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Rhetoric and Reality? Unilateralism and the Obama Administration


  • The author will share data for replication purposes only. The author thanks Richard Waterman for help and advice.

Direct correspondence to Christopher S. Kelley, Department of Political Science, Miami University, Oxford, OH 45056 〈〉.



The objectives of this article are to examine the concept of presidential unilateralism in the Obama administration. The research to date suggests that unilateralism in a presidency occurs once the political conditions for a president become unstable—drop in public opinion, loss of congressional support, etc. This article argues that the Obama administration came to office with the assumption that those conditions would naturally occur, thus began to prepare to act unilaterally from the outset.


This article uses official White House memoranda coupled with an examination of presidential signing statements to support the argument.


President Obama made it difficult to track the use of the signing statement by discontinuing use of the Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents in the first days of the administration as well as a redesign of the White House website to make it hard to determine which signing statements made constitutional challenges to provisions of law and which did not, all without drawing much attention from the public, the press, or the Congress.


Obama has governed very much like his predecessors, where acting unilaterally is concerned. He has continued to use the signing statement much like his predecessors with an eye toward keeping his actions hidden from public view.