The Obama Executive Orders Aren't Really What You Think

Why There's So Much Confusion About What Obama Did and Didn't Do in Office

President Barack Obama's use of executive orders was the subject of much controversy and confusion during his two terms in office. Many critics falsely alleged Obama issued a record number of executive orders; others wrongly claimed he wielded the powers to hide personal information from the public or to crack on the right to bear arms. Lots of people mistook executive actions for executive orders, and the two are very different things.

In reality, Obama's executive orders fell in line with most of his modern predecessors in number and scope. Many of Obama's executive orders were innocuous and warranted little fanfare; they provided for a line of succession in certain federal departments, for example, or established certain commissions to oversee emergency preparedness.

Some dealt with weighty issues such as immigration and the nation's relationship with Communist Cuba. One of Obama's most controversial executive orders would have spared an estimated 5 million immigrants living in the United States illegally from deportation, but the order was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court. Another sought to re-establish diplomatic relations, reopen embassies and expand travel and commerce with Cuba.

Obama's use of executive orders, like that of any president, was a hot topic in American politics. There have been all sorts of wild claims during his eight years in office. Here's a look at five myths surrounding Obama's use of executive orders, and the truth behind them.

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Obama's First Executive Order Hid His Records From the Public

U.S. President Barack Obama signs an executive order to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors from $7.25 to $10.10
Alex Wong/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Obama signed his very first executive order on Jan. 21, 2009, one day after being sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. That much is true. The claim that Obama's first executive order was to "seal his records," though, is false.

Obama's first executive order actually did the opposite. It rescinded an earlier executive order signed by President George W. Bush severely limiting public access to presidential records after they left office.

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Obama Is Seizing Guns By Executive Order

AR-15 Picture
A Denver, Colo., gun dealer holds a Colt AR-15, a weapon that once could be sold to only law enforcement and military but now can be purchased by civilians following the expiration of the Brady Bill. Thomas Cooper/Getty Images

Obama's intention was clear: He promised to work toward reducing gun violence in the United States as part of his second term agenda. But his actions were anything but clear.

Obama called a press conference and announced he was issuing nearly two dozen "executive actions" addressing gun violence. The most significant actions called for universal background checks on anyone trying to buy a gun, restoring a ban on military-style assault weapons, and cracking down on straw purchases.

But it became clear that Obama's executive actions were far different than executive orders in their impact. Most of them carried no legal weight.

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Obama Signed a Whopping 923 Executive Orders

Ronald Reagan Campaigns in 1984
Ronald Reagan's 1984 presidential victory is considered to be a landslide. Dirck Halstead / Getty Images Contributor

Obama's use of the executive order has been the topic of so many viral emails, including the one that begins like this:

"When a President issued as many as 30 Executive Orders during a term in Office, people thought there was something amiss. WHAT DO YOU THINK ABOUT 923 EXECUTIVE ORDERS IN ONE PART OF ONE TERM?????? YES, THERE IS A REASON. IT IS THAT THE PRESIDENT IS DETERMINED TO TAKE CONTROL AWAY FROM THE HOUSE AND THE SENATE."

In reality, though, Obama had used the executive order less than most presidents in modern history. Even less than Republican presidents George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan.

At the end of his second term, Obama had issued 260 executive orders, according to an analysis conducted by the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. By comparison, Bush issued 291 in his two terms in office, and Reagan had issued 381.

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Obama Would Issue an Executive Order Allowing Him to Serve a Third Term

Barack Obama inauguration
President Barack Obama delivers his second inaugural address on Jan. 21, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images News

There was some speculation in conservative quarters that Obama intended to somehow circumvent, perhaps by executive order, the 22nd Amendment of the U.S Constitution, which reads in part: "No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice ..."

Here's the bottom line: Obama's last day as president was January 20, 2017. He would not be able to win and serve a third term.

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Obama Planned to Issue an Executive Order Killing Super PACs

How to Start a Super PAC
Thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court and Citizens United, anyone can start their own super PAC. Charles Mann/Getty Images News

It is true that Obama is both on the record about his disdain for super PACs and employing them as a fundraising tool at the same time. He has by turns blamed the Supreme Court for opening the floodgates to special interests and then said during the 2012 election, If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

But at no time has Obama suggested he would issue an executive order killing super PACs. What he's said is that Congress should consider a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court's landmark 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, which led to the formation of super PACs.

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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "The Obama Executive Orders Aren't Really What You Think." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, February 16). The Obama Executive Orders Aren't Really What You Think. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "The Obama Executive Orders Aren't Really What You Think." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 11, 2023).