John A. Tures: Obama's alleged executive order 'dictatorship'

February 15, 2014 

The talk after President Obama's State of the Union (SOTU) is that he plans to create a dictatorship based on executive orders, bypassing Congress and the U.S. Constitution. Others have claimed that he actually isn't doing much, or couldn't do much with the stroke of his pen. Who is right?

After the State of the Union address, Obama's media critics claimed that Presidents Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt didn't rule by executive order. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky called upon Obama to use the same restraint practiced by Presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton in such presidential uses of power.

That prompted Rachel Maddow from MSNBC to tease her media opponents and Senator McConnell in her article "Don't Know Much About History." After all, wasn't the Emancipation Proclamation an executive order? Wasn't a lot of FDR's New Deal done by executive act? And she claimed that Reagan and Clinton used the executive order more than Obama did.

Because Ms. Maddow can get pretty partisan on the issues, I decided to research the answer for myself. If you want, you can follow along, too. Just go to the Federal Register (www.archives.gov/federal-register/executive-orders/disposition.html), which publishes the number of executive orders, by president, and lists them too, if you want to see more.

I also did a comparison, from Herbert Hoover to Obama, counting the number of executive orders. I found that the most were signed by Franklin D. Roosevelt (3,466), followed by Herbert Hoover, Harry S. Truman, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Ronald Reagan. Of the 14 most recent U.S. Presidents, Obama was second to last, narrowly beating out President George H.W. Bush, by one executive order.

But what about the number of executive orders signed by presidents per year? After all, FDR, Reagan, Ike and Truman were in office longer than Obama has been. So I divided the number of executive orders by the number of years, to get an average. I was surprised to see that Obama signed the lowest number of executive orders per year, (33.2). The second fewest were by George W. Bush, with George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan signing the fewest executive orders per year.

Obama's critics could still suggest that I'm only looking at data through December 23, 2013. He could sign a whole bunch of them this year, and maybe eclipse Gerald Ford or someone like that. Then, we could consider what he's signing. For example, he's not forcing all businesses to increase the minimum wage, just those entering into new contracts for the federal government. House Speaker John Boehner noted that wouldn't amount to many cases.

Not only that, but executive orders are hardly royal decrees in America. Forbes Magazine's Jim Powell also points out that Obama's executive orders could be overturned by Congress and the courts.

So it seems like Glenn Beck might be a little off when he tells our children that they need to mark this in their diaries as the date democracy died in America. Kids don't keep diaries nowadays anyway.

John A. Tures, associate professor of political science, LaGrange College; jtures@lagrange.edu.

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