President Obama's First Executive Order

Did the President Really Seal His Own Personal Records?

President Obama sitting at desk in oval office signing an executive order.
President Obama signing an executive order. 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 his personal records to the public, especially his birth certificate. But what did this order actually aim to do?

In fact, Obama's first executive order had exactly the opposite goal. It aimed to shed more light on presidential records, including his own, after eight years of secrecy imposed by former President George W. Bush.

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President Obama's first executive order merely rescinded an earlier executive order severely limiting public access to presidential records after they left office.

That now-rescinded executive order, 13233, was signed by then-President George W. Bush on Nov. 1, 2001.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

"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.
"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.

Authority for Executive Orders

Capable of at least changing how 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 relates the term “executive Power” to the president’s constitutionally-assigned duty 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. 

As with all other official actions of the legislative or executive branches, executive orders are subject to the process of judicial review by the Supreme Court and can be overturned if found to be unconstitutional in nature or function. 

Once issued, presidential executive orders remain in effect until they are revoked, expire, or are declared illegal. The president may, at any time, revoke, amend, or make exceptions from any executive order, whether the order was made by the current president or a predecessor. It is common for new presidents, during their first weeks in office, to review and often revoke or amend executive orders issued by previous presidents

Updated by Robert Longley

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Your Citation
Murse, Tom. "President Obama's First Executive Order." ThoughtCo, Sep. 2, 2021, Murse, Tom. (2021, September 2). President Obama's First Executive Order. Retrieved from Murse, Tom. "President Obama's First Executive Order." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 4, 2023).