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.

So, what does it say?

To hear the conspiracy theorists describe it, Obama's first executive order officially closed off Obama's personal records to the public. You know, his birth certificate and all that.

5 Wackiest Myths About Obama ]

"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 that 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."

And Now, the Facts

In fact, Obama's first executive order had exactly the opposite goal. Its aim was to shed more light on presidential records - yes, including Obama's - after eight years of secrecy imposed by former President George W. Bush.

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President Obama's first executive order merely rescinded an earlier executive order severely limiting public access to presidential records after they left office.

That now-rescinded executive order, 13233, was signed by then-President George W. Bush on Nov. 1, 2001.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 you and me.