Whenever the White House is pressed on President Obama's promiscuous and impactful use of executive action to achieve his policy objectives, they fall back on a specious talking point: Contrary to Republican claims, they say, Obama has issued significantly fewer executive orders than his predecessors from both parties over the last century. The goal is to paint critics as hypocritical, foolish, and blinded by irrational opposition. Many journalists seem to have swallowed Team Obama's story whole. But not USA Today reporter Gregory Korte, or Fox News' Ed Henry, who challenged White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest on the president's math, exposing the cynical and contradictory "rules" by which the administration has been playing in order to sustain their misleading claim:
EH: You will remember some months ago the president claimed he was using executive orders at the lowest rate in more than 100 years. 195 executive orders less than Democratic and Republican predecessors but when you add on 198 presidential memorandum, it actually turns out he is using a lot more than his predecessors, right? ...
JE: It was true because the number of executive orders is lower, as you pointed out, than executive orders that have been issued by many of his previous predecessors.
EH: Presidential memoranda have essentially the same effect, despite being called something different. The fact of the matter is that he is taking a lot more executive action.
JE: There is an important difference between executive orders and presidential memorandums. I would grant the premise that the president has used every element at his disposal to use -- to move the country forward and he has done that in a way consistent with the law and precedents and is often carried out in the face of pretty rigid Congressional obstruction….Generally speaking, presidential memoranda are associated with more technical issues and often directives related to a subset of agencies. Executive orders are often more sweeping and impactful...
EH: Generally they are more sweeping, but in the case of immigration, which you will announce was pretty sweeping, it was a presidential memorandum. So by your definition, I am slightly confused? You said the executive order was quite sweeping. The Immigration one actually was not. The point that I was trying to make them the matter what you call it, he was kind of misleading people about how often he was using executive actions.
JE: I think the president was being explicit that his predecessors have issued far more than he has. I do not think anyone has made the case come here that he is not willing to use executive authority to move the country forward. In fact, he has. Thank you, Ed.
"Thank you, Ed. I've had enough of your questions on this subject." That is some weak sauce spin from Earnest, parsing terms and harping on semantics to obscure the larger truth. But as I said on Fox earlier, the numerical quantity and technical categories of executive action are far less relevant than the legality, propriety and consequences of the action being taken:
Even if a president almost never issued any executive orders or memoranda, if he then turned around and exceeded his authority with one giant violation of the separation of powers, those raw numbers don't matter. They're a distraction. And while this president's comprehensive hypocrisy on issues from campaign finance, to transparency, to executive power is well established at this point, I couldn't help but quote him as a presidential candidate in the 2008 cycle:
Notice that he wasn't troubled by President Bush's excessive issuance of executive memos vs. executive orders, or whatever. He was (or at least claimed to be) worried about what he saw as Bush's improper arrogation of power, vis-a-vis Congress. That Barack Obama is long gone. Because Barack Obama's guiding principle is employing whatever argument or behavior Barack Obama needs in the moment. His own standards and previous statements don't matter when the 'greater good' is at stake.