SJ Quinney College of Law, University of Utah


The primary axiom of the unilateral-powers literature is that the institutional setting and political incentives that confront presidents push them to seek maximum discretion over policy. The straightforward implication is that presidents will seek control (Terry Moe calls it autonomy)—always contentious given the competitive political authority at the heart of separation of powers, but necessary to them given their interests and position in the political system. Empirically, presidents are expected to (and do) act unilaterally, moving first to put their stamp on policy and process, shape institutional structures, and alter the status quo to shift government outputs toward their preferred position. A corollary is that presidents will not voluntarily surrender the discretion that their institutional position provides and their political interest demands, because doing so leaves their fate in the hands of other actors with very different goals and interests. Unilateral action can increase governability, as the President retains the capacity to function even in the face of gridlock or partisan opposition.