What is an executive order?

Executive order

No, it doesn’t mean that it’s a law. No, it won’t affect you personally, unless there are pretty extreme things going on.

Simply put, an executive order is an order from the president (the executive), and has limited scope. Additionally, future presidents have the power to revoke these orders.



I know I have some military brethren out there: HOLLA! If so, or if you’re a government employee, you know the role of the MEMORANDA. Similarly, people in private businesses (if it’s large enough) probably also have memoranda. These memos (hilariously portrayed in Office Space) change policies, and alter workflow of the organization.

Executive orders have a similar effect … except on a national level, because the federal government is in fact a national organization.

In short, an executive order is an official memo that the president writes in order to change processes, or something else within the organization.

KEEP IN MIND: The organization affected by these orders is the FEDERAL government, and, as such, the order can ONLY be limited to the FEDERAL government, and only supersedes state actions when a state is violating the Constitution (for example, segregation or slavery). In the end, executive orders alter how the government acts, and, occasionally in extreme circumstances, they will take authoritative actions (and some of these actions have been highly scrutinized).

I can’t say how many times I’ve heard people criticize executive orders, when they really have no idea what their function is.

EXAMPLES of these silly orders:

OK, so what do these orders look like? Well, there have been some pretty major orders in the past.

Executive Order 10730 by Eisenhower effectively put Arkansas’ National Guard under federal control so that a little black girl could go to school. Despite the fact that there was a Brown v. Board ruling on desegregation, Arkansas had absolutely no intention of desegregation; thus, Eisenhower took control. This is one case where the federal government essentially declared martial law to enforce court orders — something that rarely happens. However, in this case, it was probably necessary to uphold the validity of the Supreme Court’s decision — not to mention that desegregation was just something that needed to be done considering that black people are in fact American citizens as well.

Before the government kept record of orders with numbers, President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation (which is essentially an executive order), which decisively said that the federal government recognized slaves as free. If slaves are free, then they are citizens, and if they’re citizens, they get rights … hence the South no longer had free labor, and was angry.

The darker orders: Executive Orders 9066 and 9102 issued by Roosevelt gave the military authority to create camps for people who were “national threats” to the country during WWII … basically Japanese Americans. Later in history, Regan issued a formal apology for the actions of the government.

With Executive Order 1092, JFK ordered a review of federal hiring practices, and eventually mandated that race cannot be a factor when screening or hiring.

With Order 13228, George W. Bush created the Homeland Security branch of the federal government, “to develop and coordinate the implementation of a comprehensive national strategy to secure the United States from terrorist threats or attacks.” Today, it’s a bureaucratic element where 22 separate federal agencies pool information together to support anti-terrorism.

There are also lots of less-exciting orders, some of which deal with sanctions against countries, others deal with federal pay. I just read one from Obama that instructs agencies to improve regulatory measures and invite and include public input on their regulations.


I’ve heard this, and it’s dead wrong. He has not.

To all you people paranoid about executive orders, Obama has actually had an average number of executive orders.

To date, Obama has issued 213 executive orders, the most-recent being an order to implement a national HIV/AIDS strategy. Bush (W.) had 291, and I’m betting Obama will be right around that by the time he’s out of office.

The most executive orders issued by a president was 3,721 by Franklin Roosevelt. The least issued was 0 by William Henry Harrison (which isn’t fair, because he died 32 days into his presidency). Aside from Harrison, John Adams, James Madison, and James Monroe each issued 1 order.

Generally, presidents build on past orders, or elaborate policy points. Occasionally, they revoke orders. For example, President Bush (W.) revoked order 12667 (Regan’s order) and replaced it with order 13233, which limited access to past presidential documents. This order was partially struck down in 2007, and Obama revoked Bush’s order with order 13489. … This is really how presidential work gets accomplished.

While on the subject: to all you people who say that Reagan was all about small government action, he issued 381 executive orders — making him more active than any president since.

What is the POINT!?

This is what the president does to direct how the federal government works and functions, and, more importantly, it’s how presidents make their mark. Essentially, the president is the CEO, and these executive memos dictate what is emphasized, articulated, and expanded.

But the president isn’t without guidance. (S)he has past orders to evaluate where the government is, and where it should go. Keep in mind there are a ridiculous number of orders — so it’s basically a legal structure, and the federal government develops as presidential orders do.

EVERYONE: The president never comes in and reinvents the wheel; instead, they articulate and expand existing orders and policies. I mean really, the presidential season is coming up, and everything the hopefuls say is going to be a lie — and then everyone is going to be mad when they find out they’re all lying. In reality, the president is constricted not only by checks and balances (Congress and the judicial), but also by existing orders that preceded him (or her). So when you’re looking for a candidate, I suggest you look more at their personal interests rather than what they say their policy positions are — because those are all lies.

As with anything in the United States, executive orders can be challenged by Congress or the Supreme Court. If one branch doesn’t like what’s going on, it can always question other branches. Congress can also strike down parts of an executive order — with the mighty VOTE!

So really, if you want to know what the president is doing, instead of listening to some ridiculous talk show host, you can read the orders — because they’re all published these days.

BUT, keep in mind the president doesn’t sit around writing orders all day. (S)he also has to schmooze with diplomats and world leaders, go on PR visits around the country (and world), meet with cabinet memebers, talk with national security advisors, speak on the country’s “vision,” and talk with representatives all day. Not to mention deal with the press.

Regardless, presidential orders are a good way of getting a feel for the administration and its emphasis.


One thought on “What is an executive order?

  1. Pingback: OPINION: Is Barack Obama a good president? | Political Ideas and Education

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