President Obama told Americans last night, “In the coming weeks, I will issue an Executive Order requiring federal contractors to pay their federally-funded employees a fair wage of at least $10.10 an hour – because if you cook our troops’ meals or wash their dishes, you shouldn’t have to live in poverty.” Republicans aren’t taking it well.
Rep. Randy Weber (R-Texas), for example, called the president a “Socialistic dictator” and the “Kommandant-In-Chef.” He probably meant “chief,” but the point was clear.
And while Weber was more unhinged than most, he wasn’t the only one outraged by the prospect of the president using an executive order to give thousands of Americans a raise. Some are demanding federal lawsuits; others are calling the policy “tyranny.” Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) appears to have forgotten what an executive order even is, complaining that Obama is trying to “write laws.”
All of these responses, on a substantive level, are misguided, but perhaps the most salient criticism came by way of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who rejected the very idea of presidents pursuing policy goals outside of the legislative process. “Ronald Reagan didn’t think that and Bill Clinton didn’t think that,” McConnell said.
It’s funny he should put it that way.
To hear Republicans tell it, Obama’s willingness to rely on executive orders is not only outrageous, but represents some kind of new radicalism, far outside American traditions. Fortunately, this is a knowable, quantifiable thing, so it’s easy to check whether the far-right hysterics are grounded in fact.
The American Presidency Project keeps a running tally of executive orders by president, starting with George Washington. Literally every president (except Harrison, who died a month after his inauguration) has made use of this tool, some more than others.
How does Obama stack up against his modern predecessors? Dan Amira put together a helpful chart over a year ago measuring recent presidents by the number of executive orders issued, and given the excessive, hair-on-fire outrage from Republicans this week, it seemed like it was time for an update.
I put together the above chart showing each president since the beginning of the 20th century and the average number of executive orders they issued while in office. I then ranked them, from least to most. (The data is up to date through last week, so it includes all of Obama’s first five years.) Blue columns represent Democratic presidents; red columns represent Republican presidents.
Franklin Roosevelt was clearly the most ambitious president when it came to executive orders. And who’s the least? That would be Barack Obama, who issued 168 executive orders in his first five years.
All told, Obama has averaged fewer executive orders, per year, than any president in the last 117 years. His totals may yet grow – it’s tough to predict how many orders he’ll issue in his final three years – but at least for now, Republican criticisms about Obama’s excesses aren’t just wrong, they’re demonstrably ridiculous.
Update: I originally said Obama had the lowest average in 125 years, but as it turns out, it’s 117 years. (I thought Grover Cleveland left office in 1889, but that was only his first of two non-consecutive terms.) The above text is now correct.
ADDING: With a slightly different calculation (per day average versus per year average), below is the chart featured in Tuesday’s Chart Immitates Life segment: