President Obama's First Executive Order

Did President Really Seal His Own Personal Records?

President Obama sitting at his desk vetoing a bill
President Obama Vetoes a Bill Passed by Congress. White House Press Pool / Getty Images

Barack Obama signed Executive Order 13489 on Jan. 21, 2009, one day after being sworn in as the 44th President of the United States. To hear the conspiracy theorists describe it, Obama's first executive order officially closed off Obama's personal records to the public, especially his birth certificate. What did this order actually aim to do?

In fact, Obama's first executive order had exactly the opposite goal.

Its aim was to shed more light on presidential record, including his own, after eight years of secrecy imposed by former President George W. Bush.

The Conspiracy Theories on Obama's First Executive Order

"Obama's First Executive Order was to SEAL his records," one popular Internet claim goes. "Now for all of you who commented on our previous articles that we were no more than right-wing nut jobs, that this thing about Obama's birth certificate was a non-issue, and those of you who tried to shift the focus of the stories, doesn't this strike you as just a little odd?

"That the first order of business Obama took care of on day one of his Presidency was to sign off on an Executive Order that states that only the records he chooses to be made public will be released? This is the subject that was at the absolute top of his agenda? If this isn't proof that Obama is hiding something, I don't know what is."

What Obama's First Executive Order Really Said

Executive orders are official documents, numbered consecutively, through which the President of the United States manages the operations of the federal government. Presidential executive orders are much like the written orders or instructions issued by the president or CEO of a private-sector company to that company’s department heads.

Starting with George Washington in 1789, all presidents have issued executive orders. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, still holds the record for executive orders, penning 3,522 of them during his 12 years in office.

President Obama's first executive order merely rescinded an earlier executive order severely limiting public access to presidential records after they left office.

That now-rescinded executive order, 13233, was signed by then-President George W. Bush on Nov. 1, 2001. It allowed former presidents and even family members to declare executive privilege and block public access to White House records for virtually any reason.

Rescinding Bush-Era Secrecy

Bush's measure was criticized heavily and challenged in court. The Society of American Archivists called Bush's executive order a "complete abnegation of the original 1978 Presidential Records Act." The Presidential Records Act mandates the preservation of presidential records and makes them available to the public.

Obama agreed with the criticism. "For a long time now, there's been too much secrecy in this city. This administration stands on the side not of those who seek to withhold information but with those who seek it to be known," Obama said after signing the order rescinding the Bush-era measure.

"The mere fact that you have the legal power to keep something secret does not mean you should always use it. Transparency and the rule of law will be the touchstones of this presidency."

So Obama's first executive order didn't seek to shut down access to his own personal records, as conspiracy theorists claim. Its goal was exactly the opposite, to open up White House records to the public.

The Authority for Executive Orders

Capable of at least changing the ways in which the laws enacted by Congress are applied, presidential executive orders can be controversial. Where does the president get the power to issue them?

The U.S. Constitution does not explicitly provide for executive orders. However, Article II, Section 1, Clause 1 of the Constitution mentions relates the term “executive Power” to the president’s constitutionally-assigned to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.” Thus, the power to issue executive orders can be interpreted by the courts as a necessary presidential power.

The U.S. Supreme Court has held that all executive orders must be supported either by a specific clause of the Constitution or by an act of Congress. The Supreme Court has the authority to block executive orders that it determines to exceed the Constitutional limits of presidential power or involve issues that should be handled through legislation. 

Updated by Robert Longley