Kay C. James

COMMENTARY: Is Biden committed to unity or unilateral action?

President Joe Biden delivered a memorable inaugural address. In lofty rhetoric intended to echo through the ages, he spoke of unity and healing to a badly fractured nation. But though the words were noble and welcome, the speech rang hollow. That’s because, even before he delivered his address, Biden had declared his intent to implement a series of highly divisive executive actions on his very first day in the Oval Office. And on that, he delivered and hasn’t stopped. A week into his presidency, Biden has taken an astonishing 40 executive actions — more than any president in history. The orders address many of the issues about which Americans are most passionate, issues like the sanctity of life, immigration, climate and religious liberty. Historically, Washington has been able to bridge divides and weather disagreements over highly charged policy proposals through deliberation and debate, with fidelity to the rule of law. It’s a slow, often painfully incremental process, but it’s one that gives voice to all Americans and ultimately gets the job done. While some executive orders are perfectly fine, what we are seeing now are examples of short-circuiting the democratic process by cutting out Congress and leaving no room for debate or dissent. A president truly interested in healing divisions would seek first to find common ground, focusing on issues where there is much agreement and mutual interest between left and right. President Biden could have demonstrated his commitment to unity by using his first day in office to take steps that address problems of deep concern to all Americans. For example, he could have announced a three-step plan to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and ease the pain it has inflicted on American lives and livelihoods. A plan to make rapid self-tests widely available, reopen our schools and assure efficient vaccine distribution would find approval on both sides of the aisle. Instead, he demonstrated a desire to satiate his left-wing base by unilaterally implementing their pet policies. Unfortunately, that approach will only further divide America — and leave us less secure, with fewer economic opportunities. Consider just two of his executive orders on climate: one canceling the Keystone XL pipeline, the other putting the U.S. back into the Paris climate agreement. The $8 billion pipeline project has enjoyed bipartisan support for years. It offered thousands of good-paying and meaningful jobs. When completed, it would have carried up to 830,000 barrels of Canadian oil daily to refiners in the Gulf Coast, with practically no discernable environmental impact. Blocking the project not only undermines the energy security of the United States, it will likely backfire environmentally by forcing producers to transport their crude via riskier, more inefficient methods. And the economic costs are huge. In the wake of Biden’s action, TC Energy, the company behind the project, announced an immediate 1,000 layoffs, with many more to come as the work winds down. As for rejoining the Paris climate agreement, that too offers essentially zero environmental benefits at a huge cost. To have any impact whatsoever on climate, the entire world would either have to quickly change the way it consumes energy or simply remain undeveloped. Both options are devoid of reality. When the Obama administration proposed regulations and emissions reduction targets in response to the Paris Agreement, Heritage Foundation economists estimated it would cost the average family of four more than $20,000 in lost income by 2035, an annual average loss of nearly 400,000 jobs and an aggregate GDP loss of over $2.5 trillion. Although the energy landscape has changed since then, Biden’s stringent emissions targets would likely impose similar drastic consequences. While the extreme left has viewed the Keystone pipeline as a symbol of evil incarnate and the Paris Agreement as all things bright and beautiful, not all Americans are eager to suffer the economic consequences of these actions — especially at a time when economic growth and job creation are so desperately needed. Biden’s unity message made for a great speech, but his executive orders tell a different story. If our new president is going to be more interested pandering to his base than in delivering for all Americans, he’ll go down in history not as the great healer, but as just another lip-service politician who squandered an opportunity to bring our country together. Kay C. James is the president of The Heritage Foundation.
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