One of the common threads of opposition to President Obama has long been the idea that he’s a tyrannical fascist overreaching emperor who defies the will of Congress and We The People™ by abusing the authority of his office (this is a subset of the uppity arrogant narrative). As many of the President’s supporters have pointed out, and as the President himself has also pointed out, he has used executive orders with far less frequency than his predecessors, and his current critics didn’t have much to say when the president was not an n-word (NObama):
“The truth is, even with all the actions I’ve taken this year, I’m issuing executive orders at the lowest rate in more than 100 years. So it’s not clear how it is that Republicans didn’t seem to mind when President Bush took more executive actions than I did. Maybe it’s just me they don’t like. I don’t know. Maybe there’s some principle out there that I haven’t discerned, that I haven’t figure out. You hear some of them, “sue him,” “impeach him.” Really? Really? For what? You’re going to sue me for doing my job? Okay.”
Now, a new story from USA Today is calling that claim into question, asserting that “By issuing his directives as ‘memoranda’ rather than executive orders, Obama has downplayed the extent of his executive actions.”
To be clear, no one disputes the accuracy of what the President actually said; he has issued far fewer executive orders than his predecessors. The premise is that presidential memoranda are pretty much the same thing as executive orders, and Obama has been using those a lot more than his predecessors in an effort to conceal his exercise of authority. Essentially, they’re saying he’s technically telling the truth, but less technically, he’s a liar.
At Thursday’s White House Daily Briefing, Fox News’ Ed Henry grilled Press Secretary Josh Earnest about the story, and Earnest gladly accepted the idea that this President has used his authority abundantly, yet stood by the accuracy of the President’s statement, and helpfully explained the difference between an EO and a presidential memo:
“Generally speaking, presidential memorandums — presidential memoranda are associated with more technical issues and are often directives that are related to a subset of agencies. Executive orders, therefore, are more sweeping and often more impactful.”
Like Henry, the USA Today article cherry-picks exceptions to the general rule that memoranda are not as sweeping as an EO, and uses those exceptions to conflate the two. By that measure, the President’s statement would be incorrect, but not by a lot. He made that speech in July, so that would have put him at 59 combined EO/presidential memoranda per full year of his presidentcy, versus about 56 for Bush. Either way you look at it, the President’s point stands, Republicans weren’t squawking about Bush’s 3 fewer executive actions.
At a more substantive level, though, Earnest’s point is correct, as even USA Today acknowledges, deep into their text:
Obama, like other presidents, has used memoranda for more routine operations of the executive branch, delegating certain mundane tasks to subordinates. About half of the memoranda published on the White House website are deemed so inconsequential that they’re not counted as memoranda in the Federal Register.
About half? So if you rake those out of the equation, Obama is still correct, technically and substantively.
What this question really demonstrates is that a numerical assessment of executive action really isn’t the best way to judge executive overreach, because as the President said, these are his job. What USA Today fails to even try to do is cite any examples where the President clearly exceeded his authority. If he didnt do that, then he’s just doing his job.