Politics and Government

As we saw in the last section, on Congress, even though Democrats now control the presidency and have slim majorities in both the House and Senate, it is nonetheless difficult fro them to act on their policy priorities.  The numerous choke points in the American legislative process — the filibuster, in particular — enable Republicans in Congress to block many Democratic initiatives. 

In this situation, Presidents often turn to tools they can use unilaterally, such as executive orders; as the NPR article shows, President Biden’s use of them thus far is near record pace.  But is that a good thing?  What are the upsides and downsides of governing by executive order?

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P O L I T I C S

In his first two weeks in office, President Biden has signed nearly as many executive
orders as Franklin Roosevelt signed in his entire first month. And President Roosevelt
holds the record.

Adding his signature to three executive orders on immigration Tuesday, Biden has
now signed 28 executive orders since taking office. FDR signed 30 in his first month.

“By sheer volume, Biden is going to be the most active president on this front since the
1930s,” said Andy Rudalevige, a professor of government at Bowdoin College.

Executive orders are the easiest presidential directives to track over time because they
are all numbered and published in the Federal Register. But Biden is using many more
levers of executive authority, also signing presidential memoranda, proclamations and
letters.

Here’s how Biden stacks up with other recent presidents on executive orders:

Biden’s actions so far include:

And while the numbers are large, these actions aren’t barrier-breaking. They call for
the creation of task forces, direct agencies to begin a regulatory process or explore a
policy change.

“A lot of what these orders consist of are plans to make plans, in a sense,” Rudalevige
said. “There’s a lot of reviewing, reporting, sort of an urging to rev up that process, but
it’s not a substitute for the process itself.”

Executive actions can’t create new laws — they have to exist within the constraints of
the Constitution and existing statute. They direct the executive branch to do what is
already in its power. And as a result they can be, and often are, reversed by the next
president. In fact, many of Biden’s actions take aim at things former President Donald
Trump had done with a swipe of his Sharpie.

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03:21

“There’s a lot of talk with good reason about the number
of executive orders that I’ve signed,” Biden said while
signing the immigration executive orders. “I’m not
making new law. I’m eliminating bad policy.”

Some Republicans have criticized Biden for pushing through Democratic priorities
with a signature, after preaching unity and bipartisanship. The number of actions is
notable, but these sorts of reversals are something most presidents do.

“The motto of the Reagan transition team was ‘when in doubt, undo.’ That was the
motto,” said Phillip Cooper, a professor of government at Portland State University.
Biden’s team, he said, “didn’t want to just undo, they wanted to put back in place what
had been there before or pick up what had been there before and build on it.”

Trump made reversing Obama administration policies a mission of his presidency.
Now Biden is reversing the reversals — for instance, the letter he signed returning the
U.S. to the Paris climate agreement, which Trump had just pulled the U.S. out of in
November.

Several other Biden executive actions relate to the coronavirus pandemic. This fits
with another trend in presidential directives: There are a lot of them in times of crisis
or war.

Combine a public health crisis with the first year of a presidency and “the fact that he
is coming after a president that he opposes. All of that is the perfect storm to get a
flurry of executive orders that we’ve seen,” said Sharece Thrower, an associate
professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.

Cooper says more than any administration in modern history, Biden’s team came in
prepared, with the legal groundwork already carefully laid. This is a contrast with the
early days of both the Clinton and Trump presidencies, where there were drafting
problems and legal overreach that opened them up to challenges and forced revisions.
The Biden orders may not be as far-reaching as advocates would like, but they may be
more durable.

“If you look at the orders, the language of the orders and what they’re actually calling
for by the agencies seem to be very measured,” Cooper said. “Although they are in very
controversial topics in some cases, you’re not seeing anything in there that’s
substantively all that dramatic.”

This gets at another purpose of executive orders: They can be the equivalent of very
formally written press releases. They allow a president to signal that they are doing
something — that they are delivering on the promises they made when they ran for
office, even if the executive action is really just the first step in a long process of
change.

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President Biden puts the cap on a pen after signing an executive order. Biden is close to a record set by Franklin Roosevelt in
1933.
Alex Brandon/AP

Biden’s Flurry Of Executive Orders Stands Out
In his first two weeks, President Biden has signed more executive orders than most recent presidents did in their first month. He has signed
nearly as many executive orders as Franklin Roosevelt did in his record-breaking first month.

Notes

*Data reflects executive orders signed between Jan. 20 and Feb. 20 of inauguration year unless otherwise indicated. Biden’s orders were signed during his
first two weeks in office (Jan. 20-Feb. 2); Ford’s orders were signed Aug. 9-Sep. 9, 1974; Johnson’s orders were signed Nov. 22-Dec. 22, 1963; Truman’s
orders were signed Apr. 12-May 12, 1945; Roosevelt’s orders were signed Mar. 4-Apr. 4, 1933.

Source: Federal Register

Credit: Tamara Keith and Zach Levitt / NPR

Democrat Republican

28

1

2

1

6

7

6
2

5

7
5
5
7
7
6

13

30

Biden* (2021)

Trump (2017)

Obama (2009)

G.W. Bush (2001)

Clinton (1993)

G.H.W. Bush (1989)

Reagan (1981)

Carter (1977)

Ford* (1974)

Nixon (1969)

Johnson* (1963)

Kennedy (1961)

Eisenhower (1953)

Truman* (1945)

F.D. Roosevelt* (1933)

28 executive orders

four substantive proclamations (plus one ceremonial)

10 presidential memoranda

and two letters (rejoining the World Health Organization and Paris climate
agreement)

President Nixon signed an executive order on Jan. 23, 1969, creating his new Urban Affairs Council.
Harvey Georges/AP

Biden signs executive actions in the Oval Office of the White House on Jan. 28.
Pool/Getty Images

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