Donald Trump’s administration is scurrying around in advance of the 100-day marker, trying to look busy and productive — trying to create the illusion of an imminent health-care deal, hinting at forthcoming plans to cut taxes, and even promising to send somebody to Mars — and, especially, issuing a flurry of executive orders. The executive order has become a totem of power for hopeful Republicans, symbolizing their belief that Trump can or will reshape the federal government, despite the collapse of his first and largest legislative initiative. But what Trump’s fixation with executive orders actually reveals is how little he and his party understand about how government works and what it takes to bring about long-lasting change.
A closer look at Trump’s latest executive orders, which Jonathan Swan has obtained, shows that the effort proves the opposite of its intended message. One of the new orders will create an office at the Department of Veterans Affairs that will “identify barriers to the Secretary’s authority to put the well-being of our veterans first.” Another will “review prior monument designations [of federal lands] and suggest legislative changes or modifications to the monument proclamations.” Another orders “a review of the locations available for off-shore oil and gas exploration.” And then there is “an interagency task force to examine the concerns of rural America and suggest legislative and regulatory changes to address them.”
How much does Donald Trump hate his job?
These steps are not evidence of a government working productively. They are the kinds of steps that ought to have been taken two years ago by the president when he started his campaign. Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton, brought together experts to examine the concerns of rural America and suggest legislative and regulatory changes to address them, and they published their findings in August 2015. Trump has the vague idea that there are laws that are making life too hard for veterans, and fossil-fuel operators, and people in small towns, but he has no idea what those laws are. His “executive orders” are actually just using the government to start the process of designing his campaign platform for him.
If Republicans wish to pretend that Trump is really making America great again by signing pieces of paper asking people who work for him whether they have any ideas how to make America great again, more power to them. I can think of worse outcomes for this presidency than a theater of pseudo-action. But why have they grown so fixated with executive orders in the first place? One answer is that they have internalized their own propaganda from the previous administration.
After the 2010 midterms deprived Barack Obama of a workable (or even functional) congressional majority, he shifted his attention to executive orders. It was in Obama’s interest to play up the importance of his unilateral actions, and also in the interest of his Republican opponents to denounce these orders in overwrought terms, as oppressive and even unconstitutional. Their belief that Obama had evaded Congress to construct a Leviathan of his own design had a flip side: Once Trump won, Republicans assumed he could undo everything Obama did. After Trump’s election, Republicans giddily predicted a quick erasure of Obama’s legacy. “The reason Obama’s legacy is so vulnerable today,” wrote one columnist, “is that the 44th president relied more on executive actions.”
As the author of a book on Obama’s legacy, I frequently encountered conservatives who believed this. The assumption was strange and confusing — the most important parts of Obama’s legacy revolved around actions that could not be overturned: the economic rescue (stimulus, stress tests, the auto bailout), the massive green-energy investment, education reform, Wall Street regulation, and of course the Affordable Care Act. All these deep reforms, with the exception of the stress tests, required legislation.