It was one of many campaign promises that sounded good at the time: undo eight years’ worth of Obama’s work. Mike Pence told hundreds of cheering supporters in Hampton Roads, Virginia in September that on the very first day of a Donald Trump administration, his running mate was “going to repeal every single Obama executive order, he is going to repeal Obamacare… and on day one, we’re going to end the war on coal once and for all.”
Days earlier, Trump himself had told supporters in North Carolina that his administration would “eliminate every unconstitutional executive order and restore the rule of law to our land.”
Then they won. Now, the campaign’s promises are already proving to be an albatross on the incoming administration. Trump said that his vows to lock up Hillary Clinton had played “great before the election, [but] now we don’t care.” His campaign transition co-chair termed his infamous border wall a “great campaign device,” as Trump suggested that perhaps some of the border might have to make do with a fence instead. And earlier this month, the president-elect said he might not need to rescind very many executive orders after all, leaving it to Congress to undo the Obama years.
But a ThinkProgress review of the 267 executive orders President Obama has issued as of December 15 finds that few of them are even controversial, let alone unconstitutional.
34 orders relating to sanctions.
President Obama issued property restrictions, travel bans, and other sanctions against people his administration deemed to be involved in international crime, plus human rights abusers and combatants in foreign conflicts. These included people in Libya, Burma (Myanmar), North Korea, Burundi, Venezuela, Yemen, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, Somalia, Iran, Syria, and people involved with the the Russian incursion into Ukraine. Revoking these could allow these figures access to American property and travel.
11 orders relating to emergency succession orders.
Much like with the president, should cabinet officials die, resign, or “otherwise become unable to perform the functions and duties of the office,” each department has an established order of succession that determines who would take over. As the organization of these departments changes over time, so does that order: Obama issued orders updating the succession rules for the the Environmental Protection Agency, the Office of Management and Budget, and the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Defense, Justice, Homeland Security, the Treasury, and Veterans Affairs at various points in his administration. Revoking these would inject uncertainty and confusion into the government in the event of a vacancy.
8 orders updating federal employee’s pay
Each year, the administration has adjusted the rates of pay, to keep public employees’ compensation current and adjusted for the changing cost of living. With federal employees already earning about 35 percent less than their private-sector counterparts, revoking these raises would make public service an even less palatable option for talented workers.
7 orders updating the courts -martial manual.
The military justice system makes annual updates to its Manual for Courts-Martial, United States to ensure consistent rules for service members. The president, as commander-in-chief, makes these changes via executive order. Revoking these would roll back nearly a decade’s worth of updates to the military justice process.
7 orders establishing temporary boards to resolve transit labor conflicts.
With millions of workers relying on mass transit systems to get to and from work every day, when labor-management disputes occur in that sector, it is important that a speedy resolution be found. As such, the president can appoint a “Presidential Emergency Board” to act essentially as a non-binding arbitrator. President Obama used this authority to resolve disputes involving the Long Island Rail Road Company, New Jersey Transit Rail, Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, and railroads whose employees are represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee of the National Railway Labor Conference. After these boards completed their work, they were automatically disbanded. Revoking these orders would have no impact whatsoever.
4 orders letting federal workers leave early on Christmas Eve.
On December 24, 2009, 2012, 2014, and 2015, non-essential federal workers were given a half-day. Trump actually pledged during the campaign that every store in America will say “Merry Christmas” under his leadership, so it would be the height of hypocrisy for him to discontinue this practice. Without access to a time machine or the Ghost of Christmas Past, revoking these orders after the fact would have no impact whatsoever.
4 orders terminating previously-declared emergencies.
As times change, sometimes emergencies are resolved. Despots die, regimes fail, deals are made, and tensions dissipate. In 2015 and 2016, Obama signed orders terminating emergencies that had previously been in place with regard to Burma, Côte d’Ivoire, Liberia, and the Russian Federation. Revoking these orders would presumably reinstate emergencies that no longer exist.
2 orders allowing military reserves to help with crises abroad.
Using his power as Commander-in-Chief, President Obama twice issued orders calling up reservists in the U.S. Armed Forces to provide humanitarian aid in urgent foreign crises. After the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, he activated the reserves to conduct operational missions there and, in the midst of the Ebola outbreak in 2014, did the same for West Africa. These temporary moves provided assistance at the time and revoking these orders now would have no impact.
Several orders positioning the government to address vital, non-controversial issues.
Many of the other executive orders Obama has issued were meaningful steps to coordinate government responses to problems or to accomplish worthy goals. Executive orders created coordinated teams of government officials to deal with hostage recovery efforts, to stop violence against women and girls, and to develop plans for biological attack medical countermeasures. One order prohibited federal employees from texting while driving, protecting the lives of those employees and other drivers and passengers sharing the road. Another pair of orders outlined steps to make it easier for people with disabilities and veterans to get jobs in the federal government. One even was issued to make certain that presidential transition to his administration goes smoothly. Revoking these orders would be hugely counterproductive, allowing unsafe behavior for federal employees, making it harder for veterans to find work, and decreasing preparedness for biological attacks.
A few controversial orders.
A few of President Obama’s executive orders really were controversial and may well be targets for those hoping to move the country away from his progressive policies. A 2012 order was put into place to ensure “safe and responsible unconventional domestic natural gas development” (hydro-fracking). A 2014 order protected LGBT employees working for federal contractors from employment discrimination, and a 2015 order required companies receiving federal contracts to provide paid sick leave for employees. The far-right House Freedom Caucus has urged Trump to undo orders requiring that climate impact be taken into account in international development, protecting water, and promoting energy efficiency. Revoking these would make it easier for energy companies to engage in unsafe fracking and activities that damage the environment, and would give contractors the right to strip employees of their sick leave and the right to discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity.
One order progressives might not mind losing.
As part of a compromise with Democratic legislators who oppose abortion rights that ensured their votes for the Affordable Care Act, President Obama agreed to issue an executive order to ensure no Obamacare subsidies would go to pay for elective abortions. Pro-choice groups slammed the deal and the order. While Trump’s promised “full repeal of Obamacare” would render this order moot, revoking it before such a move has gone into effect could create a huge headache for an anti-abortion administration.