A Study of Presidential Power

By Elizabeth Eck Olchowski

Presidential candidates promise to change policies “with the stroke of a pen” as soon as they get in office. Schar School scholars explore how often that actually happens.

James Pfiffner, Schar School Professor and acclaimed scholar of the U.S. presidency, has been researching presidential power for nearly 40 years. His most recent project explores presidential executive orders and the frequency of reversals after party turnover transitions. Pfiffner and Josh Lee, a student in the public policy doctoral program, contributed their analysis to the Washington Post Monkey Cage online forum, which connects political scientists to inform the political conversation.

The collaboration between Pfiffner and Lee combined quantitative and qualitative analysis.

“Josh is extremely skillful in taking data from government databases and analyzing them to discover patterns,” explains Pfiffner. “We counted reversals within newly elected presidents’ first 30 days in office. That count was quite low. Nine presidents reversed three or fewer in that time; Obama hit the high, reversing eight previous presidents’ executive orders within 30 days.”

Perhaps more surprising, the annual average of reversals did not differ much after party turnover transitions.

Regarding President Trump’s recent executive orders, Pfiffner indicates that the orders thus far have been “vague and general, rather than specific like most executive orders of previous presidents. In part, this is because the orders were not vetted thoroughly as in other administrations. It is too soon to know if he is going to issue many more than other presidents.”

Pfiffner’s research on unilateral presidential authority also will be featured in the upcoming Rivals for Power, 6th ed. edited by James A. Thurber and Jordan Tama (Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2017).

Read the full WP Monkey Cage post here:
Trump pledged to reverse Obama’s executive orders. Here’s how well past presidents have fulfilled that pledge.