From his first day in office, President Trump has used his executive powers vigorously to set a new course for his administration’s policies. Between the Jan. 20 inauguration and Feb. 28, he issued 29 executive orders (EOs) and memorandums. Some aimed to bring substantial new shifts, like the suspension of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the now-blocked order on immigration and refugees.
Others, however, have been largely symbolic, such as the order instructing the Defense Department to come up with a plan within 30 days to defeat the Islamic State — as if the military had not been fighting it for several years. So how much real effect will Trump’s EOs have?
There are some parallels in Russian politics
Here’s where Russia might provide some answers. Post-Soviet Russia is generally considered a country with an unchecked executive. Russian presidents have a constitutional right to issue decrees with the force of law so long as they do not contravene standing law or Russia’s Constitution. And Russian presidents from Boris Yeltsin through Vladimir Putin have used that power actively to achieve sweeping goals — to invigorate the country’s economy, improve the business climate and rebuild the military.
Putin issued 11 decrees on Day 1
For example, on the first day of his current term, May 7, 2012, Putin issued 11 presidential decrees laying out a wide-ranging set of orders to the government. Many of these “May decrees” set ambitious goals and specified concrete target dates for the accomplishment of particular tasks.
A decree on economic policy instructed the government to raise Russia’s ranking in the World Bank’s rating of “doing business” from 120th place to 20th place by 2018 and to create 25 million high-productivity jobs by 2020. Other decrees instructed the government to cut mortality from cardiovascular disease, raise overall life expectancy, and reduce fatalities from traffic accidents.
Almost five years later, many of these orders remain unfulfilled. This is hardly surprising, since some address forces over which a president has no direct control.
In issuing these decrees, Putin was using his decree power theatrically. If he had seriously wanted to accomplish large-scale changes to Russian society and the economy, he would have needed to use his power far more strategically.
Will President Trump’s early presidential orders meet a similar fate?
Previous U.S. presidents have occasionally been checked by the courts when they stretched their executive powers too far. But more often, agencies either do nothing to implement an executive order, or do something that is nominal. As many as one-third of presidential executive orders do not result in any actions by executive branch agencies.
Russian presidents, for all their seeming power, are in a similar situation. So Putin’s EOs have been thwarted not by the legislature or the courts, but by the recalcitrance of circumstances and the quiet resistance of bureaucracy.
The problem is that grandiose gestures, if not followed up by the painstaking work of coordinating the action of government to accomplish concrete, meaningful goals, leave a president looking ineffectual. And executive orders directed at impersonal forces are particularly futile — a lesson King Canute tried to impress on his courtiers when he proved he could not command the waves of the sea to stop rolling onto the shore.
“Everything I say is cast in granite,” Dmitry Medvedev declared during his 2008-2012 term as Russian president. This brave-sounding claim — reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s memorable “I am not a crook” line — belied the fact that Medvedev’s decrees were more often written on sand, not cast in granite. In fact, many of Medvedev’s decrees were simply orders to implement previous decrees, leading to recursive cascades of decrees spawning more decrees, but to little effect.
Medvedev often complained that his decrees were not being carried out: “Reports received from government, from regions and organizations,” he lamented, “don’t always look substantive. They’re often just runarounds trying to push back this or that deadline. Our respected colleagues report that they’ve done this and that, but in reality … basically nothing has happened.”
A president who wants to achieve a far-reaching policy agenda needs the cooperation of other parts of government as well as third parties outside government such as business. The details of what happened to Putin’s executive orders in Russia suggests that acting autocratically is not the same as using government power effectively to accomplish large-scale goals.
It may prove easier to arrest a defenseless dissident or deport an undocumented resident than it is to create new jobs or increase the competitiveness of the economy. Real change tends to take more than the stroke of a president’s pen.
Thomas F. Remington is Goodrich C. White Professor of Political Science at Emory University.