ON THE CAMPAIGN trail President Joe Biden was referred to by his rival as “Sleepy Joe”, a not-so-subtle suggestion that the 78-year-old lacked the energy to be commander-in-chief. In office, though, Mr Biden has been moving at a blistering pace. Within hours of being sworn in, he had recommitted America to the Paris climate accord; restored ties with the World Health Organisation; lifted a ban on travellers to America from several Muslim-majority countries; promised to protect from deportation “dreamers”, brought to America illegally as children; extended temporary freezes on household evictions and federal student-loan payments; mandated mask-wearing in airports, public transport and in federal buildings; and halted construction of the US-Mexico border wall. If that were not enough, he also did some redecorating. A portrait of FDR, famous for his productivity early in his term, now hangs on the wall of the Oval Office.
Much of this was done by executive order. In his first two days, Mr Biden signed 17 such directives (see chart). No president has wielded the pen so often, so quickly. Donald Trump had been in office for nearly two months before he had issued as many orders. And there are more to come. On Day Three Mr Biden will ask for a boost to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Programme, formerly known as food stamps. He will also request an increase for the Pandemic Electronic Benefits Transfer programme, a scheme aimed at helping poor families whose children would normally receive free meals at school. The White House says it will also direct the Treasury Department to speed up the delivery of stimulus cheques to approximately 8m people who have not yet received them.
President Biden’s liberal use of his executive powers in part reflects the hurdles he faces in Congress, and in part his party’s zeal to undo much of what Mr Trump had done—often also by executive order. As America’s two big political parties have grown more polarised, the legislative process in Washington has all but ground to a halt. Presidents have resorted to unilateral action—via executive orders, memorandums and proclamations—to break the deadlock. This approach, though effective, carries risks. First, it has the potential to become a vicious circle, with gridlock leading to more contentious executive actions, leading to yet more gridlock. It may upset voters, too. Research by Andrew Reeves of Washington University in St Louis and Jon Rogowski of Harvard show that Americans are generally opposed to presidents acting unilaterally, preferring them to work with Congress instead. What’s more, executive orders can be challenged in federal court, weakened or nullified by Congress—or, as Mr Trump has found, undone by a successor.