The claim is often repeated that President Barack Obama has issued more Executive Orders than any president in history. For his part, Obama denies the charge. It is often leveled in support of an “Obama is a dictator” criticism. Is it true?
Speaking specifically of Executive Orders, Obama has issued fewer than any president in recent history. From the Federal Register of Executive Orders.
Barack Obama — 221 EOs (through July 29, 2015)
George W. Bush — 291
Bill Clinton — 364
George H.W. Bush — 166 (1 term)
Ronald Reagan — 381
Jimmy Carter — 320 (1 term)
Gerald Ford — 169 (3+ years)
Richard Nixon — 346
Lyndon Johnson — 324
John F. Kennedy — 214 (2+ years)
Dwight D. Eisenhower — 486
Harry S. Truman — 896 (7+ years)
Franklin D. Roosevelt — 3,728 (12+ years)
Herbert Hoover — 995 (1 term)
With more than a year left to serve, it is conceivable President Obama could pass Bush 43. However, Obama has issued substantially fewer EOs in his second term than his first. He is on track to end with 250-260, fewer than any president since the inception of Executive Orders.
What about other executive actions?
President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.
When these two forms of directives are taken together, Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the “Do Nothing Congress” almost seven decades ago, according to a USA TODAY review of presidential documents.
The Washington Post fact-checked USA Today (pot-kettle?) finding the article and the president inaccurate. Why? Because presidential memoranda are not always filed in the Federal Register.
Memoranda are published in the Federal Register only when the president determines that they have “general applicability and legal effect,” which certainly leaves a lot of wiggle room.
“I suspect the president (and his staff) are interested in minimizing numbered executive orders simply because they are easily countable,” [John T. Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project] said. “Presidents mostly don’t like ‘score-keeping’ especially when it can be used to criticize them. But the other benefits that come with publication are real, so he publishes unnumbered orders often. And selectively emphasizes other executive action.”
To make even more confusing there are three types of presidential memoranda.
All of Obama’s presidential memoranda are not in the Federal Register, though they are on the White House website. It’s an infinity scroll, so I didn’t count them.
In addition to Executive Orders and presidential memoranda, there are other directives. George W. Bush, for instance, issued dozens of National Security Presidential Directives, and 25 Homeland Security Presidential Directives. President Reagan issued more than 300 National Security Decision Directives over the course of his two terms. These “were issued by President Ronald Reagan and his Assistants to the President for National Security Affairs to set forth official national security policy for the guidance of the defense, intelligence, and foreign policy establishments of the United States Government.”
Notice these are used to set for policy, much like Executive Orders and Presidential Directives.
The Library of Congress lists the different names used by our presidents’ administrations to indicate the same action.
- National Security Action Memoranda (NSAMs): Kennedy & Johnson
- National Security Decision Memoranda (NSDMs): Nixon and Ford
- Presidential Directives (PDs): Carter
- National Security Decision Directives (NSDDs): Reagan
- National Security Directives (NSDs): Bush
- Presidential Decision Directives (PDDs): Clinton
- National Security Presidential Directives (NSPDs): GW Bush
- Presidential Policy Directives (PPDs): Obama
Per the Federation of American Scientists, Obama’s PPDs number about one-fourth of Bush 43’s NSPDs.
Creating new names for directives in every administration makes obfuscation easy. Presidential Executive Orders are tracked, but Memorandum tracking is not as easy given some presidents choose not to record them.
It’s almost like they don’t want us to count them all. Hmm.
The fact is every president uses EO and PD authority. Obama seems likely to claim the title “Fewest Issued Executive Orders by a Two Term President.” Combining EOs and recorded PDs could push him past Bush 43, but it appears there is no way to know for sure. Regardless, it seems impossible even combining EOs and PDs that Obama could surpass Hoover, FDR or Truman and their totals of Executive Orders alone. Passing Eisenhower will be a challenge. There is little doubt Obama is willing to use both Executive Orders and Presidential Directives, but he is not close to being the most congress-skipping president in history.