How Executive Orders Work

Controversial Executive Orders

Barack Obama, executive order Barack Obama, executive order
President Barack Obama signs the new BuySecure Initiative that directs the government to lead by example in securing transactions and sensitive data on Oct. 17, 2014 in Washington, D.C. Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images

Executive orders offer a powerful and immediate way for a president to advance his policy priorities. A White House aide to President Bill Clinton described the lure of executive orders this way: "Stroke of the pen, law of the land" [source: Bennett].

President Ronald Reagan used the direct power of executive orders to peel back layers of government regulation that he and his administration believed were hampering economic growth. President George W. Bush signed executive orders that approved more aggressive surveillance after 9/11 and limited public access to presidential documents. President Barack Obama increasingly relied on executive orders to forward his agenda in the face of an intransigent Congress. And President Trump has signed dozens of executive orders to push his divisive immigration policies and remove "burdensome" regulations.

President George W. Bush issued several controversial executive orders surrounding the gathering of intelligence in the war on terror. Arguably the most controversial was a secret executive order he signed in 2002, authorizing the National Security Agency (NSA) to eavesdrop without a warrant on phone calls made by U.S. citizens and others living in the United States.

On his very first day in office, President Obama signed three executive orders to draw a clear distinction between the policies of his administration and his predecessor's. One of the orders essentially banned the use of "enhanced" interrogation techniques like waterboarding and instructed the CIA and the armed forces to strictly follow the interrogation procedures outlined in the Army field manual [source: CNN]. The most controversial executive order called for the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within a year, which ultimately failed to happen.

In 2012, President Obama launched an aggressive campaign of executive orders to combat what he viewed as an intractable Congress. The campaign, called "We Can't Wait," included tougher regulation of greenhouse gas emissions, a revamped deportation policy, and better education and employment options for returning troops [source: Rosenthal].

President Trump signed 55 executive orders in his first year in office — more than any president since Lyndon Johnson — including directives for building his promised 2,000-mile (3,218-kilometer) wall along the border with Mexico and attempts to dismantle the Affordable Care Act. Ironically, Trump had previously criticized Obama for signing executive orders, seeing them as an end-run around Congress [source: Cellizza and Petulla].

The most controversial of Trump's early executive orders banned citizens of certain majority Muslim countries from entering the U.S., but was struck down by the courts and amended to only a proclamation [source: Bierman]. More of Trump's executive orders have reversed Obama-era policies related to the environment, civil rights and immigration, angering Trump's critics. However, a large number of Trump's executive orders have not really changed things much. In March 2019, the L.A. Times reviewed the 101 executive orders that Trump has signed since taking office. It found that "few moved policy significantly; generally the orders created committees or task forces, demanded reports or pressed for enforcement of existing laws" [source: Eilperin and Cameron].

So did all these actions require executive orders? Probably not but, as a former Clinton staffer told the L.A. Times, "it makes for a good show." The White House responded that the formality of an executive order, with a signing ceremony and the attention of the media, can draw more attention to a situation than it would otherwise receive [source: Eilperin and Cameron].

For lots more information on politics and elections, explore the links on the next page.