Five Facts on U.S. Presidents’ Executive Orders

Executive orders are directives from the U.S. President to the federal government to help carry out laws passed by Congress.  They hold similar power to legislation passed by Congress, but do not have to be ratified by Congressional vote. This has caused controversy as opponents of executive orders often claim Presidents use them to expand their power into law-making, which Congress constitutionally controls.  Learning Life offers the following five facts on the history and importance of executive orders to provide some perspective.

Thanks to Learning Life writer Craig Gusmann for helping to draft these five facts.

1) Not in the U.S. Constitution

The U.S. Constitution makes no mention of executive orders.  However, Article II of the U.S. Constitution does require the President to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”  Presidents have used this clause to argue that executive orders help the federal government “faithfully execute” the laws of Congress, though those may not be laws existing majorities of legislators in Congress support.  

2) Franklin Delano Roosevelt

America’s longest-serving President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, issued 3,721 executive orders — more than any U.S. President, by far — in his 12 years in office, between 1933 and 1945, during the Great Depression then World War II.  Woodrow Wilson issued the second most executive orders — 1,803 — in his eight years in office, from 1913 to 1921.    

FDR’s executive orders, among other things, established internment camps during World War II, used mostly to intern Japanese Americans and Japanese immigrants, and the Works Progress Administration, which employed millions of Americans during the Great Depression to construct roads, bridges, buildings and other public works.  

3) The Golden Age of Executive Orders

The turbulent years between the presidencies of Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909) and Harry Truman (1945-1953) could be called the “golden age of executive orders” in U.S. history because that period saw the greatest increase in the use of executive orders:  

Teddy Roosevelt (1901-1909): 1,081  

William H. Taft (1909-1913): 724

Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921): 1,803

Warren Harding (1921-1923): 522  

Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929): 1,203

Herbert Hoover (1929-1933): 968

Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-1945): 3,721

Harry Truman (1945-1953): 907    

That period included World War I, the Great Depression, World War II and the Korean War, among other major events.  Before Teddy Roosevelt, the number of executive orders a U.S. President issued never rose above 217 (Ulysses Grant), and since Truman it has never risen above 484 (Dwight Eisenhower).    

4) Obama in Perspective

Despite the substantial publicity some of President Obama’s executive orders (e.g., on immigration, relations with Cuba) have received, Obama has exercised this power relatively little, issuing 203 thus far, less than his predecessor, George W. Bush (291), as well as Bill Clinton (364), Ronald Reagan (381), and Jimmy Carter (320), among other post-World War II Presidents.  However, if one includes the presidential “memoranda” Obama has issued, which have the same legal power as executive orders, then Obama’s exercise of executive authority has been greater than any U.S. president since Harry Truman.    

5) Famous Executive Orders

Arguably the most famous executive order was Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, which he issued on January 1, 1863, during the Civil War, to claim the freedom of all slaves in rebel Confederate states.  Other famous executive orders include Harry Truman’s order to racially integrate the U.S. armed forces, and Dwight Eisenhower’s order racially desegregating public schools.    


The American Presidency Project.  “Executive Orders.

USA Today.  December 17, 2014.  “Obama issues ‘executive orders by another name.’”

Wikipedia.  “Executive Order.”