Following President Barack Obama’s announcement of 23 executive orders to combat gun violence in the wake of the Newtown shootings, some critics have questioned the president’s rights to issue such orders. Conservative politicians and pundits contend President Obama is overstepping his powers in an attempt to circumvent Congress. Yet every president in history has exercised this authority (with the exception of William Henry Harrison, who died shortly after taking office). And with 147 executive orders (as of Jan. 20, 2013), President Obama has issued the fewest such directives of any president dating to the 1880s. To put this in perspective, President Ronald Reagan issued 381 such orders, President George Bush issued 166, and presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush issued 364 and 291, respectively.
The vast majority of presidential executive orders cover incredibly mundane matters, such as President Andrew Jackson’s order to honor a deceased French military officer as a “friend of liberty.”) But a few, like the following 10 examples listed in chronological order, shaped the very essence of the United States … for better or for worse.