By the time he left office, Trump had enacted 220 executive orders over four years. President Biden, with little more than a week on the job, has now signed over 20. This number is far beyond the reach that his predecessors had utilized, accounting for more executive action in his first week than the last three presidential administrations combined.
While it may be true that Biden has some hefty campaign promises that he needs to fulfill early on, he is setting a poor trajectory for one of the central campaign promises he made: achieving unity. After calling for reconciliation throughout his campaign, President Obama’s “pen and phone” approach to governing didn’t seem to build any bridges during his tenure—a fate that Biden could suffer.
What’s truly disappointing is that Biden has not so much as attempted to pursue these measures through Congress—a Congress that his own party controls and that would likely be open to compromise. By using unity rhetorically but force in practice, Biden is setting himself up for future failure by alienating those in Congress who may have originally been willing to sit at the table with him. With Democrats holding the House majority and Vice President Harris breaking any ties in the Senate, it seems unusual that Biden would choose to wield executive power rather than reach across the aisle. This is important to note—Congress has already signaled they may be willing to turn over a new leaf, especially regarding climate change, a key issue for Biden.
At the end of last year, Congress worked in a bipartisan manner to pass the most significant energy legislation in more than a decade. This legislation received praise from a variety of stakeholders, Republicans and Democrats, conservatives and progressives. This is good news and, because this bill was passed through Congress, the funding for the development of emission-reducing technologies and clean energy won’t be in danger with the changing of administrations. This policy will be long lasting and sustainable, providing the results we need.
Conversely, Biden was able to pause or undo nearly all of Trump’s executive actions—environmental or otherwise—within days of moving into the White House. The pitfalls of executive regulatory action are easily recognized when examining patterns of environmental issues under Obama, Trump, and with Biden now. After assuming office, Trump undid several Obama-era environmental regulations, including the Clean Power Plan. Currently, Biden has already overridden Trump-era environmental action that included leaving the Paris Climate Agreement or issuing the permit for the Keystone XL Pipeline.
It’s clear that for durable, long-lasting environmental policy, the president must work with Congress to craft legislation that will reliably last beyond the current administration. This is not to say that legislation cannot be undone, but it’s certainly more difficult than overturning an executive order from a predecessor. The jockeying back and forth between administrations may make for notable press releases, but it doesn’t achieve notable progress on serious policy issues, such as reducing emissions. As his executive pen runs out of ink, Biden is in danger of setting an alarming precedent for whoever succeeds him as president of the United States, who might just be a conservative.
Biden must pivot quickly to collaborating with congressional leaders on the pressing issues of our time, whether that be COVID-19 relief or climate change. Governing with the stroke of a pen—whether you’re a Republican or a Democrat—is irresponsible, fleeting governance. The president still has time to correct the course and pursue policy that will outlast his administration.