation.
DETROW: There's still a lot Biden will need to work with Congress on. But Emanuel knows political capital can be limited. So, he says, Biden should do as much as he can through orders.
EMANUEL: The fewer things you have to clog up the legislative pipeline with allows you to concentrate your political capital in that legislative front.
DETROW: Biden has made it clear he'll make climate change a top priority. Jamal Raad, who co-founded the climate advocacy group Evergreen Action, says there's a clear path for Biden to still do that, even if Republicans control the Senate.
JAMAL RAAD: You don't have to speculate. His plans were littered with pretty significant executive actions on the climate crisis.
DETROW: Evergreen Action has flagged dozens of major steps the administration can take on its own. One big example...
RAAD: The executive has incredible authority over mileage standards for cars and trucks, and ramping up the deployment of electric vehicles and - is an incredible opportunity to lower carbon emissions.
DETROW: Most importantly, a Biden administration could just write rules to force power plants to shift to renewable energy. Of course, the Obama administration tried that, and the federal courts were skeptical. The judiciary's only gotten more conservative since. Denis McDonough lived through all those court fights. He still thinks it's possible.
MCDONOUGH: They should be discerning in how they structure their plans and making sure that it's based on the authorities that are squarely in the president's bailiwick.
DETROW: But even if those orders aren't struck down by the courts, what's clear is they could always be undone by the next president.
Scott Detrow, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.