Trump outstripping Obama on pace of executive orders

WASHINGTON (AP) — It wasn't too long ago that Donald Trump derided presidential executive orders as "power grabs" and a "basic disaster."

He's switched sides in a big way: In each year of his presidency, he has issued more executive orders than did former President Barack Obama during the same time span. He surpassed Obama's third-year total just recently.

Back in 2012, Trump had tweeted: "Why Is @BarackObama constantly issuing executive orders that are major power grabs of authority?"

That criticism continued once he entered the presidential race.

"The country wasn't based on executive orders," Trump said at a South Carolina campaign stop in February 2016. "Right now, Obama goes around signing executive orders. He can't even get along with the Democrats, and he goes around signing all these executive orders. It's a basic disaster. You can't do it."

But Trump appears to have learned what his predecessors discovered as well: It's easier and often more satisfying to get things done through administrative action than to get Congress to go along, said Andrew Rudalevige, a professor at Bowdoin College who studies the history and effectiveness of presidential executive actions.

"Most candidates don't realize the utility of executive actions while campaigning," Rudalevige said. "When they become president, they quickly gain an appreciation of how difficult it is to get things done in government."

The White House declined to comment on Trump's use of executive orders. He surpassed Obama's third-year total when, in the last two weeks, he issued five executive orders relating to Medicare, government transparency, federal spending and imposing sanctions on Turkish officials.

An executive order can have the same effect as a federal law — but its impact can be fleeting. Congress can pass a new law to override an executive order and future presidents can undo them.

Every president since George Washington has used the executive order power, according to the National Constitution Center, and some of those orders played a critical role in American history. President Franklin Roosevelt established internment camps during World War II. President Harry Truman mandated equal treatment of all members of the armed forces through executive orders. And President Dwight Eisenhower used an executive order to enforce school desegregation in Little Rock.

Related: President Trump's executive orders

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President Trump's executive orders
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President Trump's executive orders

May 1, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on the Establishment of the American Technology Council

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

April 29, 2017

Presidential Executive Order Addressing Trade Agreement Violations and Abuses

(Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/For The Washington Post via Getty Images)

April 29, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Establishment of Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy

(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

April 28, 2017

Presidential Executive Order Implementing an America-First Offshore Energy Strategy

(Photo by Eric Thayer-Pool/Getty Images)

April 27, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Improving Accountability and Whistleblower Protection at the Department of Veterans Affairs

(Photographer: Olivier Douliery/Pool via Bloomberg)

April 26, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Statutory Prohibitions on Federal Control of Education

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

April 26, 2017 

Presidential Executive Order on the Review of Designations Under the Antiquities Act

(Photo credit should read BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

April 25, 2017 

Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Agriculture and Rural Prosperity in America

(Photo by Olivier Douliery-Pool/Getty Images)

April 21, 2017 

Presidential Executive Order on Identifying and Reducing Tax Regulatory Burdens

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

April 18, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Buy American and Hire American

(Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

March 31, 2017

Presidential Executive Order Regarding the Omnibus Report on Significant Trade Deficits

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

March 31, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Providing an Order of Succession Within the Department of Justice

(REUTERS/Yuri Gripas)

March 29, 2017

Presidential Executive Order Establishing the President’s Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis

(REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst)

March 28, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Promoting Energy Independence and Economic Growth

(Photo by Ron Sach-Pool/Getty Images)

March 27, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on the Revocation of Federal Contracting Executive Orders

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

March 13, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on a Comprehensive Plan for Reorganizing the Executive Branch

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

March 6, 2017

Executive Order Protecting The Nation From Foreign Terrorist Entry Into The United States

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

February 24, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing the Regulatory Reform Agenda

(Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)

February 9, 2017

Providing an Order of Succession Within the Department of Justice

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

February 9, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Enforcing Federal Law with Respect to Transnational Criminal Organizations and Preventing International Trafficking

(REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein)

February 9, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Preventing Violence Against Federal, State, Tribal, and Local Law Enforcement Officers

(Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

February 9, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on a Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety

(Photo by Olivier Douliery - Pool/Getty Images)

February 3, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Core Principles for Regulating the United States Financial System

(Photo by Cheriss May/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

January 30, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Reducing Regulation and Controlling Regulatory Costs

(REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

January 28, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Ethics Commitments By Executive Branch Appointees

(Photo credit should read MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

January 27, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry Into the United States

(Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

January 25, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Border Security and Immigration Enforcement Improvements

(Chip Somodevilla/Pool via Bloomberg)

January 25, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States

(Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

January 24, 2017

Presidential Executive Order Expediting Environmental Reviews and Approvals For High Priority Infrastructure Projects

(Photo credit should read JIM WATSON/AFP/Getty Images)

January 20, 2017

Presidential Executive Order on Minimizing the Economic Burden of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act Pending Repeal

(REUTERS/Joshua Roberts)

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When Obama became frustrated with how difficult it was to push legislation through Congress, he warned Republicans he would take executive action when he considered it necessary.

He famously declared in 2014: "We're not just going to be waiting for legislation in order to make sure that we're providing Americans the kind of help they need. I've got a pen, and I've got a phone."

Few candidates for office have placed so much emphasis on criticizing a predecessor's executive orders as Trump did. He reasoned that Obama's use of executive orders made him look like a weak negotiator. But Trump himself has had little success with Congress in that regard. His biggest legislative achievement so far, a $1.5 trillion tax cut, failed to gain one Democratic vote.

Trump has so far issued 130 executive orders. By comparison, Obama issued 108 in his first three years.

Still, Rudalevige says that comparing executive orders from one president to the next can provide a misleading snapshot of a president's propensity for taking executive action. That's because presidents also use memoranda and proclamations to achieve policy goals or to get the message out about their priorities. One president's executive order might be another's memoranda, or phone call even.

Obama relied on memoranda and proclamations for some of his most disputed executive actions, so just counting his executive orders understates his efforts to take action without Congress passing a bill.

For example, protections for young immigrants brought into the country illegally as children came about through a Department of Homeland Security memorandum. That effort allowed eligible individuals to request temporary relief from deportation and apply for authorization to work in the U.S.

Obama took the action after Congress had declined to pass the Dream Act, legislation that would have helped a similar group of migrants. Republicans argued Obama overstepped his constitutional authority. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments over the Trump administration's plan to end the program, which has protected roughly 700,000 young immigrants from deportation. Lower courts have so far blocked the administration from ending the program.

Obama also issued proclamations to declare new national monuments in Utah and Nevada in his final days in office. In all, he issued 34 monument proclamations, including designating 29 new monuments and enlargement of five existing monuments as he brandished his conservation legacy. Some of the largest monument designations were heavily criticized by state and local officials.

Rudalevige said that Trump appears to favor the pomp and ceremony that often comes with an executive order. He routinely makes a speech, administration officials and potentially affected Americans get to thank him for taking action and Trump often signs the order before the cameras, holding it up in the air for photographers to capture the moment.

"I think it fits his personality," Rudalevige said.

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