Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2014

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Political Science

First Advisor

E. Scott Adler

Second Advisor

Kenneth N. Bickers

Third Advisor

John D. Griffin

Fourth Advisor

Jennifer Wolak

Fifth Advisor

Jeffrey E. Cohen


For decades, presidential scholars have posed various theories of what makes the President of the United States an institution of such magnitude and influence. Executive power has long been taken as a given in the study of American institutions, but quantifying this power and determining what it looks like in practice has proven to be a more vexing endeavor. One particularly fruitful avenue of research into the study of presidential influence focuses on unilateral powers whereby the chief executive can set policy essentially without interference from Congress or the courts (though with some important exceptions). This dissertation expands upon our understanding of presidential power in the context of the unilateral executive by asking the following central research question: how effective are unilateral exercises of authority by the president? Assuming that an order given by the president is an order implemented, while appealing to those who would favor a strong activist chief executive, is a deeply flawed proposition. The United States federal apparatus, like many other hierarchical organizations, is subject to the same kinds of costs that have led so many bureaucratic scholars to study the impact of principal-agent theory; the president, too, faces these considerable obstacles. Using executive orders as the bedrock of the analyses herein, I expound upon the conditions that make directives appealing to presidents and when the bureaucracy will (and will not) respond to these orders as the president wishes. The two central conclusions are that presidents must develop a strategy in their usage of executive orders and that federal agencies have wide latitude in implementing directives. Extant theories of unilateral power must take these limitations into account as scholars continue to build towards a more comprehensive understanding of presidential power.