Obama fact-checks 'imperial president' critics

U.S. President Barack Obama greets people at the USX Irvin Works Jan. 29, 2014 in West Mifflin, Penn.
U.S. President Barack Obama greets people at the USX Irvin Works Jan. 29, 2014 in West Mifflin, Penn.

President Obama responded to critics who called him an "imperial president" and a "dictator" for his plans to exercise his executive powers.

"I don't think that's very serious," Obama told CNN's Jake Tapper. "I mean, the truth of the matter is, is that every president engages in executive actions. In fact, we've been very disciplined and sparing in terms of the executive actions that we have taken."

On the night of the president's State of the Union address, several congressional Republicans responded to the president's promise to act - with or without Congress - by calling him everything from a "dictator" to a ”Kommandant-In-Chef [sic]." Sen. Ted Cruz accused Obama of behaving like an "imperial president." Rep. Michele Bachmann said he thought he was a "king" and that she planned to sue him. 

"We make sure that we're doing it within the authority that we have under statute," the president said in the CNN interview, taped Thursday. "But I am not going to make an apology for saying that if I can help middle class families and folks who are working hard to try to get in the middle class do a little bit better, then I'm going to do it."

The president's assertion that he has taken "disciplined and sparing" approach to executive action is grounded in cold hard data. MaddowBlog's Steve Benen used data from the American Presidency Project to calculate the annual average of executive orders for all the presidents since the beginning of the 20th century. Obama turns out not just to rank average in comparison to his predecessors. He ranks dead last. The same data shows that presidents have made less use of that particular tool in recent decades, but Obama still has used fewer than any, issuing a mere 168 executive orders in his first five years. 

Obama also pushed back against the notion that his actions aren't needed, describing it as "a tough argument for the other side to make" considering the levels of inaction in Congress. "They also want me not to do anything, in which case I think the American people whose, right now, estimation of Congress is already pretty low might might have an even lower opinion," he added. 

He defended those actions as small, but meaningful, even if they aren't as powerful as congressional action could be. 

"[When] I signed an executive order helping to set up starter retirement accounts for folks who may not have retirement accounts on the job, it is not as big as if we change, overhaul our tax code so that we're providing more incentives for working families to save, the same kinds of incentives that folks at the very top have, but it's still significant," he said. "It still makes a difference."