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Joe Biden takes an early lead on executive action compared to his predecessors

Since we are no close to bipartisanship than we are to eradicating white supremacy, executive actions are President Biden's path forward right now.

Joe Biden takes an early lead on executive action compared to his predecessors
Cover Image Source: U.S. President Joe Biden in the State Dining Room at the White House on February 05, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Stefani Reynolds-Pool/Getty Images)

It has barely been a month since President Joe Biden took office, but the 78-year-old is already light years ahead of all his predecessors when it comes to executive actions, orders, proclamations, and memorandums. According to CNN, when compared to the last four presidents, Biden has issued an entire term's worth of executive actions in his first few weeks in the Oval Office. While conservatives aren't too happy about President Biden's current pace — grumbling that the President is going against his own call for unity by finding ways to act without Congress — it is undeniable that going through the Senate would simply take far too much time.


This has already become evident in the Republicans' response to President Biden's $1.9 trillion relief bill. Their $600 billion alternative will do far less for states that can't come up with tax revenue during the pandemic and people in industries that are still shut down. Meanwhile, as CNN's Zachary B. Wolf points out, "Democrats are moving forward with their own version and sidestepping the filibuster by bending budget rules." And thus, since we are no close to bipartisanship than we are to eradicating white supremacy, executive actions are Biden's path forward right now.


Executive actions carry some weight while a president is in office but are relatively easy to undo by a successor. This is mostly what President Biden has been doing these past couple of weeks, undoing many of Trump's controversial moves including undeclaring the emergency at the border to get around Congress and build a border wall, reversing the decision to remove the US from the massive global climate pact, and lifting the ban on transgender Americans serving in the military. According to Kenneth Lowande, a professor at the University of Michigan who has studied the rise of executive actions, the number of executive actions holds little significance when compared to what they actually do.


"I would not get too caught up in the number," said Lowande. "Some of this is because the previous administration had so many policies that were easy wins for President Biden to reverse. But for most of them, it will take months, if not years, to understand whether they were impactful. Remember, President Obama signed directives to close Guantanamo and combat gun violence. There is a graveyard of Trump administration executive actions that, from what we can gather so far, seem to have gone nowhere."


"So, in my view, making the figures themselves the lede is actually quite misleading. It gives the public the impression that the president has accomplished much more than they have. They're just pieces of paper until they are implemented. Whether they will be is an open question — and one we won't have an answer to in the first 100 days," he added. "I'd also be careful with the narrative that the use of executive action is caused by gridlock in Congress or a lack of buy-in. In fact, depending on how to count the documents, these orders actually tend to go up when the president has more support in Congress."


"Why? The same reason Chuck Schumer is asking Biden to take action on student loan debt," said Lowande. "It is mostly about having enough support in Congress to prevent the action from being challenged -- not Congress itself failing to act in the first instance. In survey experiments, researchers generally find that the narrative "President is acting because Congress won't act" is very persuasive to the public. This comes back to the point above -- signing that number of orders that quickly, holding ceremonies, talking up congressional dysfunction is itself a political strategy that works very well."

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