Pressure builds on Biden to turn to executive action despite its limits and risks

He faces high inflation, a possible recession and a domestic political agenda languishing in the Senate. Last week the Supreme Court overturned Roe vs. Wade, the landmark abortion ruling, and this week turned its climate plans on their head. Upcoming midterm elections look bleak for his party, and his base is frustrated. Pressure is mounting for President Biden to take action.

“The White House needs to move faster and do more, at least on the executive actions that we’ve already outlined for them and discussed with them,” said Democratic Rep. Pramila Jayapal, chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus,” he said in an interview. “It feels like the delays are overwhelming the actual action.”

If only it were that easy, say those close to Biden, pointing to serious problems the president faces if he issued a barrage of executive orders in the coming months. While such actions might satisfy his base for a time, they are also likely to leave parts of it disappointed and fail to bring about the dramatic changes some Democrats seek.

Executive orders are temporary measures at best—easily reversed by the next president or overturned in court—and often ineffective. A creature of the Senate, where he served for more than three decades, Biden prefers to legislate rather than rule by executive order.

If history is any guide, Biden is likely to follow in the footsteps of previous presidents who issued a slew of executive orders ahead of the midterm elections. With Congress deadlocked, Democrats and pundits say the president must be seen as something — especially after the Supreme Court ditched nearly 50 years of legal protections for those who want an abortion, what most Democrats see as a fundamental right.

“This is a moment where all hands are on deck,” said Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), who said she urges Biden to “really push the envelope” with what he can do to help to protect access to abortion.

The abortion case crystallizes the conundrum facing Biden and the Democrats. While Biden has taken some action — directing his administration to ensure abortion drugs are available and to help women seeking out-of-state abortions — he has resisted calls for more aggressive moves being pushed by progressives.

“I think we need Roe v. Codify Wade into law. And the way to do that is to make sure Congress votes for it,” Biden said during a news conference Thursday at the end of a NATO summit in Madrid, echoing comments he made on the day when the verdict was made.

The President added that he “strongly believes that I will do everything in my power legally that I can regarding executive orders and will urge Congress and the public to protect abortion rights.”

Some Democrats argue that Biden’s reluctance to take a bolder approach to abortion rights is symbolic of an overly cautious approach to addressing several issues he has promised as president.

They noted that the government had weeks to prepare for the Supreme Court ruling, a draft of which had been leaked and published in the press, and should have been ready to issue a more robust response.

“We knew this was coming, and so it should have been possible to roll out a number of things that the president could do within 24 or 48 hours,” Jayapal said.

Jayapal and other progressives say Biden has refused to advance other Democrat priorities. For example, he has not yet waived student debt. The proposal under consideration is $10,000 in debt relief per borrower, an amount that will irk progressives for not going far enough and opponents for potentially exacerbating inflation.

Before addressing other top items on Biden’s agenda, the White House appears to be waiting to see if it can reach an agreement with Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin III (W.Va.), who torpedoed Biden’s social spending plan in December. White House officials are hoping to revive a bill to tackle climate change and prescription drug prices — two other priorities Democrats want to achieve before November.

A Senate deal to tackle climate change gained urgency on Friday after the Supreme Court severely curtailed the Environmental Protection Agency’s powers to regulate carbon emissions. It was said that Congress would have to delegate this authority.

Democrats’ frustration with Biden over his reluctance to act also underscores the president’s paradoxical approach to executive orders — he frequently wields the pen. Having issued 91 executive orders to date, the President is on track to surpass his predecessor in the number of executive orders issued in a four-year term. President Trump issued 220 such orders.

Historically, Biden could also outperform other recent presidents. Obama used the pen 276 times during his two terms in office. George W. Bush signed 291 executive orders during his eight-year tenure and Bill Clinton issued 364 executive orders during his tenure.

Most of Biden’s orders came in the early months of his presidency. In his first 100 days in office, he issued 42 executive orders and 77 total in 2021, the most by any president in any given calendar year since Jimmy Carter in 1979.

In those early days in office, Biden issued a series of presidential executive orders, memoranda and proclamations focused on combating the coronavirus pandemic and reversing the actions of his predecessor, including lifting a travel ban on predominantly Muslim countries. Biden also rejoined the Paris climate accords and recommitted to funding the World Health Organization.

“I’m not making a new law. I eliminate bad politics,” Biden said in February 2021, remarks that also highlighted the limits of executive branch action.

Mark Bennett, a strategist and founder of the Democrat-centrist think tank Third Way, said the president seems guided by his keen awareness that Trump has obliterated many of Obama’s orders — a practice Biden has also followed.

“His reluctance is both his innate sense that this is not a way to run a railroad and his sense that executive branch action is very weak and not a sound way of making policy,” Bennett said. “When the next administration comes, they can do what he did – sign a series of executive measures that will undo them.”

Biden has used the pen more purposefully this year. He marked the second anniversary of the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer in May by signing an executive order designed to hold officers accountable for misconduct and strengthen public safety. Biden acknowledged the limitations of the order, which was the result of broader policing reform in Congress that collapsed last year.

Biden last month issued an executive order to combat a spate of anti-LGBTQ bills that have popped up in conservative state legislatures, including Florida’s law banning sexual orientation and gender identity education. He also created a task force to tackle online harassment.
Overall, Biden’s orders were generally a mix of actual execution and “planning to make plans,” according to Andrew Rudalevige, a Bowdoin College professor who studies the effectiveness of presidential executive orders.

The majority of its engagements fall into the “review and report” category, which instructs departments and agencies to consider releasing updates to existing policies and rules. Some of those orders have resulted in new regulations, Rudalevige said, while others have stalled or are being challenged in court.

And while Biden has expressed disdain for his predecessor’s penchant for bypassing Congress, Rudalevige’s research shows he continued Trump’s use of “flowery” language at the beginning of his orders, compared to the more legalistic tone of previous presidents.

Biden’s orders, which have the longest word count in the past 60 years, often include press release-style language.
Comparing executive orders is only part of the picture, Rudalevige said, as presidents also use proclamations and memoranda to achieve political goals. Some of the boldest unilateral actions by Obama and Trump have not been carried out by executive branch orders.

Political scientists are surprised that the White House has failed to take executive action to curb inflation and soaring gas prices, an area where Biden could take unilateral moves that could potentially go to court but ease some of the short-term economic pain.

Earlier this month, Biden asked Congress to lift the state gas tax for three months – a move Obama previously described as a “gimmick” – but held off on not issuing executive orders. He also called on states to suspend their own fuel taxes and oil companies to cut costs.

Such reluctance may not last much longer, said Norman Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute.

“The temptation to take executive action naturally increases,” he said, “as the ability to get things done in Congress decreases.” Pressure builds on Biden to turn to executive action despite its limits and risks

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