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Just how ‘divisive’ are Biden’s executive actions, really?

President Joe Biden issued 19 executive orders in his first week, far more than previous presidents in that period. (Video: The Washington Post)

President Biden’s pen has gotten a workout in the early days of his administration: He has signed more than three dozen executive actions in about a week’s time, more than any recent president in his first days in office.

Republicans are making this an early battleground. They claim Biden is bypassing Congress, that he’s cramming through his agenda, and that these unilateral actions represent a failure to live up to his promises to unify the country.

Kay C. James, the president of the conservative Heritage Foundation, said Friday that Biden is undercutting the promises of unity in his inaugural address by pursuing “a series of highly divisive executive actions.”

Biden’s early pace is fast — to the point where even the New York Times editorial board urged him to slow his roll. As I noted last week, former president Donald Trump also made inordinate use of them (albeit not as quickly at the start) and often stretched his executive authority on major issues, with little pushback from his own party.

Are the orders really that divisive though? Luckily, we have a good idea about how much public support exists for at least the concepts behind Biden’s actions.

Some of them do divide the country pretty evenly, while most others are on more solid ground in the court of public opinion. But virtually none of them are on the level of divisiveness of Trump’s transgender military ban or his border wall national emergency, both of which Americans strongly rejected and have now been undone by Biden’s executive actions. (Many of Biden’s actions, indeed, merely undid Trump’s own unilateral actions.)

Below is a list of executive actions for which we have at least a reasonable idea about how much public support exists — even if the surveys didn’t directly test these specific actions. (Some similar executive actions have been combined into one entry for brevity.)

Masks on federal grounds, airplanes

What the executive orders do: Require masks and physical distancing on federal grounds and by government contractors, as well as in airports and on airplanes, trains, boats and intercity buses

Support: Americans approved 67 percent to 30 percent of the idea that they should be required to wear masks in public, according to an October Quinnipiac University poll. The poll didn’t ask specifically about a federal mandate, but support was quite high for a policy that goes quite a bit further than that of Biden.

Reversing Trump’s transgender military ban

What it does: Restores the ability of transgender Americans to serve in the military

Support: A 2019 Gallup poll showed 71 percent of people supported allowing transgender people to serve in the military. A Public Religion Research Institute poll the same year put the number at 63 percent, though only 22 percent favored it “strongly.”

Restoring DACA for “Dreamers”

What it does: Preserves and fortifies President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) executive action preventing the deportation of undocumented immigrants who arrived as children

Support: A 2017 Washington Post-ABC News poll showed 86 percent supported allowing DACA arrivals to stay in the United States. And 74 percent of Americans favored granting permanent legal status to undocumented immigrants who were brought to the United States as children, according to a Pew poll last year — a measure that goes even further than Biden’s action.

Making climate change a priority, halting new oil and gas permits

What it does: Makes climate change a central part of U.S. foreign and national security policy, and pauses new oil and natural gas leases on public lands or offshore waters.

Support: A Pew poll last year showed 65 percent of respondents said the federal government is doing too little on climate change. And a 2019 Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation poll showed majorities wanted to decrease fossil fuel extraction both on public lands and in coastal waters, with 8 in 10 either favoring a reduction or keeping things as they are.

Preventing sexual and gender discrimination

What it does: Prevents workplace discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity

Support: About 7 in 10 Americans favor laws that ban such discrimination, according to a June poll from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Canceling Trump’s travel ban

What it does: Reverses Trump’s travel ban on several majority-Muslim countries

Support: When Trump instituted it, support was split, with some polls showing it being slightly more popular than unpopular. But a 2018 Quinnipiac poll showed Americans supported a court blocking the move 59-38.

Staying in the World Health Organization

What it does: Halts Trump’s withdrawal from the WHO

Support: Surveys have shown significant mistrust of the WHO and its coronavirus response and China ties — especially among Republicans. But a June poll from the Economist and YouGov showed more Americans opposed the withdrawal than supported it, 46 percent to 33 percent. (Many had no position.)

Rejoining Paris climate accord

What it does: Rejoins it, after Trump withdrew

Support: A 2017 Post-ABC News poll showed Americans opposed Trump’s withdrawal by a 2-to-1 margin, 59 percent to 28 percent. More recently, a November YouGov poll showed they favored rejoining the accord 55 percent to 23 percent.

Keystone XL halt

What it does: Cancels the pipeline and reverses Trump’s climate actions

Support: This is one of Biden’s dicier moves, but it might not be as unpopular as it once would have been. In the middle of the decade, there was strong support for the project, including by at least 2-to-1 margins in most polls. But when asked in 2017 whether they favored restarting the project (along with another pipeline, the Dakota Access pipeline), a Quinnipiac poll showed Americans opposed doing so 51-38.

Europe and South Africa travel ban

What it does: Reinstating coronavirus-related restrictions on arrivals from many areas of Europe and South Africa

Support: While these specific areas haven’t been polled recently, Americans in the summer supported such travel restrictions 62-15 when Trump instituted them on Canada, China, Mexico and Europe, according to a USA Today/Ipsos poll.

Guidance on opening schools

What it does: Directs the federal government to provide guidance for safely reopening schools and child-care providers

Support: While recent scientific studies have moved toward recommending the reopening of schools, including from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, reluctance has remained a fixture. An August Washington Post-Schar School poll showed 80 percent of Americans favored holding school at least partially online. A July HuffPost/YouGov poll showed just 45 percent favored either a full reopening (19 percent) or a partial reopening (26 percent). About the same as those two groups combined — 42 percent — said schools should remain closed or online-only. More recent polling is unfortunately scant. But Biden’s action only requests guidance, rather than mandating openings.

Evictions moratorium

What it does: Extends the nationwide moratorium on evictions and foreclosures until at least March 31

Support: Polling is scant here, too, but a May survey from an interest group that opposes evictions showed 89 percent of people said the federal government has an important role to play in preventing evictions amid the pandemic. That’s not quite the same as whether they would support this specific action, but the concern and desire for federal action is clearly there. And this is notably something the Trump administration did, too.

Student loan moratorium

What it does: Extends the existing moratorium on student loan payments and interest until at least Sept. 30

Support: This is also something Trump did. A September poll from the Pew Charitable Trusts showed 81 percent thought the federal government should make it easier to repay student loans. The question wasn’t specifically about the moratorium or the pandemic, though.

Coronavirus testing board

What it does: Creates a Pandemic Testing Board to expand testing capacity

Support: A May poll from CNN showed 57 percent of Americans said the Trump administration wasn’t doing enough to address the limited availability of testing. But that concern waned once testing was expanded; a Gallup poll in November showed just 27 percent of Americans worried about the lack of available testing in their areas. Regardless, moving to expand and improve testing would seem a consensus issue.

Enhancing coronavirus data

What it does: Creates better and more accessible coronavirus data

Support: An October AP-NORC poll showed Americans didn’t believe Trump’s claims on the coronavirus 64-16, while an Axios/Ipsos poll this week showed trust in the federal government’s coronavirus information just reached 50 percent for the first time since May, following Biden’s inauguration. These poll questions aren’t specifically about data from the CDC or elsewhere, but there does seem to be a trust deficit that needs addressing.

Canceling Trump’s border wall national emergency

What it does: Halts construction of the border wall on an emergency basis

Support: Numerous polls in 2019 showed Americans opposed Trump’s emergency declaration to build the wall by about a 2-to-1 margin, and the wall has long been unpopular.

Canceling Trump’s immigration crackdown

What it does: Revokes Trump’s executive order withholding funding from what are known as sanctuary cities and prioritizes immigration enforcement over other goals

Support: A 2017 McClatchy-Marist College poll showed Americans opposed withholding funding from such cities 53-42. The margin was 53-41 against in a Fox News poll. The other portion of this executive action is tougher to poll, but a 2017 CNN poll showed more Americans were concerned about deportations going too far than not going far enough, 58-40.

Regulatory review

What it does: Cancels Trump’s regulatory review process, which led to a large rollback of regulations, and develops new recommendations

Support: Polling in 2017 showed most Americans opposed Trump’s effort to remove regulations on businesses and corporations (51-39) and related to climate change (59-32).

Collective bargaining for federal workers

What it does: Reverses Trump’s prohibition on collective bargaining for federal workers, and promotes a $15 minimum wage

Support: There is no good recent polling on collective bargaining. But when certain GOP governors were rolling back those rights a decade ago, polls showed Americans generally opposed their actions, including 54-40 in an NBC/Wall Street Journal poll. A Bloomberg poll showed people supported the right for public employees to collectively bargain by a 2-to-1 margin, 64-32.

As for a $15 minimum wage, Biden is also seeking to make one law in his coronavirus package, where it will be a sticking point. But polls show Americans generally favor it, including by a 2-to-1 margin in a 2019 Pew poll.

Buy American

What it does: Reduces obstacles to federal purchases of domestic goods

Support: This is a goal that Biden also has in common with the Trump administration — if not necessarily in exactly how he’ll go about it. A 2017 Reuters/Ipsos poll showed 70 percent of Americans said it was important to buy American goods, but many weren’t willing to pay much more for them.

Rescinding the “Mexico City Policy”

What it does: Rescinds Trump’s ban on federal funding for foreign entities which perform abortions

Support: Polls have shown Americans overwhelmingly oppose foreign funding for abortion, but that’s already U.S. law. The Mexico City Policy goes further by also withholding funding from groups who provide abortion with other funding or provide counseling and referrals for abortion. And a Kaiser Family Foundation poll in 2017 showed Americans opposed expanding restrictions on funding such groups 56-41.

Inclusion of undocumented people in census

What it does: Reverses Trump’s attempted prohibition on including undocumented immigrants in the Census

Support: Some polls showed popular support for including a citizenship question on the census, which the Trump administration tried and failed to do. But that’s different from excluding them altogether.

Deferring deportation for Liberians

What it does: Defers deportation for natives of Liberia until June 30, 2022

Support: Trump twice moved to end such protections for Liberians. But while there is no good polling on this, the Senate recently voted to ease their path to legal residency on a bipartisan basis.

Ethics pledge

What it does: Requires political appointees to sign an ethics pledge barring them from acting in personal interest and Justice Department employees to act independently

Support: There is no polling on this specific ethics pledge, but it’s undoubtedly an idea the vast majority of Americans would support. Trump also had federal employees sign ethics pledges to prevent them from lobbying after leaving government, but he rolled them back in his final hours.

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