Share this

Take Up Your Pen: Unilateral Presidential Directives in American Politics, Graham G. Dodds

Reviewed by William P. Marshall


The unilateral actions of President George W. Bush in seeking to combat the war on terror, followed by President Barack Obama’s efforts in attempting to overcome Congressional inaction by pursuing major policy initiatives through executive order, have again brought into focus the question of whether presi­dential power has expanded to the point where, in Arthur Schlesinger’s famous coinage, the United States now has an Imperial Presidency. To hear some tell the story, Presidents Bush and Obama have taken presidential power to new heights, thereby endangering constitutional limits on separation of powers. To hear others, the actions of these presidents have been fully consonant with those of their predecessors and present no new threat to the constitutional system of checks and balances.

Graham G. Dodds’s book has much to offer for this discussion. The bulk of the volume (chapters 4–7) meticulously traces the development and evolution in the uses of unilateral presidential power from the presidency of George Washington to that of Barack Obama. Dodds presents what might initially seem to be fodder for both sides of the argument. On the one side, his historical presentation vividly demonstrates how much presidential power has expanded since the founding, both in the kinds and the efficacies of the instruments of power available to the president and, equally dramatically, in the breadth of substantive matters that have become the subjects of presidential initiatives. On the other side, his careful detailing of the specific instances in which presidents have used unilateral presidential directives suggests that the controversial unilateral initiatives pursued by both Bush and Obama are not outside the bounds set by their predecessors.

This latter insight may in the end, however, be more worrisome than comforting to those who are concerned about the expansion of presidential power. As Dodds repeatedly shows, the actions of one president systematically provide both the legal and political justifications for similar initiatives under­taken by later presidencies. The strength in Dodds’s chronological ordering is that it graphically depicts how and why the dynamic of presidential power works only as a one‐way ratchet.

Because Dodds’s subject is unilateral presidential directives, the book is likely to be conflated with the equally excellent and somewhat similarly named With the Stroke of a Pen: Executive Orders and Presidential Power (2001) by Kenneth R. Mayer. The two books, however, are complementary. Mayer’s work focuses on the specifics of the executive order as an instrument of presidential power. Dodds’s volume is more interested in using the unilateral presidential directive as a case study in presidential power accretion. Both deserve the attention of anyone interested in the current debates. 

More by This Author

Scalia: A Court of One, Bruce Allen Murphy Reviewed by WILLIAM P. MARSHALL

About PSQ's Editor


Full Access

Join the Academy of Political Science and automatically receive Political Science Quarterly.


The History and Future of Planetary Threats | Biological Risks and Hazards in the World Today - With Special Focus on Russia and Ukraine
May 4, 2022

Read the Proceedings >


Editor’s spotlight

Ukraine, Russia, and the West

Creating a Disaster: NATO's Open Door Policy
Robert J. Art

Engagement, Containment, and the International Politics of Eurasia


Search the Archives

Publishing since 1886, PSQ is the most widely read and accessible scholarly journal with distinguished contributors such as: Lisa Anderson, Robert A. Dahl, Samuel P. Huntington, Robert Jervis, Joseph S. Nye, Jr., Theda Skocpol, Woodrow Wilson

view additional issues

Most read

Articles | Book reviews

Understanding the Bush Doctrine
Robert Jervis

The Study of Administration
Woodrow Wilson

Notes on Roosevelt's "Quarantine" Speech
Dorothy Borg

view all

New APS Book

Perspectives on Presidential Elections, 1992–2020   PERSPECTIVES ON PRESIDENTIAL ELECTIONS, 1992–2020

About US

Academy of Political Science

The Academy of Political Science, promotes objective, scholarly analyses of political, social, and economic issues. Through its conferences and publications APS provides analysis and insight into both domestic and foreign policy issues.

Political Science Quarterly

With neither an ideological nor a partisan bias, PSQ looks at facts and analyzes data objectively to help readers understand what is really going on in national and world affairs.

Stay Connected

newsstand locator
About APS