January 23, 2017

Obama issued fewer executive orders on average than any president since Cleveland

Obama signs an executive order in the Oval Office in March 2015. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Barack Obama averaged fewer executive orders per year in office than any U.S. president in 120 years. The executive orders he did issue, however, face an uncertain future under President Donald Trump, who has characterized some of Obama’s orders as “illegal and overreaching.”

Obama issued 277 executive orders during his eight years in office, or 35 per year. That’s slightly fewer than the 36 per year that George W. Bush issued and the lowest average since Grover Cleveland, who issued 32 per year during his eight nonconsecutive years in office, according to data from the American Presidency Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Overall, Obama ranks 16th among presidents in total number of executive orders issued and 21st in the average number issued per year.

Historically, the use of executive orders peaked under Franklin D. Roosevelt, who issued 3,721, or 307 for every year of his tenure. Woodrow Wilson, Calvin Coolidge and Theodore Roosevelt also issued more than 1,000.

It’s important to note that executive orders are just one type of unilateral action presidents can take. Other types include presidential memoranda or proclamations, which also can result in significant policy changes. Obama, for example, recently used proclamations to create new national monuments in Nevada and Utah. This analysis focuses on executive orders alone because of data limitations for other types of executive action. (Presidents are required to count and publish executive orders but are not obligated to release memoranda or proclamations.)

In terms of subject matter, Obama’s executive orders generally were comparable to those of his recent predecessors, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of National Archives data. Obama, Bush and Bill Clinton, for instance, all used executive orders most frequently to make changes related to government commissions, boards or committees. The next most frequent category for all three presidents relates to government agencies and employees.

If Trump does reverse some of Obama’s executive orders, he wouldn’t be the first president to undo or modify a predecessor’s orders. Indeed, Obama issued 30 executive orders that amended or revoked existing ones, according to the National Archives.

In one especially noteworthy example, two executive orders by George W. Bush amended an order by Clinton, which had modified an executive order that Ronald Reagan used to revoke a previous order by Jimmy Carter, who first amended a regulatory order created by Gerald Ford. Obama, in turn, eliminated the pair of George W. Bush amendments with another executive order.

Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly said Obama created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program by executive order.

Note: This version and accompanying chart have been updated from a previous version to include final statistics for Obama.

Topics: Barack Obama, Domestic Affairs and Policy, U.S. Political Figures

  1. is a research assistant at Pew Research Center.

51 Comments

  1. Anonymous2 months ago

    One of Trump’s many lies is to declare that President Obama’s executive orders were somehow illegal, and that he plans to destroy everything Obama had accomplished. This is yet another article showing how relatively few executive orders Barack Obama gave.

  2. Anonymous2 months ago

    Does no one understand what an “average” is? Didn’t we all take elementary school math? Add up how many executive orders were issued each year in office, then divide by the number of years in office. That is an average. If you issued 10 one year, 12 the second year, 15 the third year and 20 the fourth year, and you only served one term, your average would be 14.25 (per year). Geez.

  3. Anonymous2 months ago

    Deceptive publication – include the number of presidential memos to President Obama’s executive orders.
    If not Pew looses all credibility.
    Unfortunate.

  4. Anonymous2 months ago

    Funny how you fail to mention that Barack Obama issued the most “restrictive” executive orders then the six (6) prior administrations…lets talk about that! Yeah?

  5. Anonymous2 months ago

    People are argue that average doesn’t matter, it’s about total count. Commenters and the publisher of the article are both incorrect. What actually matters is what they are passing I don’t care if they pass MILLION laws using and abusing the executive order as long as its helping the country. If you pass 5 and that give government crazy control over the people like a national defense act that they can completely seize your house at anytime because they can call any part of the nation a battle ground for war….o wait thank Obama…

  6. Anonymous2 months ago

    Can’t forget presidential directives, there were about 700 issued by Obama… Those have statistics starting with George H Bush or Clinton. Look at everything not just a corner of the whole picture

  7. Anonymous2 months ago

    Who cares what the average is. What matters is the total. You also cleverly left out many of the presidents.

    1. Kristen Bialik2 months ago

      You can see the total counts for every president going back to Lincoln in the “Executive orders by president” graphic above. Please see the graphic’s note about presidents prior to Lincoln.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      Mulitply by the number of years in office and you have the total. That’s basic math…

  8. Anonymous2 months ago

    On average is completely meaningless. Total counts.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Mulitply by the number of years in office and you get the total…

  9. Anonymous2 months ago

    The number of EOs isn’t the important thing, but rather, what they DO.

  10. Anonymous2 months ago

    I read that Obama signed a total of 923 executive orders in 8 years. That was BEFORE his final few weeks in office so possibly the number is higher. Where is the difference in reporting? Obama and Clinton and others always get a pass. How come? Otherwise there are things taken out of context. I’m so tired of seeing this.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Source please.

  11. Anonymous2 months ago

    We, the people need true and accurate information in these “fake news” times.

  12. Kirk Somerville2 months ago

    Trying to follow the comments from a bipolar individual named Anonymous. It’s like a Monty Python Sketch, a intelligent person slapping himself in the face first with the left hand then with the right.

  13. Anonymous2 months ago

    The significant difference is that Obama frequently broke the law by essentially changing existing law, completely outside of his authority.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      No, he didn’t, but it appears Trump already has.

    2. Walter Thomas2 months ago

      Specific examples please. And site exactly what legal rationale you use for your claim of unconstitutionality. Thanks.

  14. Anonymous2 months ago

    The numbers are misleading since Obama has used various forms of Executive Actions with abundance. 2,066 total in fact per the Washington Post last week.

  15. Anonymous2 months ago

    Everyone realizes presidential memorandum aren’t the same as executive orders right? People know that Obama signed many more presidential memoranda than any recent president, right?

  16. Anonymous2 months ago

    The way it looks now Trump will be signing executive orders every day for his first 100 days. Why pay Congress?

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      It’s a way to get around the laws every president did it our current one is using the am it’s fine but when Pres Obama did he was ridiculed. I love my country. But we the only civilized country where a quarter of our population is locked up veterans living on the street. But we going to build a 15 billion dollar wall. It’s sickening

  17. Anonymous2 months ago

    The numbers in this report are suspect. I do not find this report to be correct and in fact in direct conflict with reports I have seen before on the same subjects. Therefore I conclude this is just a propaganda report and not worth the time to read. This is wrong…..

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Ignorance is a shame when the opportunities for knowledge are so abundant. Just because they are the inconvenient doesn’t mean they are not facts.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      We thrive on new data. Any academic idea or discussion is and always should be flexible based on new, real, data. Please post your sources!

    3. Anonymous2 months ago

      There are two primary links to sources in the article. All it takes is a single click to get you to each of them.

      presidency.ucsb.edu/data/orders.php

      archives.gov/federal-register/ex…

      The links to whitehouse.gov sources are deprecated and need to be updated to go to President Obama’s archived data.

      obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/bri…

      obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/bri…

  18. Anonymous2 months ago

    The number has nothing to do with the subject of those actions. The scope & reach of those EO’s was more than any previous CE. The number matters little.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      So by that logic all of the people bellow complaining by the number of Obama’s Memorandums have no ground to stand on since it is not the number but the severity of the overreach?

  19. Anonymous2 months ago

    Propaganda premise: Obama’s use of executive power is unremarkable.

    Method of deception: Pigeon hole semantics to obscure reality.

    This article starts off by stating “President Barack Obama has averaged fewer executive orders per year in office than any U.S. president in 120 years”…

    …followed by an outright fallacy to further confuse and deceive people:

    “Perhaps the highest-profile **executive order** issued by Obama concerned immigration (an area that has frequently been the subject of executive action)”

    No… DACA was NOT an “executive order”, it was a “Memoranda”, and as such, along with most of his unilateral executive actions, is a perfect example of his overreach of power that isn’t even counted in the intentionally deceptive tally of his “Executive Order” frequency.

    Federal court has already put a stop to it, fyi.

    1. Kristen Bialik2 months ago

      Thanks for writing. We’ve issued a correction on DACA. We chose to focus on executive orders since they are governed by strict counting and publication rules. Presidents need only publish memos and proclamations they deem relevant, on the other hand, making it difficult to provide an accurate historical assessment.

  20. Verlyn Hawks2 months ago

    Perhaps if Pew had taken a few more minutes they could have looked at and counted how many “presidential documents” (orders, actions, memorandum, proclamations, notices, etc.) were actually issued by each president.
    That would have been the more factual – balanced type of article to write but perhaps it would not have the spin you wanted.

    If you want to see some real numbers here are the instructions.

    Go to federalregister.gov Under the search button at the top select advanced search. Under document category click presidential document. then click Executive Order, memorandum, Presidential Order, and Proclamation (or check all the types if that is what you want). Now click on Barack Obama and then click search down below. This will show you the list and a count. Or you can even export the returned list to an excel or csv file. Now you can do the same for Bill Clinton and George Bush. Going back farther takes more work but this allows you to see the comparison of the last three presidents. Your website says ” Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and invigorate civic life.” I would certainly not call that executive order article rigorous nor very analytical. It was a sham and you know it. You did “inform the public” but you spun the article in a way to inform them from your agenda instead of being open and honest. Sham(e) on your Pew.

    1. Kristen Bialik2 months ago

      Hi Verlyn, thanks for writing. As you note, the Federal Register website only goes back to the Clinton presidency and we set out to do a longer historical look than that. Presidents also only have to publish memoranda and proclamations in the Federal Register they deem relevant, making it difficult to find accurate historical data. We opted to focus on executive orders, since they are governed by stricter counting rules.

  21. Phoebe Cat2 months ago

    Well, from the White House webpage, you can look up all of the EOs and Presidential Memoranda, and from the look of it – counting them myself – I found 650 presidential memoranda to add to the 275 EOs. Now, maybe you don’t think that’s a lot, but presidential memoranda have the same force of law as an EO. So, maybe you want to stop accusing people of lying when you don’t know whether they are or not.

    See, WANTING people to be lying is not the same as them actually lying. I know. It’s hard to believe. But, if you run over to your safe space and hug a puppy, click your heels three times, and make a wish upon a star, you might be able to reverse time and go back to November 1, when all was right in your world. But, tomorrow, when you wake up, reality will still be here, and you’ll still be wrong.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      You have decent points but the attitude by which you present them make it hard to take you seriously.
      The fact remains that President Obama used the EO less than his recent predecessors. The article noted the lack of numbers for the other executive actions.
      Being rude for the sake of rudeness is uncalled for.

      1. Anonymous2 months ago

        Thank you.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      you found 650 memo’s….name one. Just name one. Also……they are not the same as executive orders. Lastly, think about it…….many other presidents have used more memos than Obama. We should just stick to the subject of EO’s….which is 275

      1. Anonymous2 months ago

        Presidential Memorandum on January 19, 2017
        Letter from the President — Report with Respect to Guantanamo
        Presidential Memorandum on January 17, 2017
        Messages to the Senate — Serbia Treaties
        Presidential Memorandum on January 17, 2017
        Messages to the Senate — Kosovo
        Presidential Memorandum on January 17, 2017
        Presidential Memorandum — Delegating Authority under the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2017

        To name only 4….

        Also: Don’t forget Presidential Policy Directive. My favorite (seriously) is
        PRESIDENTIAL POLICY DIRECTIVE/PPD-41
        SUBJECT: United States Cyber Incident Coordination

        My least favorite is PRESIDENTIAL POLICY DIRECTIVE/PPD-43
        SUBJECT: United States -Cuba Normalization

        Source: obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/bri…

        Just as an FYI – you have significant bias in your EO chart (Statistical Bias not Political) you have “smoothed” your data (specifically with your time axis) to create a biased result. You include what can be described as a biased estimator in your data description.

        Suggest sources for the casual observer:
        dummies.com/education/math/stati… (I am serious. The books do a good job of explaining bias and how to avoid it – this source is not meant to demean anyone.)

        cseweb.ucsd.edu/~ricko/CSE3/Lie_…

        statsref.com/HTML/misuse_and_abu…

        1. Walter Thomas2 months ago

          Big talk, little meaning.. Unless your aim is to confuse by making it sound as though you you are an expert who has uncovered some hidden agenda. Except pew clearly stated that comparison was for last 120yrs and specific to E.O.’s No great history as the screaming from the right has been that Obama has used “EXECUTIVE ORDERS MORE THAN ANY OTHER PRESIDENT” Period! This was an analysis of THAT claim. Which, of course is false. Big surprise!

    3. Anonymous2 months ago

      When you realize that we might be on the path to a dictator government….surprise, look around & ask, ” how did this happen”? It must have been those rose colored glasses & the propaganda that this president will make “everyone” better off than they were. There’s a reason why his approval rating is so low. Sleep tight.

      1. Anonymous2 months ago

        Grow up. What is happening now is not even close to what happened in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s. If you knew your history you would know that. (My opinion is this is closer to the anarchist attacks [and politics] of the 1890’s. By the way, that is American history and not a borrowed evil.)

        But, if you want to make a comparison between 2017 US and 1930’s Germany, you should look at the tactics being used by the left. During most of the protests over the last year there have been paid agitators…for the most part they have been dressed in black, wearing masks, and attacking anyone who is perceived to not be part of “their” belief set. If you want to compare what is happening today to the rise of the nationalist socialist party in Germany you should compare these protesting folks to the brown shirts and storm troopers. The tactics used by the democrats is straight out of the nationalist socialist party playbook. I have been accosted twice just going to work even though I don’t really care about anyone’s politics. I have also been yelled at and and called a white racist for not saying BLM…when I am Cherokee. But based on what I have seen from these people on the left I can’t help but think that I am waiting for the night of long knives to occur where the left takes out anyone who is not as “tolerant” as they are. If you truly cared about anything you would look at what is happening on the left…it is way scarier than what is happening on the right. And, quite frankly, both sides are out of touch. When did discourse become a crime in this country and why has the left become so intolerant of anyone who believes differently than they do?

        And just for the record, I have zero concern for a dictator to arise in this country. There are way too many rules, regulations, and laws (read as checks and balances) for this to ever happen. And, I have way too much respect for the citizens of this country to think that would ever happen.

        As for sources look at any media site for videos of every protest over that last year.

        I sleep tight every night knowing that moderation (or moderates) will eventually win through all of the rhetoric.

    4. Anonymous2 months ago

      Also, as previously pointed out, Presidents DON’T have to record executive memoranda nor policy directives Unless THEY deem it relevant. Therefore, just because President Obama recorded his, does not mean that there are ACCURATE numbers available for all other Presidents, as not all published all of those types of executive actions. The only thing deceptive here is certain individuals characterization of what this article is and is not.

    5. Walter Thomas2 months ago

      Wrong how? Did you not read entire article? Did you not read or understand replies by pew? And if as you say, Obama broke the law and created a constitutional crisis, then why did republicans, who have controlled BOTH houses for 2 yrs not begin impeachment proceedings? Feels good to get mad and repeat talking points, but factual accuracy matters.

    6. Walter Thomas2 months ago

      Yes, good advice. How come conservatives have never followed it for the past eight years?

  22. Stephen Steinlight2 months ago

    If one determines to stick to “Executive Orders” as a term of art this chart makes it appear as though President Obama took the fewest unilateral actions of any president, that is to say, he bypassed Congress on the fewest occasions. But the opposite is the case, which suggests why focusing on “Executive Orders” misses the point. If you add President Obama’s “Fact Sheets” and “Memoranda,” nomenclature for other unitary actions bypassing Congress, he has taken more actions, including some that violate the separation of powers and usurp the role the Constitution gives to Congress, and Congress only, to make law, than any of his predecessors. Obama’s creation of DACA by diktat after Congress had voted it down is one egregious example.

    1. Anonymous2 months ago

      Why is the DACA egregious?

      1. Anonymous2 months ago

        He didn’t say DACA was egregious. He said creating it after congress voted it down was egregious!

        1. Anonymous2 months ago

          What is truthfully egregious was the verified obstructionist activiy undertaken by the majority Republican Congress. Any unilateral decision a POTUS makes more often than not has to do with this cause and in turn, effect.

    2. Anonymous2 months ago

      It is possible that your point is correct, however, you failed to cite any reliable sources on the matter, which leads one to think that this is your opinion and not fact. Citations or it isn’t true. Let’s start dealing in facts again and not just personal claims.

    3. Anonymous2 months ago

      One could argue that it was Congress that was violating separation of powers on the DACA issue. DACA pertains to the enforcement of immigration laws. Prioritizing enforcement actions is exactly what the executive branch is supposed to do if you ask me. Refusing to deport someone is an executive decision, deciding who is deportable at all is a legislative decision. DACA is in line with those principles.