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EDITORIAL: Presidents Day finds new cause for celebration

York Dispatch editorial board
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on climate change and green jobs Wednesday in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington.

Presidents Day, which is being commemorated today, initially honored the nation’s first leader, George Washington. In many ways, it still does; in fact, the federal holiday is still called “Washington’s Birthday.” 

The day was designated an official holiday in 1879 but had been celebrated annually and faithfully for almost a century — since just a few months after Washington’s death in December 1799. It has been commemorated on the third Monday in February since 1968, when Congress passed a law moving most holidays to Mondays — and its proximity to the birthday of another great president, Abraham Lincoln, made it a convenient catch-all. 

History aside, it is impossible to divorce the holiday from the person holding the title. And on that count, there is renewed reason to celebrate this year. 

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Less than a month into his administration, President Joe Biden has hit the ground running at a speed that belies his status as the oldest person ever to be inaugurated: 

  • A day one immigration bill followed by executive actions to reverse Trump’s infamous travel ban from predominantly Muslim countries and discontinue most deportations for 100 days.  
  • An aggressive, science-based response to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in which the need for federal leadership is acknowledged and acted upon. 
  • A proposed $1.9 trillion pandemic relief and stimulus bill. 
  • A commitment to act forcefully on global climate change including an immediate return of the United States to the Paris Climate Accord. 
  • Reversal of a number of wrong-headed Trump-era initiatives, including stopping construction of a border wall, pulling the plug on the Keystone XL pipeline, reinstating protections for LGBTQ workers, banning drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and revoking the silly and historically revisionist “1776 Commission” report. 

Biden has kept his promise to name top officials that “look like America,” nominating historic numbers of women and people of color to the Cabinet, including, among others, the first woman to serve as treasury secretary, the first Black defense secretary, and the first Native American and openly gay man to serve in the Cabinet. This is a profound about-face from a previous administration whose makeup (and attitudes) reflected nothing so much as the cast of “Mad Men.” 

And he’s planning ahead. A Wall Street Journal analysis found that, “The Biden administration has established about two dozen new interagency working groups, advisory councils, task forces, committees and offices, which are charged with producing more than 80 reports, proposals for future policy, plans and reviews of current policies.” 

If that sounds like a lot, it is. Biden’s former boss, Barack Obama had five similar task forces in operation at a similar point in his administration; Biden’s immediate predecessor, one. 

But it is the tone and direction, as much as the early steps, that should hearten Americans. From allowing medical experts to take the lead in updating the public on the ongoing pandemic response to sweeping new ethics rules to embracing science in setting policy, the administration has gotten out of the blocks as the “well-oiled machine” the president promised. 

The normalcy is refreshing; the work ethic reassuring. Daily press briefings are marked by intelligence rather than insults, and the public presidential schedule is dense and detailed, with not a hint of “executive time” to be found.  

Not everyone is satisfied, of course. Critics are grousing at Biden’s early reliance on executive orders and congressional Republicans — a considerable number of whom voted against certifying Biden’s election — took time off from acquitting a president impeached for inciting an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol to complain that Biden isn’t doing enough to promote the political unity he promised. 

No matter. The return of a competent, capable, caring figure in the White House is cause for optimism, if not celebration. Happy Presidents Day.