The Unilateral Presidency, 1933-2017

Aaron Kaufman and Jon Rogowski

Abstract: Unilateral action is a defining characteristic of the modern presidency. Existing scholarship on unilateral action, however, has important empirical and theoretical limitations. Empirically, though scholars recognize the range of unilateral tools presidents may deploy, including executive orders, memoranda, proclamations, and other directives, these tools are generally considered in isolation and researchers focus most often solely on executive orders. Moreover, existing approaches provide no basis for comparing the substantive significance of unilateral action across directives and over time. Theoretically, scholars have focused on inter-institutional conflict as a constraint on unilateral power but have mostly neglected the role of public opinion. In this paper, we address both limitations and use new data and text analysis to characterize the significance of unilateral directives issued between 1933 and 2017. We present new findings about patterns of unilateral action over the last 85 years and show that public opinion may constrain presidents’ exercise of unilateral powers.

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