President Joe Biden’s first two weeks were heavily devoted to the issuance of executive orders, actions and memorandums – nearly four dozen of them to date, a total that far exceeds the combined output of predecessors Barack Obama and Donald Trump at the same points of their presidencies.
Naturally, the sheer number of Biden’s executive actions – on issues ranging from the coronavirus to immigration to the environment, some of which directly reverse actions taken by Trump – has started to draw political blowback, as has the fact that several flirt with the interests of the furthest-left elements of Biden’s electorate. The latter is of particular concern to conservatives, many of whom feared that Biden’s relatively moderate campaign platform would eventually wilt under pressure from the Democratic Party’s most progressive wings.
Also at issue are Biden’s comments as recently as October, when he likened the use of some executive orders to the tactics of dictators. During a televised campaign town hall, then-candidate Biden, responding to a question about raising taxes on corporations and wealthy people, said: “We are a democracy. Some of my Republican friends and some of my Democratic friends even occasionally say, ‘Well, if you can’t get the votes, by executive order you’re going to do something.’ Things you can’t do by executive order unless you’re a dictator. We’re a democracy. We need consensus.”
As usual in politics, the meaning of Biden’s words depends on who offers the interpretation: Republican politicians and pundits, including U.S. Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have characterized Biden’s statement as suggesting that all executive actions are a form of dictatorial governing, while Biden’s camp argues he was pointing out that some measures are beyond the limits of executive power – which, to be fair, is a position Biden has consistently taken.
Partisan bickering notwithstanding, we think most Americans will agree that modern presidents’ increasing reliance on executive orders is a trend that should be bucked. These decrees – some of which are essentially symbolic and relatively toothless – remain in effect only until someone decides to undo them. When used responsibly, executive orders are important pieces of presidential power, but we doubt the Founders intended for them to be deployed en masse as end-runs around the legislative branch, resulting in a dizzying array of effectively temporary rules.
In an era of intense political division, it’s easy to understand why this approach is attractive to presidents. The proclamations are a way to quickly achieve – or at least appear to achieve – campaign promises, or to immediately eliminate measures that are unpopular with a new president’s voter base. They are opportunities to throw red meat to staunch partisans, even when they amount to little more than token endorsements of policies that have no hope of surviving the legislative process.
Constitutional concerns about some such orders are plentiful, of course, but there is an even simpler question at play: Is this really the best way to effect change in America? With some exceptions, we say no. Whether or not you agree with the “dictatorial” characterization, executive orders and actions are undeniably unilateral moves that, ideally, should be used sparingly and soberly. It is absolutely appropriate for presidents to initiate discussion and debate on issues, but we are generally more comfortable with Congress having its say on matters of great national importance.
We hope Biden is at the end of this signing spree and will instead turn his attention to working closely with lawmakers to chart a course for our country.
And we call on future presidents to break from Biden’s precedent and favor a more cooperative approach in their first days in office.