Here's Why Comparing Executive Order Numbers Is a Waste of Time

Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama issued a total of 276 executive orders. So, what exactly does that mean?

Pres. Obama signs an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay detention center. In his first week as president, Obama signed 5 executive orders. In Trump's first week, he's so far signed 5 orders and 1 notice – but there's really no point in comparing.
Pres. Obama signs an executive order to close Guantanamo Bay detention center. In his first week as president, Obama signed 5 executive orders. In Trump's first week, he's so far signed 5 orders and 1 notice – but there's really no point in comparing.


Over the course of his presidency, Barack Obama issued a total of 276 executive orders, according to the Federal Register. During his eight-year presidency, Obama was criticized for using the powers of the executive office to circumvent the Constitution and Congress by issuing executive orders—more so than any previous president. However, Pew released a chart showing this simply isn’t so. He issued fewer executive orders than President George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan. So, how should we take this information?

It’s important to first define what an executive order is and to understand it has a relative in the presidential memorandum. The executive order has the force of law whereas a presidential memorandum is similar in its legal implications. However, a memorandum tends to govern the actions of specific departments under the executive branch. The reach of the president’s ability to affect change extend beyond the executive order.

Even the Pew report acknowledges their analysis is somewhat limited:

“This analysis focuses on executive orders alone because of data limitations for other types of executive action. (Presidents are required to count and publish executive orders but are not obligated to release memoranda or proclamations.)”

Presidential memorandums only need be published to the Federal Registrar when the president deems they have “general applicability and legal effect,” leaving the president with a lot of leeway.

When it comes to executive orders, by the numbers presidents have been issuing them less and less. Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last president to use them and boy did he – he issued a whopping 3,721 executive orders. However, it’s important to consider he was the longest sitting president with four terms and the one who ran the country during WWII. However, gone are the days when over 1,000 executive orders can go through government unchallenged.

Chris Edelson, an assistant professor at American University’s School of Government, explained to The Daily Dot:

“A president could issue 1,000 executive orders. As long as they were all based on legitimate statutory or constitutional authority, [the executive orders] would be fine. Another president could issue just one executive order like the one FDR relied on to initiate the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II—which was later supported by Congress but should have been recognized as unconstitutional—and be way out of line. The key issue to me is to determine when unilateral presidential action can be justified—sometimes it can be, sometimes not—whether it is carried out by executive order or not.”

But this still doesn’t answer our question about memoranda. Back in 2014, USA Today wrote an article which stated Obama issued more presidential memorandums than any other president. The Washington Post published an excellent piece in response to this article, which called into question USA Today's claims and made an interesting point: why do we care about the numbers anyway?

John T. Woolley, co-director of the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara—the organization which provides the data on executive orders—told The Washington Post he doesn’t consider this a good use of their data.

Ultimately, he told them, “the counting of memorandums is just about pointless in terms of illustrating what is going on and whether it is controversial.” We’re trying to play a numbers game, when we really need to be focusing on the substance of these executive orders and memorandums. The Washington Post continues:

[N]ot all executive orders are earth-shattering; some appear banal, such as changing the name of the National Security Council staff and making the day after Christmas a holiday for federal workers. Meanwhile, one of the presidential actions on the Affordable Care Act — the delay in implementing the employer mandate — that led to a lawsuit by House Republicans was accomplished through neither an executive order nor a presidential memorandum; it was just a Treasury Department notice.

Focusing on a tally of executive orders, memoranda, or notices is an irrelevant distraction that can't be compared from one president to another. Like with most things, here quality matters over quantity.

Speaking of quality presidents:


A brief history of human dignity

What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.

Credit: Benjavisa Ruangvaree / AdobeStock
Sponsored by the Institute for Humane Studies
  • Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
  • That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
  • We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
Keep reading Show less

Astrophysicists: Gamma-ray jets exceed the speed of light

Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.

An artist's drawing of a particle jet emanating from a black hole at the center of a blazar.

Credit: DESY, Science Communication Lab (used with permission by Astronomy Picture of the Day, which is co-managed by Robert Nemiroff at Michigan Tech).
Surprising Science
  • Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
  • The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
  • The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Keep reading Show less

​'The time is now' for cryptocurrencies, PayPal CEO says

Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?

Technology & Innovation
  • In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
  • Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
  • While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Keep reading Show less

"Clean meat" approved for sale in Singapore

Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.

Credit: Adobe Stock / Big Think
Politics & Current Affairs
  • Singapore has become the first country to approve the sale of a lab-grown meat product.
  • Eat Just, the company behind the product, will have a small-scale commercial launch of its chicken bites.
  • So-called "clean meats" may reduce our reliance on livestock farming, which kills billions of animals worldwide every year.
  • Keep reading Show less
    Scroll down to load more…
    Quantcast