The GOP’s Dead-End Executive Order Freakout

Republicans tried to whip up a frenzy about Obama’s threat to use executive orders. But he’s used relatively few, and the public wants a president who takes action.

There’s little Republicans were happy with in Tuesday’s State of the Union, but they were especially upset with President Obama’s promise to utilize executive orders, whenever possible. This, for instance, is how he plans to raise the minimum wage for federal contractors to $10.10, as well as how he plans to create a new kind of retirement savings account through the U.S. Treasury.

As far as presidential approaches go, this is pretty mundane. But that never stopped Republicans from flying into a blind rage over a perceived abuse of power. “We can go to court,” said John McCain. “We haven’t got many more options except [to] tell the American people that we’re seeing an abuse of the intent of the Constitution.”

House Speaker John Boehner declared, “We’re going to watch very closely, because there’s a Constitution that we all take an oath to, including him, and following the Constitution is the basis for House Republicans.“ And Texas Senator Ted Cruz, no stranger to hyperbole, warned that this is just part of a ”persistent pattern of lawlessness” and a “willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.”

If you’re inclined, at all, to take Republicans at their word on this, then it’s easy to think that President Obama has used more than his share of executive orders. Indeed, given the widely publicized moves of 2012 and 2013—including an order to move deportation efforts away from undocumented children—and the human bias towards big events (we tend to remember them), it’s possible that the GOP is right.

But it isn’t.

The American Presidency Project at the University of California, Santa Barbara keeps a tally of every executive order from every president. And where does Obama rank compared to other post-World War II presidents?

Second from the bottom. At 168 executive orders in five years, he has two more than George H.W. Bush. Above him, with 169, is Gerald Ford. Then, the numbers take a leap. JFK had 214 executive orders; George W. Bush had 291; Jimmy Carter had 320, and Lyndon Johnson had 325. Bill Clinton signed off on 364 during his eight years, and Ronald Reagan came in with 381. The winners in this game are are Dwight Eisenhower with 484, Harry S. Truman with 907, and the awful tyrant Franklin Roosevelt with a whopping 3,522.

In other words, Republicans can say what they will about the president, but it’s ridiculous to denounce Obama for the use of executive orders if you’re comparing him to other presidents.

Which is to say that this is less about his actions, and more about how they stand as a rebuke to the last three years of GOP behavior. Since taking control of the House in 2011, Republicans have committed themselves to blockading as much of the administration as possible. They’ve filibustered nominees, blocked appointments, and killed legislation, regardless of whether they stood with on the merits. Their only concern—their only goal—was to damage Obama’s credibility and keep the White House from scoring any points.

They weren’t unsuccessful—Obama’s approval rating is at a relative low for his term—but they didn’t win either (he’s still president). And while they benefitted from several administration missteps, including the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act, it’s also true that, overall, their party is underwater with a public that craves action.

Obama’s executive actions are a response to public concern, and one that Republicans can’t match, on account of their paltry agenda. Instead, the plan is to snipe at the president’s proposal—to paint it as unconstitutional—in hopes that they can tarnish the attempt and keep Obama from salvaging his job approval.

I’m sure it will energize Republican partisans. As for the large majority of Americans who liked what they heard from the State of the Union? That’s a different question.