It is true that President Obama has issued fewer executive orders both in absolute terms, and on an order-per-year basis, than most of his recent or even recent-ish predecessors. It’s also true that executive orders can matter greatly, as with Obama’s expansion of protections for the employees of federal contractors.
And yet to equate executive orders (a formal type of presidential directive) with executive powers, as the White House and its allies seek to do, is to misdirect — to hope that the hand will be quicker than the eye. As Philip Bump has put it, the fuss is about executive actions more broadly. While Obama issued only 20 executive orders in 2013 (the lowest single-year total in more than a century), that same year he issued 41 presidential memoranda to the heads of departments and agencies, along with nine additional presidential “determinations” designed to serve as the basis for bureaucratic behavior.
And there are lots of other avenues for that. We could include regulatory action, signing statements, legal interpretations, and administrative orders technically issued by department heads but at the behest of the White House. (We could also include unpublished memoranda, and classified orders, and military orders, and the Presidential Policy Guidance and Presidential Policy Directive documents produced that year through the National Security Council advising process.)