Weak congressional action could hurt global opinion toward the US
More turbulent, executive-dominated policymaking hurts America’s bargaining power and image overseas
A reader named Elliot (spelled the weird way with only one t) writes in:
There has been some reporting on Biden's pace of executive orders compared to Trump and Obama during the first few weeks of Biden's Presidency. I think it could be interesting to see what kind of executive orders did Trump and Obama sign and whether those executive orders were upheld by the courts. Will Biden's executive orders be upheld?
I hope everything is well,
I think this question is worth answering publicly because it gives me the opportunity to talk about executive power and global public opinion, two things we don’t cover enough. First, though, to answer the question: The vast majority of executive orders are not challenged, and those that are usually get upheld by the courts. Some of Trump’s orders got him in hot water — remember the ban on immigration from many Muslim-majority countries — but those high-profile cases are generally the exception. DACA has also been challenged and upheld.
One point to make here is that, as Congress has gotten less productive and tackled fewer new issues over the last few decades, the balance of policy making power has significantly shifted toward the executive. Presidents and their staffs have gotten very creative about what they can use the expansionist presidency to accomplish without having to deal with a public fight in a gridlocked Congress.
This is both good and bad. On the one hand, the stronger executive can make government outputs more responsive to public opinion. Again, see: DACA. But it also gives the president more latitude to work against the will of the people. Trump may have paid an electoral price for his “Muslim Ban,” but he signed the order three years before his failed re-election bid. That delay in accountability could make for more severe mismatches between the public will and executive policy in the future.
Another consequence to expanded executive influence is that other nations find it hard to work with a country where major diplomatic rules and policy positions flip-flop every four years. How much weaker is the United States’ bargaining position after leaving and re-joining the Paris accords and World Health Organization? Other executives might find it hard to take the US at its word, especially in big bilateral negotiations where there’s no third party to keep the other partner in the deal while the US goes off to pursue its wandering ideological goals.
This could also hurt public opinion. For decades now, the Pew Research Center has been polling adults in other countries to ask them how they felt about the US President and the country overall. Opinions about the two are highly correlated, meaning that an unpopular president can hurt the whole image of the country. See the following three charts:
To people who believe in diplomacy, global trade, and multilateral organizations, these charts are pretty bleak. The US has a lot of work to do to restore its high status on the global stage. But given the historical inelasticity of these global public ratings, Democrats may be hopeful that Joe Biden can turn things around.
Getting Congress working again could also help shore up America’s ratings by better codifying policy, making changes harder than simply issuing a new executive memorandum.