With Democrats in control of both branches of Congress, opening a wide berth for legislative action, the question persists as to why Joe Biden has shattered the previous record for unilateral decrees — i.e., executive orders — in the early days of his presidency.
In response, ask yourself these fundamental questions: If you were just elected to the highest office in the land as the oldest president ever to take the oath of office, in declining neurological health, uncertain of just how long you will be able to manage the relentless day-to-day pressures of the job, how would you govern? Would you play the long game, working diligently with a friendly legislature to write permanent change into the law? Or would you decide to leave an immediate and substantial imprint on the nation with a seemingly unprecedented burst of executive action right out of the starting gate? Would this not serve as a hedge against your presidency failing to run its full course and becoming a mere footnote in history?
These questions have certainly been answered with an exclamation point by the 46th president. With more than 40 strokes of his executive pen, Biden has front-loaded his fumigation of the Trump presidency and thrown the necessary bouquets to his party’s progressive base. With the iron hand of chief of staff Ron Klain carefully orchestrating access to and scheduling for him, Biden has so far been able to pull off a single-shift presidency, arriving and departing from the Oval Office and required appearances mostly during business hours in small, tightly scripted bursts, with much rest in between.
He is the quintessential and polar opposite to his predecessor, famously a perpetual-motion machine who, despite his signature commitment to “drain the Swamp,” employed executive orders far less frequently than Biden in the early days of his administration. And Trump moved swiftly out of the gate in leading the charge or backstopping his own party’s congressional initiatives on a range of issues, from taxes to immigration. When will President Biden begin to employ the majorities he holds in Congress? Time is short for the Democrats’ narrow control in the upper and lower chambers. As 2022 looms, they know history has rarely been kind to the ruling party in midterm elections.
At some point soon, Biden’s decree machine will start to lose steam. He has shot his load early. The people will inevitably tire of governance by fiat. So what happens when aggressive and energetic presidential support is needed to push controversial legislation across the finish line? Will Biden’s bully pulpit, fired up almost exclusively by teleprompter, generate enough credibility for him to sell the public on, for example, a public option added to Obamacare, as Obama was able to do with Democrat majorities in both houses in 2010? Will he stand behind the inevitable flurry of aggressive and explosively controversial climate change legislation Congress is chomping at the bit to pass, even as those bills would face likely defeat in the Senate? Will he explicitly lend his support to equally contentious race-based initiatives likely to emanate from the House?
All presidents seek to leave an indelible mark on the government over which they preside, and Biden is no different. But his time in the Oval Office may be shorter than most. His challenge is twofold: to calm the stormy waters stirred up by his predecessor’s ongoing crusade for systemic change, while attempting to demonstrate that the many institutions and practices challenged and exposed by Trump are worthy of restoration. No easy task for even a president in the prime of life. And while ruling by executive fiat is permissible within clear boundaries in our constitutional order, Biden will soon realize that his legacy will hinge not on what he commands from on high but on what he can persuade the American people to embrace.
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