Executive Orders – a journey through time

Here are totals by President for all Executive Orders (numbers from The American Presidency Project, a fascinating data-loaded site).

The WW presidents – Wilson, FDR, Truman show big numbers which is logical. Hoover was the Depression. TR and Taft: that was the trust-busting era so maybe that explains their big numbers. But mostly, there’s not much of a story to be told here – they go up and they go down. Regularly.

At five years in, Obama looks like he could fall behind every president but two since WWII.

George Washington 8
John Adams 1
Thomas Jefferson 4
James Madison 1
James Monroe 1
John Quincy Adams 3
Andrew Jackson 12
Martin van Buren 10
William Henry Harrison 0
John Tyler 17
James K. Polk 18
Zachary Taylor 5
Millard Fillmore 12
Franklin Pierce 35
James Buchanan 16
Abraham Lincoln 48
Andrew Johnson 79
Ulysses S. Grant 217
Rutherford B. Hayes 92
James Garfield 6
Chester Arthur 96
Grover Cleveland (I) – 113
Benjamin Harrison 143
Grover Cleveland (II) – 140
William McKinley 185
Theodore Roosevelt 1,081
William Howard Taft 724
Woodrow Wilson 1,803
Warren G. Harding 522
Calvin Coolidge 1,203
Herbert Hoover 968
Franklin D. Roosevelt 3,522
Harry S. Truman 907
Dwight D. Eisenhower 484
John F. Kennedy 214
Lyndon B. Johnson 325
Richard Nixon 346
Gerald R. Ford 169
Jimmy Carter 320
Ronald Reagan 381
George Bush 166
William J. Clinton 364
George W. Bush 291
Barack Obama 168

11 responses to “Executive Orders – a journey through time

  1. As I’ve said many times, it’s not the number of EOs, it’s the nature of them and, while most of Obama’s EOs are completely innocuous, some are far more imperial in nature than any non-wartime POTUS could normally be expected to craft or get away with.

    Oh, he’s no Lincoln…but he seems to follow Lincoln’s style.


  2. Agreed, EO’s are important. So are signing statements, I submit, and with the same stricture on substance, as jonolan says. However much they might be imperial, though, is a matter for debate.


    • When an EO is used to contravene the law, it’s imperial. Obama’s made more than a couple of those, amidst all the more mundane ones.

      Signing statements are less important. At most they’re an honest warning that the POTUS has no intention of faithfully enforcing the law. Since what is important is the enforcement, not the warning, they’re not a big deal. All they really seem to serve as is something the POTUS can point back to and say, “I didn’t want to do that but had little choice.”


      • Presidential executive orders might seem imperial, but there’s a good reason why they’re not: they are subject to judicial review, just like laws. I’m not saying they can’t be abused, just that they are less than autocratic.

        I think the power of signing statements might be underestimated because they signal to the federal bureaucracy what the president wants it to do. That can be powerful, even if it isn’t put down in writing. One example is how the CIA managed to find persuasive evidence of Saddam’s WMD’s.


        • Judicial review does serve to offset imperial behavior by the POTUS – Obama found that out with his 1st or 2nd EO – but that’s an iffy counterbalance at best and one with a slow remediation path in most cases. It also doesn’t change the underlying imperial nature of the EOs themselves, e.g., Cap and Trade.

          As for the signing statements – you pointed out the flaw in your own logic. They serve only as a warning of intent, which one could argue is inherently less dangerous than intent without warning, e.g., the IRS scandal.


  3. Ok….
    We’re talking about two things here….
    EO’s are legal and are done all time now by President’s , especially when Congress refuses to deal with certain things….

    Letter ‘s from the President are done when President’s disagree with something Congress has pasted and the President is gonna do something different…

    Those have been done since madison and since NO Court has knocked them out…
    They are ALSO quite legal….

    Imperial behavior?

    Getting something done off an noisy minority?


    • Plus james, how can getting a POW back NOT be part of a presidents war time powers? It’s part of the war.


      • It’s actually legally ambiguous, Moe, due to Section 1035 of the NDAA. What it legally boils down to is whether or not the unernumerated powers of the POTUS as C-in-C trump specifically enumerated laws as enacted by Congress.

        BTW – as a tip o’ the hat to Jim, Obama made specific signing statements in the NDAA that were explicitly about Section 1035:

        Section 1035 of this Act gives the Administration additional flexibility to transfer detainees abroad by easing rigid restrictions that have hindered negotiations with foreign countries and interfered with executive branch determinations about how and where to transfer detainees. Section 1035 does not, however, eliminate all of the unwarranted limitations on foreign transfers and, in certain circumstances, would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. The executive branch must have the flexibility, among other things, to act swiftly in conducting negotiations with foreign countries regarding the circumstances of detainee transfers.

        So there you go…


        • Ahh, ambiguity. I’m sure Justice Scalia could straighten us out on that one – he knows there are no shades of in-between.


          • In this case there’s aren’t any. One would have to trump the other. My guess would be that the NDAA would win because it doesn’t forbid, just require prior notification and, therefor, doesn’t conflict with constitutionally granted powers of the POTUS.

            It’s likely a moot point though. This isn’t going to any court or Congressional “tribunal.” It should, as in impeachment, but it won’t…to America’s detriment.

            Oh, not because Obama needs to be nailed for his actions. Instead because he’s furthering the trend towards an imperial presidency and the next one will push it even further and so on, and so on.


    • “EO’s are legal and are done all time now by President’s , especially when Congress refuses to deal with certain things….”

      Actually, in that sort of instance they’re often illegal, such when the POTUS uses an EO to enact through legislation what Congress has voted down as law. In point of fact, ALL EOs are meant to be further one or more of the laws that Congress has enacted.

      You might want to review Youngstown Sheet & Tube Co. v. Sawyer which dealt with Truman’s nationalizing of the US steel industry via EO, since the SCOTUS ruling on that set the tone and standard for all EOs after that.


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