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Presidential directives in a resistant bureaucracy

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 October 2020

Alex Acs*
Department of Political Science, The Ohio State University, Columbus, USA
*Corresponding author. E-mail:


Presidential directives are often assumed to be checked only by external actors, like Congress and the courts. But the internal constraints facing presidents can also be substantial. I study a model where a president can induce compliance with a directive by removing some subordinate agents (the appointees) but not others (the careerists), and where the relative contribution of each agent to the directive’s success is unobservable. The model suggests that the formal authority presidents have to issue directives and remove subordinates can advance presidential goals, affording presidents real authority. But real authority is not guaranteed, and the resulting uncertainty can shape presidential decision-making: when to issue a directive, how ambitious to make it, and which agencies to target. To illustrate, I analyse two prominent directives in Clinton’s regulatory planning order, E.O. 12866, showing why they targeted different agencies, despite belonging to the same order, and why compliance has been uneven.

Research Article
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press

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