Executive Orders: A Fair Ranking of Presidents from Least Active to Most Active

By Joe Firestone

Lately, Republicans have been riding the hobby horse of charging the President with being a dictator. Well clearly he is not that, or he would have had them imprisoned, or worse, a long time ago. On the other hand, the President’s hands are far from clean when it comes to activities like illegal surveillance of Americans, drone strikes without due process, collusion of the Government with local authorities to repress Occupy exercising its rights of free speech and assembly, and failure to enforce the law with reference to torture of prisoners, and control frauds in the FIRE sector.Have I covered everything, or did I forget something?

Regardless, everything I’ve covered are anti-democracy activities that Republicans, apparently, have no problem with. On the other hand they’re mightily concerned about the what they think is the President’s “extremism” in increasingly relying on Executive Orders to get some of his objectives accomplished. Their faux outrage over this, centers around the claim that the President has issued an unusual amount of Executive Orders during his time in the Presidency.

This claim has been addressed by John Conyers and his staff using data made available by The American Presidency Project. Conyers’s graphic is slick and shows the President as issuing the second least number of Executive Orders out of the last 11 Presidents beginning with President Eisenhower. That rank of number 2 out of 11 certainly gives the lie to the Republican claim that the President relies o Executive Orders more frequently than most or all of his predecessors. But it still fails to provide a true historical perspective on where he fits among most presidents on relative activism as measured by the Executive Order indicator, and in particular fails to illustrate how relatively few Executive Orders have been issued by this president compared to others since the beginning of what might be called the modern period of the activist presidency.

In order to provide a better picture of that comparison, I went back to the American Presidency Project data and looked at the 23 presidents beginning with Chester A. Arthur and ending with Barack H. Obama. Here’s the Table I compiled to provide that more complete picture.

Ranking of 23 Presidents on Mean Number of Executive Orders Per Year Issued by Each of Them Since Chester A. Arthur

Ranking of Presidents on Mean Number of Executive Orders Per year
President Obama is ranked number 3 out of 23 on least number of Executive Orders issued per year in the Table. Only Chester A. Arthur and Grover Cleveland are ahead of him on least amount of Executive Order activity, and not by much either. Arthur issued 27.4 EOs per year and Cleveland, 31.6, to Obama’s 32.3.

To see just how low that figure is in context, number 23 on that list is Franklin Delano Roosevelt at 291.1 EOs per year. Nor is FDR that much of an out an outlier. For example, Herbert Hoover ranks number 22 with 242 per year, and other low ranking Presidents over 200 per year include Woodrow Wilson, Warren G. Harding, and Calvin Coolidge, of whom upon hearing that Coolidge died, the famous columnist and wit of the time Dorothy Parker remarked: “How can they tell?”

FDR’s average number of EOs is more than 9 times President Obama’s number, and Herbert Hoover’s is 7.5 times the President’s. Even Calvin Coolidge’s is 6.5 times Obama’s.
What do numbers like this mean? I think they mean that at certain times in American history norms develop that favor the presidency issuing more or fewer EOs as the case may be.

Looking at the Table again, you can see that four Presidents between Arthur and McKinley all have relatively low numbers of EOs issued. Then Teddy Roosevelt seems to establish a new norm of in excess of 100 per year with his average of 144.1. That period continues through Harry Truman with his 116.3 per year, regardless of whether the president involved is a Republican or a Democrat.

Then Dwight Eisenhower breaks the pattern and reduces the mean number to 60.5 per year. That period continues through Jimmy Carter, who has a high of 80.0, among all the presidents from Eisenhower to Carter. Again, it doesn’t seem to matter whether a President is a Democrat or a Republican, all issue EOs in the ball park of 60 to 80 per year.

Then a new trend begins with Ronald Reagan who issued 47.6 per year and is ranked number 9. He’s followed by Clinton and Bush 41, both still in the 40s, but lower than Reagan. Then the trend continues downward with Bush 43 at 36.4 and Obama, once again at 32.3. So, again, we see that Party doesn’t seem to be matter in determining number of Executive Orders issued, as much as the norms of the period in which the President serves.

Key Presidents in beginning new trends in Executive Orders issued were Chester A. Arthur, Teddy Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan. And in overall historical context, President Obama has an extraordinarily low number per year of EOs issued. He is at levels lower than Benjamin Harrison and William McKinley. And there is not the slightest basis in fact to the claim that the number of EOs he issues indicates that he is a dictator. On the contrary, based on the historical numbers, alone, we would have to conclude that he is the least dictatorial president since the 1890s.

In looking at sheer numbers, we see that the Republicans are once again creating a false issue. The issue isn’t the number of Executive Orders a President promulgates. A President who has a low number of Executive Orders may be great, as may be a President with a huge number of Executive Orders. It is what she/he orders that counts in partly determining greatness.

If his/her orders attempt to override laws, or direct the Executive Branch not to enforce laws, or order actions based on questionable theories about the Constitution that contravene the separation of powers or the bill or rights, then these are the proper measures of whether the president is moving towards dictatorship. The numbers be damned; it’s the quality of the individual orders that tell you what he/she is about.

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