Presidential executive orders are hardly the way to change laws and build consensus, or goodwill, with the legislative branch or allow states a say in policy through their elected leaders. They’re unilateral directives to federal agencies to enforce measures never voted into law. But in the face of congressional inaction, or outright defiance of the president, executive orders can be a courageous way to protect people’s rights.
President Lincoln used one in 1862 with the Emancipation Proclamation. Harry Truman used one to integrate the armed forces. Dwight Eisenhower used it to desegregate schools, and Presidents Kennedy and Johnson used them to prevent racial discrimination in federal housing. President Reagan used an executive order to block federal funds from abortion advocacy, and President Clinton used one to reverse Reagan’s order.