Unilateral Presidential Powers: Significant Executive Orders, 1949-99. (Articles)

By Mayer, Kenneth R.; Price, Kevin | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2002 | Go to article overview

Unilateral Presidential Powers: Significant Executive Orders, 1949-99. (Articles)


Mayer, Kenneth R., Price, Kevin, Presidential Studies Quarterly


In the typical rendering of the American presidency, chief executives encounter formidable barriers to decisive leadership: a far-flung, entrenched bureaucracy (Wilson 1989); a largely independent and often recalcitrant Congress (Mayhew 1974; Peterson 1990; Jones 1994); an array of news media operating under distinctive incentive structures (Bennett 1988; Entman 1989); and a sporadically attentive, increasingly cynical public (Zaller 1992; Black and Black 1994; Cooper 1999). Richard Neustadt's (1990) description of presidential power as "the power to persuade" captures the conventional scholarly wisdom of a constrained executive office. Indeed, many of us deploy the premise of "the impossible presidency" as we teach undergraduates that presidents struggle to achieve and sustain success.

Presidents clearly labor under the dual burdens of high expectations and contested power, a challenge apparent to many occupants of the White House. In a typically forthright moment, President Truman suggested a man would be crazy to want the office if he knew what it required (McCullough 1992). Decades earlier, President Grover Cleveland offered a young Franklin Roosevelt one wish as they shook hands: that the boy not grow up to be president of the United States. Only a handful of postwar presidents--Eisenhower, Reagan, and Clinton--have left office with public approval ratings substantially above the low point of their respective administrations.

Notwithstanding the conventional view of the impossible presidency, political scientists have rediscovered arguments that chief executives enjoy meaningful unilateral authority even in a system of separated institutions sharing power. Amassing a rich body of descriptive data about unilateral presidential action, this literature has elaborated a theoretical framework to fit the pieces together and advance our understanding of presidential power (Moe and Howell 1999; Howell 2000). Of particular interest is the executive order, a tool presidents use to bring their constitutional or congressionally delegated powers into play unilaterally. Formally, an executive order is a presidential directive that draws on the president's unique legal authority to require or authorize some action within the executive branch (Mayer 1999, 445). Political scientists now recognize executive orders as important unilateral policy tools, however constrained by legal and political considerations they may be (Krause and Cohen 1997; Moe and Howell 1999; Mayer 1999, 2001; Deering and Maltzman 1999).

In this article, we examine the frequency of executive orders from 1949 to 1999, offering new evidence that presidents rely on executive orders to implement significant domestic and foreign policies. We contend that executive orders enable presidents to recast the organization and activities of the federal government and, at times, the larger contours of American politics. We assess the political and temporal logic behind this manifestation of institutional power and conclude with several observations about the implications of our findings for the study and practice of the American presidency.

The Unilateral Presidency in Action

Careful observers of American politics cannot miss the persistent importance of unilateral presidential authority. To take a recent example, Bill Clinton's 1996 establishment of the 1.7 million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument reflected not only the president's programmatic ambitions but the imperatives of election-year politics. Clinton recognized that the Republican Congress would certainly refuse to join him in a legislative effort to protect large parts of the West from industrial development, but he recognized the salience of western lands policy to his environmentalist supporters. In choosing to protect a vast tract of land in Utah, Clinton sought political benefits (the bolstered support of environment-minded voters) without incurring political costs (because he knew he would not win Utah's electoral votes in any case). …

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