Democrats in the House, Senate, and around the country have been urging President-elect Joe Biden to use the maximum amount of executive authority available to him in order to grow the economy, expand civil rights, protect the climate, and otherwise implement the agenda he ran on, despite the expected obstruction from a Republican Senate.
On Tuesday, a group of civil rights leaders urged him privately to take a slew of executive action during a two-hour virtual meeting. While he didn’t close the door to anything specific, he was far from enthusiastic about the idea, according to audio of the meeting I obtained.
Excerpts from it can be heard in this week’s Deconstructed podcast, which you can find for free at any platform that hosts podcasts. While you’re there, subscribe to the podcast. (And just for fun, subscribe to the paid version of this newsletter, which doesn’t get you much more than the free version beyond the satisfaction of entering your credit card into the internet and feeling like you’re supporting something you like reading.)
Here’s what Biden told the civil rights leaders:
So there's some things that I'm going to be able to do by executive order. I'm not going to hesitate to do it, but what I'm not going to do is I'm not going to do what used to--Vanita, you probably used to get angry with me during the debates, when you'd have some of the people you were supporting saying, 'On Day One I'm gonna have an executive order to do this!' Not within the constitutional authority. I am not going to violate the Constitution. Executive authority that my progressive friends talk about is way beyond the bounds. And as one of you said, maybe it was you, Reverend Al, whether it's far left or far, right, there is a Constitution. It's our only hope. Our only hope and the way to deal with it is, where I have executive authority, I will use it to undo every single damn thing this guy has done by executive authority, but I'm not going to exercise executive authority where it's a question, where I can come along and say, I can do away with assault weapons. There's no executive authority to do away that. And no one has fought harder to get rid of assault weapons than me, me, but you can't do it by executive order. We do that, next guy comes along and says, well, guess what? By executive order, I guess everybody can jave machine guns again. So we gotta be careful.”
Biden also warned the civil rights leaders that pressure on the incoming administration around police reform could hurt the party’s chances in the Georgia Senate runoffs, claiming that the Republicans ability to define that party as in favor of defunding the police is “how they beat the living hell out of us across the country.”
Biden insisted that his commitment to police reform was unwavering, but argued that the branding effort had done too much damage. The comments were made during a virtual meeting between Biden, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, and civil rights leaders, a recording of which was obtained by The Intercept.
Biden made his comments unprompted, referencing an earlier remark made by NAACP President Derrick Johnson, who had warned that appointing Tom Vilsack to be secretary of agriculture would anger Black farmers in Georgia, as well as Black voters generally in the state, for whom Shirley Sherrod was a hero. Sherrod was fired by Vilsack from her position as Georgia Director of Rural Development for the USDA during Vilsack’s previous tenure as agriculture secretary during the Obama administration. Her firing was quickly revealed to have been a mistake, and based on an incomplete airing of a video by the late conservative provocateur Andrew Breitbart. Particularly in Georgia, Johnson noted, Vilsack’s capitulation was still a sore spot and nominated him would be “disastrous” electorally. “If you consider the victory that you appreciated in Georgia, it was around 12,000 votes. And so as you consider appointments, you also must consider what impact would that have on voters in the state of Georgia. And I will submit to you that former Secretary Vilsack could have a disastrous impact on voters in Georgia. Shirley Sherrod is a civil rights legend, a hero,” Johnson said.
Toward the end of the conversation, Biden raised Johnson’s remark to dismiss it, saying Johnson would soon learn more about Vilsack’s record. It also wouldn’t be prudent to have that fight before the Georgia runoffs, he said, before adding that police reform should also be avoided. “I also don't think we should get too far ahead ourselves on dealing with police reform in that, because they've already labeled us as being ‘defund the police,’ anything we put forward in terms of the organizational structure to change policing -- which I promise you, will occur. Promise you,” Biden said.
“That's how they beat the living hell out of us across the country, saying that we're talking about defunding the police. We're not. We're talking about holding them accountable. We're talking about giving them money to do the right things. We're talking about putting more psychologists and psychiatrists on the telephones when the 911 calls through. We're talking about spending money to enable them to do their jobs better, not with more force, with less force and more understanding.”
The slogan “defund the police” has been blamed for House and Senate losses by Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., along with other moderate House Democrats. Former President Barack Obama joined in, calling it a snappy slogan that cost votes.
“I just raise it with you to think about how much do we push between now and January 5th -- we need those two seats -- about police reform. But I guarantee you, there will be a full blown commission. I guarantee you it's a major, major, major element,” Biden said.