Americans almost always view what presidents can and can’t do through a partisan lens. Presidential Executive Orders are no exception.
Although there is no direct reference to them in the U.S. Constitution, Executive Orders have been used by Presidents to outlaw slavery in the Confederacy, desegregate the Armed Forces, relocate Japanese-Americans to internment camps in World War II, and authorize enhanced interrogation techniques after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
Constitutionally, they can be justified by the President’s roles as Commander in Chief, Head of State, Head of the Executive Branch and Chief Law Enforcement Officer. Their use skyrocketed in the mid-20th century; more recent Presidents have used them less often.
In his State of the Union Message last week, President Barack Obama vowed to use this power to raise the minimum wage for future federal contract employees, and to create a new savings bond for workers without access to traditional retirement plans. He had already used Executive Orders to defer deportation hearings under certain conditions for those brought to this country illegally as children.
Americans evaluate Executive Orders based on their political views today – and not by the long history of their use: overall, Americans are not sure they approve of Executive Orders, with as many disapproving as approving. But these days, Democrats think the use of Executive Orders is a good thing; Republicans don’t.
Constitutionally... 'It depends'
In fact, one third of Republicans say that Executive Orders are unconstitutional; overall, a plurality think constitutionality depends on the order itself.
Executive Orders are supposed to be based on the Constitution and what it lays down as the President’s role, or on statutes which must be enforced by the President through his Constitutional charge “to take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” But Americans have little information about how Presidents justify their executive orders.
Executive orders not created equal
In fact, Americans are more likely to judge executive orders by what they accomplished and who issued them than by the presidential prerogative itself.
Harry Truman’s order desegregating the Armed Forces and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation get majority support, while Franklin Roosevelt’s order creating internment camps for residents and citizens of Japanese ancestry in the West, and Truman’s order to seize the steel mills during the Korean conflict receive majority opposition. But these are modern responses to historical events.
Some more recent Executive Orders have brought more partisan controversy.
Ronald Reagan’s Executive Order that outlawed government money to organizations that use or promote abortions as a means of family planning in foreign countries gets more Republican than Democratic support, as does President George W. Bush’s order authorizing enhanced interrogation techniques. Democrats support to executive orders made by Barack Obama – ordering the Centers for Disease Control to study gun violence, and deferring deportation hearings for children brought to the U.S. illegally, but who have graduated from high school or serve in the U.S. military.
Full results can be found here.
Economist/YouGov poll archives can be found here.