Looking to move quickly on his campaign promises, President Obama has turned to the one tool that he has to ignore Congress and take unilateral action - he signed eight executive orders in his first 11 days in office, making him by far the most activist new president in modern history on that score.
“I’m getting good at this,” Mr. Obama joked to labor union leaders and members of Congress as he sat down to sign orders six, seven and eight on Friday.
Mr. Obama is treading on a path well-established in terms of executive powers, although he’s also not shied away from thorny topics with orders that, in addition to helping unions, rewrite rules for treatment of terror suspects and revoked President Bush’s order keeping presidential records secret.
Those who study presidential power say Mr. Obama is moving fast in order to prove that he can keep his campaign promises.
“Obama´s problem is that expectations are sky-high, but the problems are daunting. These are ways to let the country know that he intends to make good on his commitments - even though the big problems may not be dealt with so quickly,” said John Woolley, chairman of the political science department at the University of California at Santa Barbara.
Before Mr. Obama, the fastest to reach eight executive orders in modern times was President Kennedy, for whom No. 8 came on Feb. 21, 32 days into his presidency - or nearly three times as long as it took Mr. Obama.
President Reagan signed his eighth order on Feb. 24, President Carter signed his Feb. 25, and both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush recorded their eighth on March 9.
Obama aides said the high number of orders was thanks to an organized transition and a series of promises the new president is determined to keep.
“As he promised during the campaign, President Obama moved quickly to enact changes that have reduced the influence of lobbyists over the political process, made the government more open and transparent and taken America a step closer to energy independence - and he acted by issuing executive orders in policy areas where there has generally been precedent to do so,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt.
The authority for executive orders comes from the president’s charge to take steps necessary to run the executive branch and see that laws are carried out. Since George Washington assumed the presidency, 14,496 executive orders have been signed, with the majority being mundane housekeeping efforts.
Some, though, have become legendary: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, parts of Roosevelt’s New Deal and President Eisenhower’s order No. 10730 in 1957 sending U.S. troops to Little Rock, Ark., to help integrate Central High School.
And some have been overturned by courts, including President Truman’s 1952 order seizing steel mills and Mr. Bush’s order setting up military commission trials for terror suspects.
Mr. Obama has yet to achieve either those lofty heights or court rebukes, although his orders on detention and treatment of suspected terrorists may prove far-reaching.
Mr. Woolley said Mr. Obama has chosen issues on which there’s majority support but which would have taken a while to get through Congress.
“Either Congress cannot move as quickly as Obama, or congressional action would encounter filibusters. In many instances, the policy was initially created by presidential order, so modifying it by presidential order is perfectly appropriate,” said Mr. Woolley, but he added, “It would be preferable from Obama´s perspective if he could get his directives enacted as law.”
Three of Mr. Obama’s orders dealt with labor unions, including rolling back a Bush administration executive order that required federal contractors to post information about how unions spend their dues.
“The labor orders have become a kind of presidential pingpong, with new presidents revoking [or reissuing] them wheneverparty control switches,” said Kenneth R. Mayer, a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. “Bush 41 required contractors to post the notice about union dues refunds. Clinton reversed it. Bush 43 reversed it again. Obama reversed the reversal of the reversal.This will go on forever.
“Every president wants to put his stamp on policy quickly, and theseunilateral orders are a visible and effective way of doing that,” said Mr. Mayer, author of “With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power.”
He said now that Mr. Obama is in office, he’s “more sympathetic toward executive power than he was as a candidate,” including leaving himself wiggle room to continue some Bush policies that he said he’d undo, such as maintaining the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
“This has less to do with Obama as a person, or as a Democrat, and more with the fact that all presidents take an aggressive stance toward protecting and expanding their own authority,” he said.
Mr. Obama’s first orders focused on unions, terrorist detention and government openness. Mr. Bush’s related to his faith-based initiative and unions. Mr. Clinton’s first orders paid special attention to the operations of government, creating advisory councils and cutting federal workers.
On the other end of the presidential timeline, Mr. Bush showed an historic level of restraint, signing just three executive orders in January - the least of any modern president who served out his term.
Mr. Clinton signed 12, President George H.W. Bush signed six, Mr. Reagan signed five, and Mr. Carter held the modern record of 26 orders in January 1981 - more than one a day for his final 20 days in office.