President Joe Biden had signed 28 executive orders and another 12 actions like proclamations, memorandums, and agency directives, in his first nine days in White House, a blistering pace and record for any prior U.S. president within the same timeframe.
Biden’s bevy of measures include reversals of some of the policies of his predecessor, such as halting funding for the construction of former President Donald Trump’s signature border wall and canceling the Keystone XL pipeline project that Trump revived after its axing by former President Barack Obama. They also include pandemic related actions, such as imposing a mask mandate on federal property; reinstating travel restrictions on non-U.S. citizens traveling from Brazil, South Africa, and much of Europe; and ramping up government-wide coordination of the pandemic response.
Biden’s day-one actions included a number of memorandums and executive orders: rejoining the Paris Agreement on climate change; promoting racial equity; requiring mask-wearing on federal property; freezing approval of rules passed in the final days of the Trump presidency; strengthening the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program that shields illegal immigrants who arrived in the United States as children from deportation; and pausing federal student loan payments.
Most recently, on Thursday, Biden signed an executive order seeking to expand medical coverage, and a presidential memorandum rescinding the ban on U.S. funding for international nonprofits that provide counseling or referrals for abortion.
While it is unlikely that Biden will keep up the furious pace of executive orders, he has already faced pushback from critics, who say the president’s early reliance on executive action is at odds with his pledge as a candidate to be a consensus builder.
The left-leaning New York Times editorial board, which endorsed Biden for president and lauded his win, ran a piece on Thursday headlined “Ease up on the Executive Actions, Joe,” arguing that “this is no way to make law.”
Calling Biden’s directives a “flawed substitute for legislation,” the editorial board argued that they “are not meant to serve as an end run around the will of Congress.”
The Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), speaking on the floor of the upper chamber on Thursday, suggested Biden’s flurry of executive action bear the hallmarks of a dictatorship.
“As recently as October, now-President Biden said you can’t legislate by executive action unless you are a dictator. Well, in one week, he signed more than 30 unilateral actions,” McConnell said. “And working Americans are getting short shrift.”
The Kentucky Republican was referring to remarks Biden made at an October ABC News town hall, when he said there are certain “things you can’t do by executive order unless you’re a dictator” during an exchange about how quickly he’d push his plan to raise taxes on corporations and wealthy Americans. But while the full context of Biden’s statement suggests he was not criticizing all executive orders as hallmarks of a dictatorship, his remarks have nevertheless opened him up to allegations of hypocrisy and executive overreach.
McConnell took aim at Biden’s executive orders that canceled the Keystone XL pipeline permit and that imposed a moratorium on new leases on oil and gas drilling on federal land and waters, arguing the moves undercut America’s energy independence and threaten jobs.
“According to one study, the decision on federal lands will leave us down nearly one million American jobs by next year alone,” McConnell said. “It’s a heck of a way to kick off a presidency.”
Biden and aides on Thursday pushed back against growing criticism of the president’s heavy reliance on executive orders in his first days in office, with White House press secretary Jen Psaki telling a press briefing on Thursday that, “He is going to use the levers that every president in history has used: executive actions.”
“But he also feels it’s important to work with Congress, and not just one party—both parties—to get things done,” she added.
Biden, during a brief exchange with reporters in the Oval Office after signing two executive orders on Thursday, framed his latest executive actions as an effort to “undo the damage Trump has done” rather than “initiating any new law.” He noted he was working to persuade lawmakers in Congress to pass his $1.9 trillion pandemic aid package by means of a legislative process.
White House communications director Kate Bedingfield bristled at the New York Times’ criticism of Biden’s executive orders in a series of tweets, saying, “I can’t help but recall that during the primary they encouraged voters to consider what a president could accomplish” through executive action.
“Of course we are also pursuing our agenda through legislation,” she added. “It’s why we are working so hard to get the American Rescue Plan passed, for starters.”
Psaki said at a briefing on Friday that on Tuesday next week, Biden will sign an executive order on modernizing the U.S. immigration system.