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Power and the Presidency

New book by Concordia scholar sheds light on history of presidential directives in the US

Concordia University


IMAGE: Graham Dodds is the author of the new book, "Take Up Your Pen. " view more

Credit: Concordia University

This news release is available in French.

Montreal, 23 October 2013 -- Following the latest US budget crisis, a fed-up President Barack Obama said to his opponents, "You don't like a particular policy or a particular president? Then argue for your position. Go out there win an election."

This despite the fact that various government officials have sharply criticized Obama for his allegedly autocratic use of presidential proclamations and executive orders over the past few months. But such actions are nothing new argues Graham Dodds, political science professor at Montreal's Concordia University.

Throughout US history, presidents have used unilateral directives to impose controversial policies, and Congress and the courts have seldom resisted says Dodds in his new book, Take Up Your Pen: Unilateral Presidential Directives in American Politics (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), which chronicles how presidents came to be able to make law by a mere stroke of the pen and what the impact of these directives has been.

"In unilateral presidential directives," Dodds explains, "we see a dramatic expansion of presidential power that rests on vague justifications and has gone relatively unchecked. This development has roots in the Constitution's ambiguity and the character of executive power."

Although Constitution itself does not mention unilateral presidential directives, the judiciary first endorsed their constitutionality when the nation was only 23 years old. "That means that the status of these directives is bound up with the broader question of the scope of executive power," says Dodds.

Despite the early acceptance of presidential directives, presidents did not make use of the new policymaking tool for some time. But Dodds recounts that the nature of unilateral presidential directives changed dramatically with Theodore Roosevelt, who found in them the perfect means to implement his "stewardship" view of the presidency at the vanguard of an active government. "Roosevelt issued almost as many executive orders as all of his predecessors combined, and he did so for controversial purposes, provoking sharp conflicts with Congress," recounts Dodds.

The regular use of unilateral presidential directives became well established over the next half dozen presidencies. Although the number of executive orders declined, the use of unilateral directives has figured prominently in areas like national security, labor, civil rights and environmental protection.

Take Up Your Pen sheds light on several longstanding debates, including the roots of presidential power, the modern presidency and the nature of political development. Says Dodds, "the development of unilateral presidential directives is not some minor, isolated phenomenon; rather, it influences and is influenced by much of what is important and interesting in American politics. Even with evolving issue areas, periodic congressional resistance, and the occasional court case striking down a directive, odds are that presidents will continue to use unilateral directives for significant purposes for decades to come."


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Media contact:

Cléa Desjardins
Senior advisor, media relations
University Communications Services
Concordia University
Phone: 514-848-2424, ext. 5068

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