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The Myth of the Imperial Presidency

How Public Opinion Checks the Unilateral Executive

Throughout American history, presidents have shown a startling power to act independently of Congress and the courts. On their own initiative, presidents have taken the country to war, abolished slavery, shielded undocumented immigrants from deportation, declared a national emergency at the border, and more, leading many to decry the rise of an imperial presidency. But given the steep barriers that usually prevent Congress and the courts from formally checking unilateral power, what stops presidents from going it alone even more aggressively? The answer, Dino P. Christenson and Doulas L. Kriner argue, lies in the power of public opinion.

With robust empirical data and compelling case studies, the authors reveal the extent to which domestic public opinion limits executive might. Presidents are emboldened to pursue their own agendas when they enjoy strong public support, and constrained when they don’t, since unilateral action risks inciting political pushback, jeopardizing future initiatives, and further eroding their political capital. Although few Americans instinctively recoil against unilateralism, Congress and the courts can sway the public’s view via their criticism of unilateral policies. Thus, other branches can still check the executive branch through political means. As long as presidents are concerned with public opinion, Christenson and Kriner contend that fears of an imperial presidency are overblown.

Author Information

Dino P. Christenson is associate professor in the Department of Political Science at Boston University and an institute fellow at the Hariri Institute for Computational Science and Engineering. He is a coauthor of Applied Social Science Methodology. Douglas L. Kriner is the Clinton Rossiter Professor in American Institutions in the Department of Government at Cornell University. He is the author of multiple books, including After the Rubicon, also published by the University of Chicago Press.


“If unilateralism is so tempting and so effective, Christenson and Kriner ask, why is it so rare? The key dynamics, they show, are less in other branches of government but in politics and public opinion. Christenson and Kriner unify strands of presidency research that have been treated by too many as competitors and even as opposites, and the book will make a crucial contribution.”
— Andrew Rudalevige, Bowdoin College

“American democracy only works if the populace controls those who they elect. There is no more fundamental question then whether citizens can in fact exert such control. Yet, for more than one hundred years, scholars and pundits have worried about an imperial presidency that evades institutional and popular checks. This seminal book offers remarkable evidence that the public—with the help of the Congress and the courts—do in fact hold the president accountable. In that sense, democracy can work and has worked. Alas, the book also points to concerns of responsiveness to a narrow base. In so doing, Christenson and Kriner not only resolve a hundred-year-old puzzle but also set an agenda for the next generation of scholarship on American democracy.”
— James N. Druckman, Northwestern University

Audience: Professional and scholarly;