President Obama famously said, "I've got a pen, and I've got a phone...where Congress isn't acting, I'll act on my own." President Obama would go on to pass 277 executive orders. President Trump frequently criticized Obama, noting for example that "[President Obama] goes around signing all these executive orders. It's a basic disaster. You can't do it." On October 13, 2017, CNN predicted that President Trump was on pace to sign more executive orders than any president since President Eisenhower.
How do these presidents compare historically, and what can we learn from analyzing the use of executive orders over time?
To make sense of trends in executive action, we can begin with a simple comparison (raw count) of executive orders since the founding. Measured by volume, and when compared to wartime presidents (especially Franklin D. Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson) both President Obama and President Trump rank fairly low (see below, Total by President). Sorting by average per year, however, provides perspective. When factoring in the length of term, the gulf between Republican and Democratic administrations is less dramatic. By this measure, Herbert Hoover ranks second with 242 executive orders per year.
Click on "Average Per Year in Office" to toggle between charts:
Executive Actions by President
Total Executive Orders (1789-)
Click on "Play Motion Graph" to watch an animated graph, illustrating total actions by president after [x] days in office:
First 100 Days
Total Actions After _ Days in Office
Because executive orders are not approved by Congress, they can (and are) easily revoked. The American Presidency Project is an excellent source for data and analyses of President Biden's first 100 Days in office. They note that President Biden has been "far more active than other post-FDR presidents", including in the rate of reversals of orders using Executive Orders. Twenty-one of Biden's 42 orders included revocations.
Percent / Ratio of Orders that Revoke Previous Orders
In thinking about the growth of "executive federalism", it is worth remembering that executive orders are not the only kind of presidential directive. The following graph compares five major types of executive action from 1993-2018. In fact, there are more presidential proclamations per year than other types of directives. However, within the past couple of years, there has been a sharp increase in the number of executive orders and memoranda.
Orders By Type
Determinations / Memoranda / Notices / Proclamations
1. Following Kincaid (2019), executive orders do play a small but significant role in the centralization of lawmaking. Understanding the use of executive orders therefore may have implications for understanding changes in the American federal system.
2. In total, there are more than 15,540 executive orders across all presidential administrations.
3. Democratic Presidents issued 36% of all Executive Orders during wartime (Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt).
4. This apparent difference between Democratic and Republican usage of Executive Order is less significant when measured by the rate of usage (i.e., when sorted "average per year").
5. We do not find any evidence for a significant increase in the rate of Executive Orders in recent decades. We observe a 27% decrease trend in the use of Executive Orders from 1995-2018. However, there does seem to be an increasing reliance on other types of executive action, including Memoranda, Notices, and Proclamations (esp. from 1995-2018). Proclamations are largely symbolic, although some commentators have included proclamations in the category of executive action known as "regulatory dark matter."
6. Considering the raw count of executive orders, President Biden has been far more active than any other president since FDR. The number of non-symbolic actions by President Biden has exceeded the 100 day total for every president, except for FDR. President Biden has also been far more active than previous presidents (immediate predecessors) in undoing past action (see Woolley and Peters 2021, https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/)
7. Researchers who follow trends in executive action may be interested in the increase in efforts to check executive action in recent years, either through the enhanced leverage of state attorney generals, or the willingness of federal district court judges to block executive actions. See "Court Challenges" by John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters for analysis and data: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/analyses/biden-action-the-first-100-days
Cillizza, A. by C., & Petulla, S. (2017, October 13). Trump is on pace to sign more executive orders than any president in the last 50 years - CNN POLITICS. https://www.cnn.com/2017/10/13/politics/donald-trump-executive-orders/index.html.
Crews, Clyde Wayne, Jr. Ten Thousand Commandments An Annual Snapshot of the Federal Regulatory State. Report. Competitive Enterprise Institute. 2019 ed. Washington, D.C. 1-113. https://cei.org/sites/default/files/10KC2019.pdf.
“Executive Orders.” Federal Register, n.d. https://www.federalregister.gov/presidential-documents/executive-orders.
Federal Register. https://www.federalregister.gov/.
Peters, Gerhard, and John T Woolley. “Executive Orders.” The American Presidency Project. Edited John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters. Santa Barbara, CA. 1999-2021. https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/executive-orders
Thompson, Frank J., Kenneth K. Wong, and Barry G. Rabe. Trump, the Administrative Presidency, and Federalism. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, September 9, 2020. https://www.brookings.edu/book/trump-the-administrative-presidency-and-federalism/
We recommend the American Presidency Project for data and analysis. See: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/
For more on the different forms of presidential action see: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data/executive-orders
For data on the growth of the Executive branch, see: https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/statistics/data
"The Administrative Presidency: Reuniting A Divided House"(Nathan 1983)
“The State of American Federalism 2016–2017: Policy Reversals and Partisan Perspectives on Intergovernmental Relations.” (Goelzhauser and Rose, 285–313)
“Executive Orders.” (The Heritage Foundation)
“Executive Orders 101: What are they and how do Presidents use them?” (National Constitution Center 2017)