Featured Author: John T. Woolley

PSQ prides itself on publishing scholarship created by the best and brightest in their respective fields. To highlight some of these exciting contributors and provide an in-depth look at the broader work our authors do, we bring you our Featured Author interview series.


John Woolley is Professor of Political Science at UC Santa Barbara and Co-Director of the American Presidency Project website—the premier web repository of presidential public papers.

What initially sparked your interest in exploring memo orders?

We were interested in whether we could use the documentary database of the American Presidency Project to develop systematically some data showing the frequency of the kinds of presidential orders we had read about in Phillip Cooper’s 2003 book. We were further inspired by the attention to Obama’s use of “executive action” by the media and his partisan critics. Many observers sought to evaluate Obama by simply counting numbered Executive Orders, apparently oblivious to the fact that many of the president’s actions took forms other than the traditional executive order.

What is the significance of identifying these memo orders?

            Scholars interested in quantitative research will find it useful to have a broad-based enumeration of the documents we call memo orders. Given the profound inconsistency over time in the labeling of presidential actions, we think it is useful to throw a broad net rather than to treat particular subsets as being well-defined categories of “tools.” We intend to maintain and update the data through time, extending both forward and backward from the data presented in the article. So this research gives rise to a data set that should be continued in the future. Finally, we think there may be other applications for our language-based strategy identifying presidential orders.  We illustrate one briefly in this article when we address the question of whether as a general matter Signing Statements should be regarded as Presidential orders. This may be worth more attention in the future.

 What kind of response do you hope your work elicits from your readers? Ideally, what kind of critical thought do you hope your article inspires?

Ultimately we are arguing for more work from scholars in broadening the concept of “unilateral action” which has been primarily focused on numbered Executive Orders. There is so much presidentially guided executive action that is not in the form of Executive Orders.  One manifestation of that is the whole array of memo orders. We are also urging creative thinking about how presidential strategies for unilateral action have changed and evolved in response to a profoundly changing partisan, policy, media, and economic environment. As we point out, echoing prior scholars, over time, the rise of a complex and far-reaching regulatory state permits presidents to guide use of executive discretion in ways that may not require published presidential orders.