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The Contemporary Presidency: Executive Orders and Presidential Unilateralism


  • AUTHOR'S NOTE: Thanks to Matthew Beckmann, Tony Bertelli, Karen Hult, Justin Vaughn, and Adam Warber for helpful comments at various stages, and to the American Philosophical Society for its financial support of this research. Thanks also to the staffs of the Hoover Institution Archives, the John F. Kennedy Library, the Richard M. Nixon Library, the Ronald Reagan Library, and of the National Archives and Records Administration facility in College Park, Maryland.

Andrew Rudalevige is Walter E. Beach '56 Chair in Political Science at Dickinson College. He is author, most recently, of The New Imperial Presidency: Renewing Presidential Power after Watergate, and coeditor of The Obama Presidency.


How should we assess unilateral tactics and their contribution to presidential power in a less-than-unitary executive branch? To explore this question this article examines the provenance of nearly 300 executive orders from 1947 through 1987. Archival data show that executive orders are frequently a less-than-perfect representation of presidential preferences, despite the assumptions of recent work on unilateral power. That is, the issuance of executive orders often involves persuasion rather than simply command: it incorporates wide consultation across the executive branch and, frequently, White House ratification of what agencies wanted to do in the first place.