How Obama has used executive powers compared to his predecessors


President Barack Obama signing some executive orders. How far-reaching have his actions been? (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Is President Obama abusing his executive powers? His opponents are having fun by constantly reinforcing the notion that he’s out of control – and obviously, needs to be sued/impeached. But as we’ve explained on The Fix before, the number of executive orders signed by Obama isn't huge. In fact out of the last 10 presidents, he’s signed the least amount of executive orders on average per year:


But how far-reaching have Obama’s orders and actions been and how do they compare to what other presidents have done? On immigration, the president has signed orders to halt the deportation of those who came to the United States when they were young, those who care for children and those who haven't committed crimes. He's also started to allow some relatives of U.S. service members living here illegally to stay. There's more to come, as the president promised in January to take significant executive action on immigration and border security, but nothing has actually happened yet.

Obama has also signed far reaching orders on climate change in November 2013 – forcing power plants to cut their emissions by 30 percent by 2030 – which will be much discussed in this year’s elections. The president has instigated 23 separate executive orders on gun control, which have made information about mental illnesses available in background checks and expanded research into causes of gun violence. Obama has promised two new executive actions on gun control but again, there’s no sign of them.

Through his executive powers, Obama has slowly extended the rights for same-sex couples and raised the minimum wage for federal workers to $10.10. But for all the accusations of abuse of power, his actual uses of his executive authority so far aren’t that far-reaching: Not so much the smack of firm government, more nudging in a certain direction. George W. Bush for example managed to gut the Presidential Records Act (greatly reducing access to presidential records), limit federal funding for stem cell research and sidestep the Geneva Convention on interrogation techniques -- all through executive orders, even when he had Congress on his side. Interestingly, all of these orders were later rescinded by Obama.

Bill Clinton was no stranger to far-reaching orders either. During his two terms in office, he banned the import of 50+ types of semi-automatic assault weapons and assault pistols, created the President’s Council on Sustainable Development (which forced America to become more sustainable in line with the U.N.’s Agenda 21) and focused federal attention on environmental justice for minority and low-income populations.

Two other Republican leaders used their executive powers to great effect. In May 1989, George H. W. Bush temporarily halted the importation of some semi-automatic firearms, following a school shooting in Stockton, Calif. This was made permanent a month later. Ronald Reagan also enacted some significant policy initiatives through executive power. The NSA has said that its controversial collection of e-mail and Internet data, for example, was authorized back in 1981 by Reagan's executive order. His order on cattle grazing in 1986 continues to rile bloggers to this day and in 1987, and Reagan issued an executive order banning federal workers from using drugs on and off duty.

Of course, how far-reaching these orders are is subjective and many of Obama’s opponents would argue that combined with his efforts so far, his latest actions on gun control and immigration will go far beyond what his predecessors have done. But he’s certainly not alone among presidents who have used executive powers to get big things done.

Sebastian Payne is a national reporter with The Washington Post. He is the Post’s 35th Laurence Stern fellow.
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